Driving licence application delays have cost people their jobs and left vulnerable motorists isolated, according to a new report by MPs.
Members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised “antiquated” operations at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and accused the Department for Transport (DfT) of taking a “hands-off” approach to improving working practices.
The committee’s report revealed that three million people who applied for a licence since April 2020 experienced delays and around 60 million calls to the licensing agency went unanswered over a two-year period. Drivers giving evidence to the committee told of missing out on jobs or losing roles due to not having a licence and the report noted that some experienced isolation and worsening mental health when unable to go about their usual lives because they didn’t have a valid driving licence.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a major impact on operations at the DVLA, first as offices closed during lockdown and then due to high sickness levels and strike action among staff. In July 2021, it was estimated that paper applications for licences were taking 10 weeks to process.
Labour’s Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The pandemic inevitably made operations more difficult, but the DVLA and DfT were not prepared for the challenge of keeping essential driving licence services running – and especially not for those who needed it most.
“Some of the DVLA’s operations are antiquated, it lacks a comprehensive strategy for modernisation and on PAC we’re unconvinced they’re more ready for the next crisis.
“When that does arise, it will again be the most vulnerable customers – people for whom driving is a lifeline – who are worst hit. That’s just not acceptable. The DVLA has to get its act together.”
Between April 2020 and March 2022, 94% of calls to the DVLA about driving licences - around 60m - went unanswered. The number of complaints about the DVLA received through MPs also increased tenfold between 2019-20 and 2021-22, the report said.
The PAC said the DVLA needed to improve its communication with customers and set up better systems for those experiencing delays.
Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said: “These shocking delays show that DVLA customers are being let down on an industrial scale. Delays in getting a driving licence are not just a minor inconvenience, they can lead to people losing their jobs or worsening mental health.”
A DVLA spokesperson said: “We are back to normal processing times across our services. All standard paper applications were back to normal turnaround times by May 2022.
“Our online services worked well throughout the pandemic and for the vast majority of our customers, their dealings with DVLA would have been trouble free. 98% of people who applied online received their driving licence within just a few days.
“During the pandemic, we issued more than 24 million driving licences, the vast majority of which were issued within three working days.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “The report does not represent a balanced picture of the work that has taken place in the department. As well as ministers closely monitoring DVLA’s progress, we provided practical support during the pandemic, including establishing workplace Covid testing in Swansea and facilitating additional office space in Birmingham.
“We continue to support DVLA’s investment in developing and promoting online services, as we did prior to and throughout the pandemic.”