The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has promised to conduct an urgent probe into claims a culture of absenteeism has developed at the Swansea-based executive agency since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Its pledge follows an undercover investigation by a Times journalist who found a job at DVLA and reported that some staff had been put on “special paid leave” and others worked one-week-on and one-week-off in the early stages of the pandemic.
A significant portion of DVLA’s casework is paper-based and it receives around 60,000 items of mail a day at its headquarters. Many of the agency's staff are not able to work properly, or at all , from home during the pandemic as they could not gain remote access to systems holding personal data.
DVLA currently has a backlog of around 850,000 paper applications waiting to be processed, down from a pandemic-time peak of around 1.6 million in September last year.
The agency said that before the pandemic it was normal for 400,000 license applications to be in its system for processing at any time. It added that between August last year and January this year 29 million applications were completed online, against 6.4 million paper applications.
In January last year, DVLA was accused of being at the centre of a “mass outbreak” of Covid after around 500 cases were reported among staff in the preceding three months. Chief executive Julie Lennard insisted that the numbers reflected what was happening in the wider community.
However, the PCS union went on to stage a number of strike days over staff-safety measures at the Swansea campus during the following months. A November ballot on whether the industrial action should continue failed to reach the 50% member-participation threshold required for any decision to be legally enacted.
DVLA said it believed industrial action was to blame for September 2021’s backlog peak, rather than the pandemic itself. It said it hoped to have returned to normal processing times for the “vast majority” of drivers by the end of May.
DVLA told CSW that around a third of its 6,200 staff are now working its sites on any day, with slightly more than a third working from home. It said around £6m had been spent on implementing Covid safety measures on its estate, and that two new buildings had been leased to house staff. One of them is in Birmingham, more than 100 miles away.
“We take the allegations made extremely seriously and are urgently investigating,” a DVLA spokesperson said of the Times report.
“These claims are not representative of the hard-working culture in DVLA, nor are they a true reflection of the 6,000 plus staff who have worked incredibly hard to help keep the country moving throughout the pandemic.”
DVLA is an executive agency of the Department for Transport. Transport secretary Grant Shapps told the paper he was “deeply concerned” by the allegations and expected rapid answers from the agency.