The Department for Transport has said it is “unable” to agree to MPs’ demands for a cross-cutting review of how driving-licence applications from people with notifiable medical conditions are dealt with after major backlogs built up during the pandemic.
Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee made 11 separate recommendations in their March examination of delays that affected the work of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency from spring 2020, when Covid-19 first hit the UK.
DfT has accepted all but one of its recommendations in a Treasury Minutes response. The exception is the strategic review of applications from people notifying DVLA of health conditions.
The PAC report said DVLA’s system for processing applications from customers who have notified it of relevant medical conditions is “slow, inefficient and in need of major improvement”.
It said that while DVLA had made progress in digitising “almost all” of its services, applications for vocational licences and those involving complex medical decisions were not digitised and plans to modernise them were expected to take 10 years.
MPs called on DfT to work with the Department for Health and Social Care, the NHS and medical bodies to “radically improve” the way information is exchanged. They said the review should be completed by the end of next year “at the latest”.
But in its response, DfT said it “disagrees” with the recommendation, suggesting that the scope and timing of any review will be a matter for ministers.
“The department is currently unable to agree to this recommendation as ministers will need to decide whether and how any strategic review or alternative action is undertaken,” DfT said.
“Ministers will shortly be considering proposals for action and the department will update the committee in its subsequent letter, setting out those actions together with a more complete timeline.”
The PAC report found that around three million customers who had notified DVLA of medical conditions or made paper applications for licences since April 2020 had experienced delays. Some said the situation cost them their jobs because they were unable to drive.
The backlogs caused a surge of calls to DVLA between April 2020 and March 2022, 94% of which went unanswered, the MPs said . However, they noted that almost all of the 17 million licence applications or renewals made online after April 2020 were processed within three working days if they did not involve notifiable medical conditions.
The report said that the coronavirus pandemic was “inevitably” going to have made operations more difficult for DVLA, but added that the agency and DfT had “not been prepared” for the challenges of keeping services running as normal.
In evidence sessions that fed into the report, DVLA chief executive Julie Lennard told MPs that allowing staff to have remote access to the organistion’s database "wasn’t part of DVLA’s DNA" and that its security strategy was geared towards on-site access.
In response to the March report, DVLA said the tough lockdown restrictions necessitated by Covid-19 had left it with a vastly reduced workforce on-site during the pandemic and that industrial action by the PCS union had impacted the work of its drivers medical section.
“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,” a spokesperson said.
“Ninety-eight percent 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.”