MPs probing the backlog of driving-licence applications and other paperwork that amassed at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency during the pandemic have criticised “antiquated” operations at the organisation and a lack of oversight from the Department for Transport.
The Public Accounts Committee said that since April 2020 around three million customers notifying DVLA of medical conditions or making paper applications for licences had experienced delays – with some saying the situation cost them their jobs because they were unable to drive.
In its report, the committee said the backlogs caused a surge of calls to DVLA between April 2020 and March 2022, 94% of which went unanswered. However MPs noted that almost all of the 17m licence applications or renewals made online after April 2020 were processed within three working days if they did not involve notifiable medical conditions.
The PAC report said 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.
It said that part of the problem was a “hands-off approach” taken towards the agency by DfT leadership and that the department had failed to ensure DVLA’s services were “periodically reviewed and improved through timely adoption of working practices”.
The report noted that while DVLA has digitised almost all of its services, most staff working on driving licences cannot work remotely because of data-security risks and “underlying technological challenges”.
Applications for vocational licences and those involving complex medical decisions are not digitised, however. PAC said DVLA’s plans to modernise those services were expected to take 10 years.
MPs said that although DVLA and DfT had insisted conversations were under way about what the future of driving-licence services would look like, there was a lack of detail in their evidence.
“We did not feel that the DVLA and the department were able to articulate a clear strategy for how they might re-engineer and modernise the driving licence process, encompassing for example a clear picture of what its future staff, estate and IT infrastructure needs to look like,” the report said.
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said DVLA and DfT had not been prepared for the challenge of keeping essential driving-licence services running when Covid-19 hit – and particularly not for those most in need.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Among their recommendations, MPs said DVLA and DfT should work together to set out how the driving-licence process can be modernised and re-engineered over the next three-to-five years. They said the strategy should be completed by the end of this year and should address how DVLA’s long-term digital transformation plan will make its IT infrastructure “adequately resilient” and whether there is more that can be done to ensure “secure remote working” in the event of another crisis.
MPs also asked DfT to complete a strategic review of the system for processing driving-licence applications from customers with notifiable medical conditions. They said the department should 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”.
A DVLA spokesperson said the organisation had been subject to tough lockdown restrictions that meant it had a vastly reduced workforce on-site during the pandemic.
They added that industrial action by the PCS union that targeted the agency’s drivers medical section had impacted its ability to process applications.
“We are back to normal processing times across our services. All standard paper applications were back to normal turnaround times by May 2022,” the spokesperson said.
“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.
“Ninety-eight percent of people who applied online received their driving licence within just a few days.
“During the pandemic, we issued more than 24m driving licences, the vast majority of which were issued within three working days.”
A DfT spokesperson challenged the PAC’s portrayal of the department’s oversight of DVLA.
“The report does not represent a balanced picture of the work that has taken place in the department,” they said.
“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.”