Three million people who applied for a driving licence since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns have experienced delays, costing some their jobs or income, a parliamentary committee has found.
In its latest report, published on Friday, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House of Commons criticised the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for failing to keep its essential services running during the pandemic.
Since April 2020, 3 million people have suffered delays and around 60 million phone calls went unanswered, said the report.
The Department for Transport (DfT) was accused of taking a “hands-off approach” and failing to ensure DVLA is using modern working practices and up-to-date technology.
Dame Meg Hillier, a Labour MP who chairs 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.”
According to the committee’s report, the DVLA’s delays in processing applications caused “serious repercussions” for some people, especially those who have medical conditions requiring the DVLA to decide on their fitness to drive.
The report said: “People described losing jobs and income and being unable to start or return to work. Others had difficulty arranging motor insurance or were unable to hire a vehicle or drive abroad.
“Some DVLA customers experienced isolation and worsening mental health when unable to go about their usual daily lives without a valid driving licence.”
The committee said the DVLA should “set up better systems to identify and fast-track driving licence applications where the customer is badly affected by a delay.”
The committee also criticised the DVLA’s “ineffective” communications, which left many customers feeling as if their applications were making no progress.
Customers had “huge difficulty” contacting the DVLA’s call centre during the pandemic to enquire about the progress of applications.
According to the report, between April 2020 and March 2022, around 60 million calls to the DVLA about driving licences went unanswered, 94 percent of the total it received.
The number of calls to DVLA that were answered fell by more than half, from over 4 million in 2019–20 alone, to 3.4 million over the two years from April 2020 to March 2022.
Decisions on Medical Conditions
The MPs were particularly scathing in their criticism of the DVLA’s capacity to process applications from customers who have notified it of relevant medical conditions.
The agency’s system for processing such applications is “slow, inefficient, and in need of major improvement,” the report said.
“Processing times for applications that involve the DVLA making a medical decision are far longer than for other applications, with many decisions taking a year or more,” the MPs said.
The committee recommended that the DfT should complete a strategic review of the system by the end of 2024 at the latest.
It said the department should work with the Department of Health and Social Care, the National Health Service, and medical professional bodies to “radically improve how the DVLA and medical professionals exchange information.”
‘Back to Normal’
The opposition Liberal Democrats said the “shocking delays” show that DVLA customers are being “let down on an industrial scale.”
The party’s transport spokesperson Wera Hobhouse said: “Delays in getting a driving license are not just a minor inconvenience, they can lead to people losing their jobs or worsening mental health.
“The government and DVLA must get a grip, and ensure people no longer have to experience these unacceptable delays.”
In response, 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. 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.”
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.”
PA Media contributed to this report.