Motorists seeking new driving licences or vehicle logbooks face a “catastrophic” backlog at the government agency handling them due to staff being put at risk by management, a union has claimed.
Drivers making postal applications to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) are facing delays stretching into months, with a combination of staff shortages and industrial action blamed for the hold-ups.
Paper applications for licence renewals, new vehicle logbooks and new driving licences are taking up to 10 weeks to process, with an estimated 1.4 million applications currently caught in the backlog.
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Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), told MPs high numbers of Covid cases among staff had been caused by management’s decision not to allow them to work from home, and said strike action over conditions was worsening the hold-ups.
He told the Transport Select Committee: "The DVLA has had the single biggest Covid outbreak of any workplace in the UK.
"It's operated out of central Cabinet Office guidelines for handling the Covid pandemic. It has taken management decisions that we believe put people at risk."
There have been 643 Covid cases, including one death, among staff at the DVLA’s Swansea offices and Mr Serwotka blamed this on the number of people required to work in an office rather than from home.
He claimed that no other Government offices had suffered similar outbreaks of the virus, adding: "None of them require the same amount of people to be in work as the DVLA and all of them have been able to deliver their business, including DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) and HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs), with staff working from home.
"The reality is, in DVLA we were told 'the management didn't trust' lower-ranked workers to work from home 'because they couldn't supervise them'."
He also said that strike action over the conditions was now the cause of the delays. However, the DVLA’s chief executive, Julie Lennard, denied this.
She said around a third of the backlog was due to the industrial action, with the rest caused by the limit on staff numbers due to social distancing rules.
She told the committee she did not accept there was a “cultural issue” of refusing to let staff work from home. She said that 2,000 staff were currently being allowed to work from home, but insisted some roles had to be office-based as they dealt with "huge amounts of personal data".
The PCS is planning further strike action over what it claims are unsafe working conditions at Swansea, claiming that bosses had withdrawn an agreement on improvements “without any explanation”.
Roads minister Baroness Vere said that no deal was ever agreed because "the goalposts moved around".
She told the MPs that despite the strike being balloted "on the basis of Covid safety", the proposals from the union included bonuses and extra holidays, adding: “I struggled to reconcile that with the reason for the industrial action in the first place.
After the committee hearing a DVLA spokeswoman insisted that staff safety was “paramount” for the agency.
She said safety measures had been introduced including weekly Covid testing and thermal imaging cameras checking the temperature of people entering its building.
The agency has also rearranged its offices in line with government guidance and rented additional office space to allow more staff to return to work while maintaining social distancing.