‘The service is appalling’: drivers face holdups as DVLA fails to send licences

Diane Black-Ware is getting desperate. She was due to receive her new driving licence in January, and its non-arrival has left her spending £50 a day on taxis to get to her job in a rural caravan park. Since the start of the year, her taxed and insured car has been left unused at her Penrith home.

“If DVLA doesn’t send me my licence soon I’m going to have to give up my job as I can’t go on like this,” she says. “I’m so desperate that I called them 97 times in a single day last week and was still unable to get through. It is inexcusable how DVLA are treating people.”

Martin Ryan, from Lincoln, fears that his house purchase is going to fall through because the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has had his passport for the past six weeks. He desperately needs it back to be able to prove his identity to his solicitor and mortgage firm to enable the purchase to go though.

“I have tried every day for the last three weeks to contact them by phone and only get a message saying ‘try later’ or use the nonexistent online chat service. I only needed to change the address on the licence but my passport has effectively been confiscated by DVLA and there’s absolutely nothing I can seemingly do about it. The level of service is appalling,” he says.

This week, workers at the DLVA’s Swansea headquarters staged a round of strike action over Covid-related safety after previous walkouts in April and May.

While the dispute goes on, those waiting for vital driving licence renewals and other vehicle registration services are calling on government ministers to intervene. In some cases, people’s lives have been put on hold by the failure of the DVLA to process basic licence changes.

Long delays at the Swansea HQ are particularly affecting those who had their licences suspended for medical or other reasons but have since been cleared by their doctor to resume driving. These include professional truck and coach drivers.

Several 70-year-olds waiting for routine licence renewals say they have given up driving, fearing they could be fined if they are stopped and unable to produce a valid driving document.

Over-17s applying for provisional licences are reporting waiting months – in some cases more than six months, while address changes are proving a nightmare, say Guardian readers, whose complaints have poured into Money this week.

A vehicle parked in front of colourful houses in London
Some people have been unable to use their vehicle because of the DVLA delays. Photograph: William Barton/Alamy

In the latest problem to hit the agency, the DVLA admitted in a letter sent to a reader that a “technical issue” means owners of some camper vans are currently unable to retax them using its website, phone assistance, or even if the owner visits the post office.

Anyone unable to tax their vehicle is not allowed to legally drive it. The DVLA says it is writing to the very small number of affected camper van owners telling them how to proceed.

One disabled driver, newly entitled to a 50% discount on his car tax, told Money he had decided just to renew his licence at the full cost rather than be off the road while he waited for a new application to be processed.

The driving licence renewal problems appear to particularly affect those without a valid passport, or an application that requires manual intervention.

Minor changes to V5 ownership documents to correct mistakes are also taking months, say frustrated vehicle owners.

The fact that no one answers the phone or the online chat service at the DVLA is just adding to the sense of frustration from users.

The DVLA headquarters in Morriston, Swansea.
Workers at the DLVA’s Swansea headquarters this week staged a round of strike action over Covid-related safety. Photograph: James Davies/Alamy

Karin van Maanen is desperate to visit her elderly mother in the Netherlands but feared she would not be able to go as she sent the DVLA her passport as part of her licence renewal.

Earlier this week she told us: “I can work around not being able to drive abroad. But I do need my passport. My mum is understandably getting distressed that I may not be able to visit. I’m angry, flabbergasted at this level of disservice and at a bit of a loss of what to do.”

Just after she contacted the Guardian her passport arrived, and she is now waiting to see if her licence will arrive in time for her trip.

Elin Mathers, who recently got married and changed her name, is waiting to get her documents back.

“I sent DVLA my old licence, my birth and marriage certificates, and six weeks on I have had nothing back. I cannot change my other personal details, such as banks or mortgage details, without photo ID – which is my driving licence. I have rung over 50 times but you can’t get through,” she says.

On the DVLA’s Facebook page, other licence applicants have described how their passports and biometric ID cards are trapped at the DVLA’s offices. Some of those affected need them to allow them to start new jobs, and are stuck in limbo as a result.

The DVLA’s Facebook page said this week that industrial action would directly affect its services. “Please do not phone to chase up your application during this time,” it said.

The agency was facing similar complaints in August 2020, even before staff went on strike over their working conditions since the start of the pandemic.

This week, staff walked out from Tuesday to Thursday and the PCS union is warning of months of industrial action unless the dispute is resolved. The union is calling for a reduction in the number of staff expected to work from the office. The DVLA says it has taken measures to ensure the safety of workers and has followed official guidance.

A DVLA spokeswoman says the online operation is unaffected. She says: “There are significant delays in processing paper applications due to ongoing industrial action and social-distancing requirements, which means that we have fewer staff than usual on site at any one time. Paper applications are taking on average around six weeks to process but there may be longer delays for more complicated transactions, for example, if medical investigations are needed as part of a driving licence application.

“It’s disappointing that the Public and Commercial Services Union is choosing to continue with industrial action and targeting services that will have the greatest negative impact on the public, including some of the more vulnerable people in society, as restrictions are starting to ease.”

Huw Merriman, the chair of the Commons transport select committee, says: “When we met the DVLA’s chief executive, Julie Lennard, in January, she made us aware that paper transactions were taking longer but routine online services at the agency were almost running at usual rates. It’s concerning to hear that the DVLA may be failing to meet the routine needs of consumers.

“To check this out, I will be writing to the secretary of state for transport. If there’s a problem, we want to get to the bottom of it.”

Stuck in Swansea – what are the rules?

UK Driving Licence
Delays at the DVLA’s Swansea HQ are particularly affecting those who had their licences suspended for medical or other reasons but have since been cleared by their doctor to resume driving. Photograph: Lee Martin/Alamy

UK driving licences have an expiry date but as long as you have sent off your renewal to the DVLA – and you have not been told by a medic, optician or the courts to stop driving for any reason, you can continue to get behind the wheel. However, those whose licence was revoked by a court or for medical reasons – but have been told they can resume – can’t drive until it has been physically reissued.

If your passport is stuck in Swansea, you may have to get a replacement if you need to travel soon as there is currently no way to persuade the DVLA to return it. Applications are being strictly dealt with in the order in which they were received, it says.


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