'Catastrophic' delay in processing driving licences due to DVLA staff being put 'at risk,' MPs told
A "catastrophic" backlog in processing driving licences is due to management decisions which "put people at risk" at the DVLA headquarters in Swansea, MPs have heard.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents DVLA workers, said an agreement on improved working conditions was withdrawn "without any explanation."
There have been 643 coronavirus cases at the site including one person who died, he told the Transport Select Committee.
Workers were sat less than two metres apart up until as late as February 2021, with the lack of safe distancing described as a "national scandal", an investigation by ITV Cymru Wales found.
Mr Serwotka said: "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 concerns from motorists, trainee drivers and lorry drivers about long delays in receiving documents from the DVLA.
A parliamentary question from July 5 revealed that the turnaround time was between six and 10 weeks due to on-site social distancing requirements and the industrial action.
PCS members have launched a series of strikes as part of a campaign for more safety measures to be taken, including a reduction in the number of staff expected to work at the site, with further action planned.
Mr Serwotka said: "The catastrophic state of the backlog at the DVLA in Swansea is primarily now down to the industrial dispute that exists between the workforce and the DVLA management."
DVLA chief executive Julie Lennard told the committee that the disruption is affecting paper rather than online applications.
The typical waiting time for paper applications to be processed is "six to 10 weeks" but more complex cases such as those involving medical declarations can take longer.
On the issue of some staff not being permitted to work from home, Ms Lennard said "I don't accept that there's a cultural issue".
She noted that 2,000 people are being allowed to work from home, but insisted some roles must be office-based as they deal with "huge amounts of personal data".
She added that less than a third of the backlog is caused by the industrial action, with most of the disruption due to reduced staffing levels caused by social distancing.
Roads minister Baroness Vere said the Department for Transport "will continue to try and reduce it where we can" through measures such as considering whether someone who is not a GP but is "equally qualified" can make decisions on medical cases.
She insisted that no deal was agreed between the agency and the union 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.
"I struggled to reconcile that with the reason for the industrial action in the first place," Baroness Vere said.
In addition the DVLA said it had taken measures to ensure the safety of the workforce.
A spokesperson said: "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, just as restrictions are starting to ease.
"The safety of our staff is paramount and since the beginning of the year we have implemented weekly Covid testing for everyone.
"Since the outbreak of the pandemic we have reorganised our eight buildings in line with official advice, and utilised space in a newly-leased building to further assist with social distancing measures.
"We have also installed thermal imaging cameras to carry out temperature checks on people entering the buildings.
"As these measures have been implemented, we have worked closely with Public Health Wales along with Swansea Environmental Health and the Health and Safety Executive, who have conducted regular site visits and inspections and have repeatedly confirmed a high level of compliance with control measures.
"Our online services have not been impacted by the pandemic or industrial action and are running as normal and without delay.
"There are 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."
Lack of safe distancing at DVLA a 'national scandal' as investigation reveals staff were not sat two metres apart.