Frustrated car owners have been waiting months for vital documents and left unclear about whether they can legally drive their vehicles because of a backlog of applications caused by the coronavirus crisis.
In the past few months, licence renewals and changes to vehicle registration (V5C) documents have been backing up at the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency’s Swansea offices, leaving thousands of people waiting months to get them back.
Since Guardian Money wrote about the case of a driver struggling to get hold of a car logbook, readers have swamped our Consumer Champions’ inbox with reports of long delays and how impossible it has become to contact the UK government agency.
Those sending off their driving licence or V5C document for routine changes of address report waiting months. Some, with more complex cases, say they have been waiting since January for applications to be dealt with.
While many people stopped using their cars during lockdown, the easing of restrictions has meant people can get back on the road. However, the delays are thought to have stopped many. Others have suffered even more serious consequences.
Passports and biometric residence permits have been stuck in Swansea, with their desperate owners unable to retrieve them. In one case, a reader said he had been unable to unfreeze a bank account because his only ID document – his driving licence – was stuck at the DVLA.
The agency has been particularly badly hit by the pandemic because security rules mean much of its work cannot be done at home. Its Swansea offices have also been subject to the Welsh government’s two-metre physical-distancing rules, which, it says, have reduced the number of staff able to attend.
Normally, drivers are required to renew their photocard licence every 10 years and bus and lorry drivers every five years. Anyone moving house has to get a new licence and change their vehicle registration documents. Failing to do so carries the risk of a £1,000 fine.
While simpler online applications have been less affected, more complicated changes, which require sending documents such as medical assessments by post, have been caught up in the chaos.
My life is completely on hold, all because I applied for a UK driving licence
Neil Thomas, who needed a UK driving licence, sent the DVLA his South African licence, along with his biometric residence permit, back in April – and that was the last he saw of it.
“I’ve been offered some work abroad but can’t take it because without my permit I can’t get back into the country,” he says. “I have called the DVLA 10 times a day. I can’t go online because I haven’t got a reference number. Emails are not being looked at. My life is completely on hold, all because I applied for a UK driving licence. It’s a crazy situation that needs to be resolved.”
Tom Shillington, a disabled driver who has difficulty walking, says he has been trying to change the tax status of his car since March. He was able to speak to the DVLA in July but says it was unable to help him. His car remains untaxed, he says.
Robert Gibson*, who is 76, has been trying to renew his licence since April, again, to no avail. He cares for his disabled wife and they need the car to take her to hospital appointments. “I tried to renew it online several times but each time it was rejected, so I returned the form I received with the licence,” he told Guardian Money.
“I waited until mid-May before getting anxious and tried to get in contact by phone and email but was unable to make contact. I then sent a letter with an application form from the Post Office, only to receive it back with a request for a photo. I am still waiting. I had expected to wait maybe a month, or six weeks, but four months is a disgrace.”
Back in June, the DVLA said drivers with a pink plastic photocard driving licence, set to expire between 1 February 2020 and 31 August 2020, would automatically have them extended by seven months.
However, Gibson says he was not aware that the DVLA had applied an automatic seven-month extension, which means his current photocard licence is still valid.
“I am computer-literate, yet had no idea of this change.”
At the time it was announced, the DVLA said it would write to people reminding them to renew their licences before the extension came to an end.
Michael Wilkes requested a new V5C registration certificate for his French-registered car back in March. He says his licence came back quickly but he has now been told that the original car documents are lost.
“I haven’t been able to use the car for almost four months,” he wrote.
Edmund King, the president of the motoring organisation the AA, says he has raised the issue of the severe backlogs with the transport minister and officials over the past few months.
“Drivers are exasperated. This has led to anxiety and distress among thousands of drivers,” he says.
King explains that sction 88 of the Road Traffic Act says you can continue to drive with an expired licence if your application is in with the DVLA and you are simply renewing. However, “anecdotally we hear many older drivers are worried about driving without their actual licence”.
He adds: “Those reapplying following a medical or criminal break do need to wait until the DVLA gives them the green light.”
The DVLA says it has accelerated online provisions during the pandemic so you can renew a licence online regardless of age.
Although the gov.uk website warns: “It may take longer than usual for you to get your licence because of coronavirus”, the DVLA says online applications are being processed within normal timescales and it is encouraging as many people to renew this way.
Asked whether there was any way for people to get much-needed passports and other documents back from paper applications, the DVLA says all applications are being dealt with as quickly as possible.
Otherwise, it said it had nothing to add to the statement it made last week to Consumer Champions: “Paper applications are taking longer to process as we need to ensure we are a Covid-19-secure workplace and, in following the legal requirements in Wales around social distancing, we are limited in terms of the number of people we can have on site at one time.
“We understand how frustrating delays can be and we apologise for any inconvenience – we are working hard to process applications as quickly as possible. Guidance and support regarding our services is regularly updated on gov.uk.”
* Not his real name