The Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has been slammed by the Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), Dame Julie Mellor, for letting down truck drivers who have had licences delayed unnecessarily for medical reasons.
In the Ombudsman’s report – entitled Driven to Despair: How Drivers Have Been Let Down by the DVLA – the PHSO describes “major failings” at the organisation, which have led to drivers, particularly those with vocational licences, being taken off the road unnecessarily or prevented from driving after their medical conditions had been resolved.
The PHSO dealt with eight cases, several involving vocational drivers, in which people were “unfairly prevented from driving, sometimes for several years, as a result of flawed decisions, significant delays, poor communication and complaint handling”.
“We have seen the significant impact that the DVLA’s actions have had on people’s lives, causing them to lose their jobs, be cut off from friends and family, and suffer significant stress and frustration,” the report said.
It described how one self-employed lorry driver was rendered unable to work when the DVLA revoked his licence after problematic ECG readings following a treadmill test.
It then failed to reissue the licence for months, and “to respond to correspondence… in a timely way”, despite advice from the driver’s cardiac surgeon expressing the view that the readings were false positives, and that he was fit to drive.
The Ombudsman criticised “significant and unnecessary delays in DVLA’s handling” of the case, adding that the agency “failed to acknowledge mistakes or put things right” following the driver’s complaint.
Another driver told the Ombudsman that informing DVLA about his diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder was “the worst mistake that he ever made” after it rejected his application for a vocational licence, began to question his fitness to drive ordinary vehicles, and sent him to be tested for alcohol dependence and heavy ethanol consumption.
The driver was eventually issued with a one-year vocational licence, but “unreasonable delays” at DVLA had caused him “distress and financial hardship”, the report found – despite the agency being aware from the outset that a job offer had depended on its consideration of his application.
In a third case, DVLA took more than a year to conclude that a lorry driver on cross-continental work was entitled to his vocational licence – and when it was finally reissued, it was sent to the driver’s old address due to poor record-keeping at the agency, delaying its receipt for a further three months.
By this stage, the driver had been forced to resign. He said that he had suffered “significant financial loss, had to move house and break up his family” as a result of DVLA’s actions.
The PHSO acknowledged that: “the DVLA has accepted our findings and recommendations for all eight cases, and in six of them has granted the licence applied for, thereby overturning its own original decision”.
But she was still concerned that “there will be others who have experienced the same injustice and hardship for whom things have not yet been put right,” and “that insufficient action has been taken, or is planned, to prevent the same failures being repeated”.
The Ombudsman warned that: “There are risks that people fit to drive will be denied a licence to do so, and others, who pose a risk to the public and themselves, will continue to do so.”
Although none of the specific cases investigated by the PHSO coved sleep apnoea, the condition was singled out in the report as being a problem area.
In a submission to the PHSO, the Sleep Apnoea Trust said that the quality of public information from the DVLA had declined since changes to the agency’s website.
It also highlighted Freight Transport Association research into sleep apnoea that revealed 98 per cent of drivers and employers would not refer themselves to the Agency following diagnosis.
“This puts DVLA’s role of ensuring road safety into doubt, and we have to ask if better information and communication with people who use its service might lessen that,” the report said.
Responding to the Ombudsman’s findings, DVLA chief executive Oliver Morley apologised for the handling of the “very complex” cases highlighted, but said the “vast majority” of the millions of cases the agency dealt with were handled “swiftly and correctly”.
He added that more effective case management, a new online service for reporting medical conditions, and a boost to staffing had improved the agency’s service for drivers.
The full report is available here in PDF format.