Year of delays: how UK government services seized up in the Covid crisis

From driving licences to passports, the pandemic has worsened waits for Britons

Year-long waits for driving licences, long delays to register a property purchase, or gain a tax rebate a birth certificate – 2021 could well go down as the year government systems stopped working as they should. Maybe it was inevitable in a pandemic that service levels would suffer. However, the failure of successive governments to properly invest in technology has been horribly exposed over the past 12 months. This is where it went most wrong.

Months to get a driving licence back

To say Jo Makinen is frustrated is an understatement. The account manager, who lives in rural West Sussex, has been trying to renew her driving licence since February but says she has no confidence that it will be processed any time soon.

“Dealing with DVLA is so frustrating and much of it is completely unnecessary. I recently had to fill in a form online and then print it off and put it in the post,” she says. “Why couldn’t it have been sent electronically? There are thousands of people like me who have been cleared by their doctors to resume driving but can’t get their licence back.”

Jo Makinen
Jo Makinen has been trying to renew her driving licence since February, but has faced DVLA delays. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Arguably, the biggest government services failure during the Covid-19 pandemic was by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Outbreaks of Covid at its Swansea HQ, and subsequent strikes by staff, have led to long delays for anyone whose paper application requires some kind of manual intervention.

People in Makinen’s shoes – needing to show medical clearance – have suffered the longest delays. However, plenty of young people applying for their first provisional licence have told Guardian Money that they have been waiting in excess of eight months. The problems have contributed to the shortage of truck drivers. People who sent the DVLA their passports to show their ID had to cancel long-awaited holidays as their documents were waiting to be processed.

The fact that so little of the process is done electronically has been a huge source of frustration. Ironically, basic licence renewals carried out online have never been quicker. Ministers could have allowed those with a licence revoked for medical reasons, but subsequently cleared by their doctor to drive, to resume driving but have so far decided not to.

A DVLA spokesperson says driver licence transactions should be back to normal in the spring. He also revealed that DVLA has been told not to contact GPs over the coming weeks.

“This year we have recruited more staff, increased overtime and secured extra office space in Swansea and Birmingham to help reduce waiting times for customers and are issuing about 200,000 driving licences each week,” he says.

For Makinen, who is now fully recovered after having a seizure, it means more months of lifts, taxis and public transport. “After my MP got involved, I was told that DVLA had sent my GP the form to fill in again. But they haven’t received it, and everything is now being put on hold to allow the booster push. If I don’t get this processed in four months, it expires again, at which point, I suspect I will have to start all over again. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she says.

If you want a driving test the first one available is next May

As if young people haven’t had a bad enough pandemic, those hoping to drive face further months of waiting just to get a test. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is another government service where there has been a big backlog because of the shutdown of services. Prospective drivers are facing waits of between three and six months to get the all-important practical test – depending on where they are in the country. Those who do manage to get a test are under intense pressure to pass because if they fail, it could mean another six-month wait for a retest.

A woman during a driving lesson with her instructor, both wearing face masks
Learner drivers are waiting months for tests. Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Things have been so bad that some learner drivers have had to retake their theory test because these expire after two years if you have not passed a practical test. Meanwhile, a whole industry has grown up selling drivers cancelled tests using bots to check the web for slots as they come up. Plans to make testers carry out more tests each day resulted in strike threats.

The DVSA chief executive, Loveday Ryder, said: “We are doing all we can to provide as many tests as possible so we can get our services back to normal. With more than half of candidates failing, and demand currently extremely high for tests, learners should only take their test when they are confident they can pass. This will help them to avoid a lengthy wait for a retest and help us by not adding to the driving test waiting list.”

Waiting for tax rebates: don’t hold your breath

Taxpayers are reporting that they have been kept waiting up to six months for rebates normally completed within 10-12 weeks because of severe delays at HM Revenue and Customs.

HMRC staff arguably deserve the most sympathy, not least because there has been a massive increase in workload as a result of the pandemic and, in particular, the introduction of the various government schemes to help businesses and individuals get through the past 20 months. However, having to wait months for rebates is causing real hardship for some. Consumers have been taking to the HMRC’s own forum to report delays – in some cases, up to nine months – for rebates to be processed.

An HMRC spokesperson says: “We are sorry to any customers who have waited longer than they expected. We are now working through the stocks of post that built up over the past year. We are doing this while keeping our helpline service levels and processing stable.”

Need a new passport? Apply at least 10 weeks before travel

Closeup of a new dark blue British passport, introduced in 2020
On top of having to wait a few weeks for a passport to be processed, there have been problems with deliveries. Photograph: Shaun Daley/Alamy

This week the Passport Office advised anyone whose passport has expired that it is currently taking five weeks for renewals, and six to apply for a first one. Overall, it advises people to allow at least 10 weeks. While the processing of the passports has been working pretty well, given what is going on the world, the same cannot be said of the Passport Office’s chosen courier, TNT, part of FedEx. The TNT deliveries are “fast-tracked”.

But, as Guardian Money revealed, TNT’s service has been bedevilled with problems, with deliveries repeatedly postponed. Since then, the problem appears to have worsened. An online petition has been started demanding an investigation into HMPO’s £77m three-year contract with TNT, signed in 2019.

A FedEx spokesperson says: “We fully understand the importance of these shipments to our customers and are taking additional steps to provide timely delivery by adding additional resources to the operations in the UK.”

Waiting months to register lease extension with Land Registry

Even before Covid hit there were delays of between six and eight months to register a house, or other property-related purchases with the official Land Registry. Today it is taking up to a year, according to Jennie Curtis, an associate with the London-based real estate advisers Brecher.

She says long processing times have been “wreaking havoc in the property market”.

When a person or company buys a freehold or leasehold title, they do not become the legal owner of the property until it is officially registered with the Land Registry. Until that time, the purchaser is merely the owner in equity, she says.

“The Land Registry was already operating a significant delay prior to the coronavirus pandemic,” she says. “What lawyers affectionately refer to as the ‘registration gap’ has become a gaping sinkhole swallowing properties.”

The Land Registry launched a digital registration service in April but this has seemingly done little to bring down waiting times.

One solicitor told Guardian Money this week that the industry has been working with the delays for many months.

“When you tell clients that it could take a year for Land Registry to process their purchase, they can’t believe what they are hearing. It’s a conversation that has been happening for too long. The matter needs to be addressed urgently,” he says.

Hari Black says he and his brother have been waiting almost 18 months for a “completely standard” leasehold extension to be registered.

“Our solicitor completed the agreement with Southwark council back in June 2020 and has been waiting on the Land Registry ever since. Our solicitor has been putting pressure on, and we have written to our MP to see if they can be of any help. Every time we ask what’s going on, we are told that it is still in the queue – 18 months on. This has been a great inconvenience as we are trying to add my parents to the leasehold as owners so that they can access Southwark housing services. It’s ridiculous that it has taken so long,” he says.

“HM Land Registry has continued to deliver all of its services, prioritising time critical services that are essential for property transactions to continue uninterrupted. It has been an extremely busy year for the property market, we received over 900k more applications in April-Nov 2021 than the same period in 2019,” says a spokesperson, who added that Black’s case should be completed in 10 days.

Probate hold-ups go on

A few years ago, anyone going through probate was told it should take 10 working days for an application to be processed. Now, changes to the system followed by a pandemic mean some bereaved families are waiting months for cases to be resolved. In the meantime, they are trapped in limbo, unable to sell properties or distribute their loved ones’ assets.

Probate is the legal process that allows executors of a will to take charge of a deceased person’s estate. It is usually required for estates where there are assets other than cash and personal possessions to be dealt with, unless they are jointly owned with a surviving partner.

After the death certificate has been obtained and the estate has been valued, an application for probate is registered with a local office and any necessary paperwork provided.

A scheme to centralise the process seems to have slowed things down, with solicitors already complaining about delays before the pandemic hit. But things have been exacerbated by changes to working practices.

Last Will & Testament.
Probate is the legal process that allows executors of a will to take charge of a deceased person’s estate. Photograph: Everyday Images/Alamy

A warning on the government website tells applicants that because of Covid, “it’s taking longer to process paper applications than online applications. Use the online service to apply for probate if you can.”

According to official figures, the average time from application to the grant of probate stood at 9.3 weeks in October – down from 10.4 weeks in September – but otherwise the highest figure all year. Digital applications were taking an average of 7.8 weeks, while paper applications were taking an average of 13.7 weeks. Those figures are for cases that have gone through without a request for further information – for those that have been stopped for any reason, which could include missing details or names that don’t quite match up, it was taking 17 weeks online and 21 for paper applications.

“We have repeatedly said the probate service already faced delays before the Covid-19 pandemic, and while some of these delays have been addressed with the new online system, there are still issues with the service,” says a spokesperson for the Law Society, whose members include solicitors dealing with applications.

Although commending efforts to keep the service going during the coronavirus crisis, the spokesperson adds: “These delays can have an emotional and financial impact on users of the probate service – regardless of whether they have legal representation – who are being left in limbo, unable to execute a loved one’s estate.

“Our solicitor members have told us that they’re unable to get sufficient updates on the status of an application, meaning they’re unable to communicate effectively with their clients on how their application is progressing.”

HM Courts and Tribunals said that waiting times have come down and straightforward applications were taking an average of four weeks to process.

A spokesperson said: “We hired extra staff in response to unprecedented demand for probate during the pandemic, and correctly completed online applications are now taking less than a month to process.

“Due to a focus on tackling a backlog of complex cases over the last quarter, average wait times increased, but over the same period 6,000 more cases were completed than received.”

Other departments

In August the Home Office was accused of causing “turmoil for families” after a failure in its online system for registering births, deaths and marriages – contravening the government’s 42-day limit. Laura Mogford, a veterinary nursing assistant from south Wales, told the Observer she had been trying to register her son Arthur’s birth for almost three months.

Want to get a Disclosure and Barring Service check to allow you to work or volunteer with children? Although straightforward checks are being completed quickly, people who have moved recently or have a non-standard application are reporting long delays in being approved, in many cases holding up them from starting jobs.


Miles Brignall

The GuardianTramp

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