Staff at the DVLA have been promised payments worth £735 as the government seeks to avoid strike action that risks exacerbating the backlog of tens of thousands of licences awaiting renewal.
It is understood the money will come in two payments, and has been offered as though unrelated to the fact the PCS trade union is currently balloting staff over renewed strike action.
DVLA employees have been locked in a bitter dispute with management for months over the safety of employees asked to work through the pandemic in the agency’s Swansea headquarters, where the PCS says there have been more than 900 Covid cases.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has been under pressure to resolve the dispute, with the availability of licences for HGV drivers regarded as critical to tackling the supply crunch that has seen retailers warn about empty shelves at Christmas.
The DVLA said last week that it had 54,000 HGV licences awaiting processing – many of them renewals.
An agreement on safety and the return to the workplace was reached in June with the management of the DVLA, but the PCS claims it was unpicked at the last minute.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, told the Guardian his members had been unfairly blamed for the DVLA’s failure to draw up plans to deal with the backlog of licences awaiting renewal.
“Deflecting on to the civil service or the union is an easy out for them,” he said, adding, “it is in crisis down there – and in any other organisation you would have expected them to want to find a resolution when there was one there.”
Turnout in the PCS’s last ballot of staff earlier this year was only just over the 50% legal threshold for triggering industrial action. If the PCS wins this time it plans to hold further stoppages over safety, despite the £735 payments.
Meanwhile more than a thousand driving examiners are to strike for two days next week at another Department for Transport agency, the DVSA, over workloads.
Examiners, about 200 of whom also test HGV drivers, have been asked to carry out eight tests a day instead of the current seven – something the PCS claims is unsafe and would lead to burnout. The roads minister, Charlotte Vere, visited the DVLA on Thursday and met staff.
Shapps recently announced that the army would be drafted in to boost the DVSA’s capacity to offer HGV tests but the organisation has not been given other additional resources to resolve the post-Covid backlog.
Serwotka said: “The two organisations have one common denominator, which is that they’re both in the Department for Transport – and the Department for Transport is really poorly managed and has a very poor record of industrial relations.”
He added that the prime minister’s rhetoric in his party conference speech about a high wage, high investment economy did not appear to apply to workers such as those in the DVLA and DVSA. “It seems that whoever else they say they have in mind, they certainly don’t mean people on the frontline of the pandemic,” he said.
DVLA declined to comment.