Delays at UK Security Vetting (UKSV) could mean hold-ups at government departments and risks to national security, according to a report by the National Audit Office.
An NAO investigation into UKSV, which is run by the Cabinet Office, had exposed a pattern of underperformance and missed targets, despite a stabilisation plan last year which sought to make improvements.
The NAO report found that UKSV has not met its targets since August 2021 for counter-terrorist checks (CTCs) and security checks (SCs). It also found failures against the agency’s Developed Vetting (DV) clearance targets since May 2021.
UKSV aims to complete 85% of CTC/SC clearances in 25 days, and 85% of DV clearances within 95 days. Processing of CTC/SC clearances last met the target in July 2021 and fell to a low of 15% of clearances cleared in 25 days in September 2022.
For DV clearances, UKSV last met its target in May 2021 with performance falling to just 7% of clearances completed within 95 days in April 2022. UKSV’s performance on priority clearances, where government departments can request an accelerated process for a handful (3%) of their requests, has been closer to its target and exceeded a revised target level last year.
UKSV was established in 2017 with the remit of vetting the applications of individuals with access to sensitive government information, locations or equipment. The three most common categories of vetting are Counter Terrorist Checks (CTC), Security Checks (SCs) and Developed Vetting (DV), the latter allowing access to more sensitive assets.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Our investigation finds unacceptable delays continue to hamper security vetting, which is of vital importance to the effective functioning of government, and in particular, national security work.
“UKSV must build on initiatives from its stabilisation plan to ensure that it is on a sustainable path to meet the increasing demand for vetting. And it is essential that the Cabinet Office set a clear pathway for meaningful reform, including recruiting and retaining talent to implement and manage sustainable improvements.”
Insufficient specialist staff continues to be a major obstacle to reform − UKSV has consistently struggled to recruit in this area, according to the report. It relies heavily on contractors despite turning to a largely in-house approach after the previous failed attempt to reform its IT system. There is currently a shortfall of 68 FTEs for digital roles.
The Ministry of Defence is UKSV’s largest customer, accounting for 56% of all clearance requests. Other customers include all other government departments and numerous public bodies, as well as private sector clients, for example in aviation, whose staff require clearance to work in airports.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We are investing in modernising and improving vetting, and last year more than 200,000 security checks were successfully completed.
“A surge in demand after the Covid pandemic did cause challenges but UK Security Vetting performance has improved since this NAO report, with turnaround times for the highest level of clearance reducing by almost half in just over six months. We recognise there is more to be done and are driving forward our plans to further improve performance.”