MPs lambast the Cabinet Office for failing to get a grip on security vetting for top civil servants and putting national security at risk, reports David Hencke
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A parliamentary report has revealed enormous delays in getting people security clearances to take up jobs in Whitehall putting off the best candidates for the positions and impeding departments’ ability to fill them.
Dame Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Commons public accounts committee says the situation is “totally unacceptable “and has demanded action be taken immediately to rectify the situation.
The Cabinet Office took over security vetting from the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office in 2020 and since 2021 has failed to meet its main performance targets to vet people on time.
Vetting is done by the United Kingdom Vetting Service (UKVS) which reports to the Cabinet Office. It handles the most sensitive vetting known as Developed Vetting and Counter Terrorist Checks and more routine security clearances. It is also responsible for reviewing people’s security clearances.
The report reveals that the most enhanced vetting – Developed Vetting – is meant to take 95 days. It is taking 180 days – almost six months to process each person. Counter Terrorist Checks and routine security checks are supposed to take 25 days but targets have not been met.
The report reveals that the UKVS has suffered from huge staff shortages – a vacancy rate between 32 and 23 per cent – so has not had the people to do the job. Some 163 civil servants have been drafted in as temporary staff from other departments to clear the backlog.
The report says: “Part of the reason for the increase in work relates to policy changes which required additional vetting – something the Cabinet Office was aware of and should have been able to predict.”
There was also an increase in new Whitehall jobs after the relaxation of Covid restrictions.
MPs are most concerned about the failure to review security clearances, particularly at the most enhanced level.
They say the Cabinet Office seems content to automatically renew security clearances, “despite the increased risk associated with individuals going many years without a full review of their security clearance.”
“It also has a woeful record on aftercare checks, which should occur between the initial clearance and a full review to confirm someone’s circumstances have not changed. Aftercare targets have not been met once since the start of 2018–19. All this is creating a risk environment that many customers across government are uncomfortable,” says the report.
Attempts have been made to modernise the service using new technology have failed. One scheme ended with the Cabinet Office writing off £2.5 million after a cost overrun of 50 per cent. At present the Cabinet Office has not given approval for any new modernisation to “ensure money is spent wisely”.
Dame Meg Hillier said: “The Cabinet Office appears deaf to the discomfort that staff across Government have with the level of risk being created by its failure to get a grip on our national security vetting services. Though the current governance structure actually appears to be a barrier to the necessary change, the Cabinet Office is blocking all UKSV’s valiant attempts at reform. UKSV has been understaffed since its inception and the result is desperately uncomfortable compromise choices for existing staff about their essential functions. This is all totally unacceptable. We expect the Cabinet Office to set out and immediately get on with productive change in response to this report.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson told Byline Times:
“Security vetting is a key priority and we have worked closely with UKSV to ensure it has the resources needed to deal with the surge in demand in the last year. As a result, turnaround times for the highest level of clearance have more than halved from April 2022 to April 2023.
“We are continuing to reform and improve vetting processes while maintaining the necessary protocols for national and personnel security. This has already resulted in over 200,000 security checks being successfully completed in the last year with the highest annual level of Developed Vetting clearances since UKSV was created in 2017.”
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