Contractor security clearance needs urgent attention, as turnaround times at UK Security Vetting are an impediment to all

Contractors working in certain public sector roles will be well-versed in the UK’s Security Vetting Process (UKSV).

But delays and an ever-increasing backlog of candidates seeking security clearance are both thwarting contractors from looking for work and ultimately, are hampering the functionality of government, writes Josh Toovey, senior research and policy officer at the Association of Independent Professionals & Self-Employed (IPSE).

When is security clearance required?

Any contractor working with (or having access to) sensitive or classified information is required to complete a security check before they can start work. It’s commonplace for these checks to be carried out for roles within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) or the Armed Forces.

But increasingly IT contractors – working in other government departments – are being asked to complete the vetting process before working on government-related IT projects.

We have previously worked closely with the Cabinet Office to establish a code of practice for government departments, recruiting managers and suppliers, making it clear that contractors should not be missing out on opportunities because they do not hold an existing security clearance.

We are therefore concerned by reports from IPSE members and the wider contracting market that increasing turnaround times in the vetting process are having a knock-on impact on contractors, with many thwarted by a requirement for active security clearance.

‘UKSV’s record in delivering timely clearances continues to be poor'

A January 2023 investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) into the performance of UKSV not only criticised the current delivery of timely clearances as “poor,” but it also gave a damning indictment on how these failures are potentially jeopardising national security.

Ultimately, government departments risk being unable to process work relating to national security when clearances are not processed quickly enough.

The NAO established that since April 2020 – when UKSV moved from the MoD to the Cabinet Office – an increase in demand for vetting following the easing of covid restrictions, and a slower than expected transition from the MoD, have resulted in significant delays.

Departments now only interested in ‘active’ clearance candidates, contrary to the code

These delays are now impeding contractors and their chances of finding work, with government departments increasingly desperate to avoid the vetting process delays and as such, the departments are only prepared to hire contractors with active security clearance.

It’s even possible the vetting process could take longer than the length of the assignment, resulting in both the contractor and the government department understandably becoming unwilling to undergo the clearance process. Yet, it remains the case that this goes against the in-place code of practice.

It is common for security clearance to lapse after a set period or for contractors to need additional national security vetting based on the sensitivity of the role. It is therefore of vital importance that these delays are sorted by the Cabinet Office, so that these departments can continue to make use of contractors’ specialist expertise and skills -- especially when the functionality of government and national security are at stake.

Public Accounts Committee session on the performance of UKSV

Last week, the Public Accounts Committee grilled senior officials from the Cabinet Office on the backlog, and they asked why 2022 saw UKSV perform at its worst performance levels since it was created in 2017.

In a lively exchange, Cabinet Office officials were quick to attribute covid restrictions with pushing cases into 2021-2022. A change in rules in the aviation sector, and the war in Ukraine were (and are), contributing to the current backlog too, apparently.

The officials did note that UKSV has seen a dramatic increase in demand, carrying out almost double the number of vetting requests in 2021-2022 than in 2020-2021.

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee were more concerned about a lack of planning and resources ultimately contributing to the current delays, and expressed concern that national security could be put at risk as a result.

Officials won’t make security checks for freelancing projects a priority

When specifically asked about those seeking vetting for short-term freelancing projects – the sort of projects IT contractors would work on, Cabinet Office officials did not agree with MPs that they should be prioritising short-term projects over long-term projects. Rather, they insisted, all cases should be meeting the 25-day and 95-day turnaround targets.

Notably, the session also focused on a significant increase in the number of applicants cancelling their applications for security clearance between October and November 2022. Many of these will be contractors attempting to achieve security clearance for a particular role, but who are now forced to look elsewhere due to the delay.

The prioritisation of new applicants rather than renewals was cited by both officials and MPs as improving the waiting times and this is something that is likely to continue going forward to manage the backlog. Hopefully.

A damning indictment

But taken together, the PAC’s evidence session and the NAO report preceding it (which made five urgent recommendations) provide a damning indictment of the UK’s current vetting system, with contractors ultimately hindered by the significant delays.

We are particularly concerned about reports that many government roles now require active security clearance and so we want to see the code of practice enforced to ensure independent professionals do not miss out on opportunities. Tackling these delays is not only key for contractors but also government departments seeking to engage freelance expertise and skills required for government to function in some of the most sensitive and nationally important areas fundamental to our wellbeing and security.

Profile picture for user Josh Toovey

Written by Josh Toovey

Josh is senior research and policy officer at the Association of Independent Professionals & Self-Employed (IPSE), the representative body for the UK’s self-employed community, including freelancers, contractors, consultants and independent professionals. He is responsible for IPSE’s leading research into freelancing and self-employment that is used to champion the sector in government and across industry.

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