Delays owing to the continued poor performance of the Cabinet Office-run UK Security Vetting (UKSV) could mean government departments risk being unable to progress work, including that relating to national security, an NAO investigation has found.
The investigation into UKSV, the second NAO report focusing on UKSV (the first Investigation into security vetting was published in Sept 2018), reveals a pattern of underperformance and missed targets. UKSV introduced a stabilisation plan in 2022 with the aim of seeking to improve performance.
In January 2017 UKSV was established with the remit of vetting the applications of individuals with access to sensitive government information, locations, or equipment.1 The three most common categories of vetting are Counter Terrorist Checks (CTC), Security Checks (SC) and Developed Vetting (DV), the latter allowing access to more sensitive assets.2
The NAO’s report found that UKSV has not met its targets since August 2021 for CTC and SC clearances and since May 2021 for DV clearances. 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 departments can request an accelerated process for up to 3% of their clearance requests, has been closer to its target level and has exceeded a reduced target level in 2022-23.
UKSV is also failing to meet targets for providing follow up checks on DV clearances. These take place between the initial clearance and a full renewal due seven years later. The checks aim to capture any change in circumstances that may impact on clearance. UKSV aims to complete 85% of scheduled aftercare checks within 95 days but has failed to meet that target since the start of 2018.
Customer demand for vetting outstripped forecast demand during 2021-22, with CTC and SC requests 60% higher than expected, and DV requests 57% higher. UKSV was under-resourced to meet this increased demand, with 877 employees in November 2022, against an estimated need of 1,145. The Cabinet Office has approved a total headcount of 832 from March 2023 onwards, bolstered by 163 additional temporary staff.
UKSV’s stabilisation plan has helped it increase the number of clearances it is processing in 2022-23. The plan focused on prioritising new DV clearances over renewing existing DV clearances, increasing short-term capacity, seeking to improve productivity and automating and enhancing existing IT systems. Taken together, these measures have helped UKSV increase the number of DV clearances completed by 49% between April and November 2022, compared with the same period in 2021-22. Similarly, it has increased completions of CTC/SC clearances by 12% over the same period.
Alongside trying to stabilise performance in the short term, UKSV has continued attempts to reform vetting services. To improve performance in the longer term, it launched the Vetting Reform programme in 2019 and pledged to modernise key IT infrastructure, although it is not anticipated that the full reforms will be achieved before 2024-25. Cabinet Office’s initial efforts to modernise IT infrastructure ran almost 50% overbudget, resulting in £2.5 million being written off. UKSV is still using the IT system that it wanted to abandon in 2018 due to its lack of capacity, slowness and the need for many manual workarounds.
Insufficient specialist staff continues to be a major obstacle to reform − UKSV has consistently struggled to recruit in this area. It relies heavily on contractors despite turning to a largely in-house approach after the previous failed attempt to reform the IT system. Current modelling shows a shortfall of 68 FTEs for digital roles.
The NAO report recommends the need for modernisation of the national security vetting process, urging the Cabinet Office to quickly implement an agreed vision for vetting transformation. It highlights the need for clear transparent performance metrics that accurately measure whether clearances are being processed in a timely manner. Additionally, the report emphasises the need to ensure there is sufficient resilience within UKSV to react to new events that could drive increased demand for security vetting.
“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.”Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO.
Read the full report
Notes for editors
Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
- UKSV provides vetting services for customers including all government departments, a wide range of other public bodies, as well as some private sector industries such as the aviation industry, whose staff need clearance to work in airports. The Ministry of Defence is UKSV’s largest customer by a considerable margin, accounting for 56% of all clearance requests.
- From 1 January 2022, UKSV also started processing Accreditation Checks, a new legislative requirement for those working in the airline industry. Just over 100,000 of these had been processed by the end of September 2022.