Continued poor performance by government’s security vetting provider is putting the effective functioning of government departments and national security at risk, the National Audit Office has warned.
The watchdog said delays to UK Security Vetting’s checks means government departments "risk being unable to progress work relating to national security".
The NAO said it is “essential that the Cabinet Office sets out a clear pathway for meaningful reform to get the service on track, including recruiting and retaining talented staff "to implement and manage sustainable improvements".
“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," NAO head Gareth Davies said.
Davies said it is “essential that the Cabinet Office sets out a clear pathway for meaningful reform, including recruiting and retaining talent to implement and manage sustainable improvements”.
This is the second NAO investigation into UKSV, which was created in 2017 as a single vetting provider for civil servants, contractors and armed-forces specialists, merging services previously provided separately by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. UKSV was originally part of the MoD, although security vetting policy was set by the Cabinet Office.
A 2018 report found the Cabinet Office-backed decision to create the team had driven up staff costs by 17% and resulted in a backlog of cases, costing departments millions of pounds a year in inefficiencies.
UKSV vets individuals’ access to sensitive government information, locations, or equipment. The Cabinet Office took control of UKSV in 2020 after “a sustained period of poor performance”, according to the NAO.
But the NAO said UKSV’s record in delivering timely clearances remains poor. Government has made “little progress” with longer-term efforts to transform the way security vetting is delivered, it said, “with a clearly set out implementation plan for transforming security vetting still to be agreed”.
The performance of UKSV, particularly turnaround times for Developed Vetting clearances, deteriorated significantly in 2021-22, as a result of demand increasing as Covid restrictions were gradually eased.
DV clearances were taking almost 180 days in April 2022, almost double UKSV’s 95-day target. The Cabinet Office said turnaround times had reduced to an average of 98 days by November. UKSV is also failing to meet targets for providing follow up checks on DV clearances, the NAO said.
Meanwhile, targets for Counter Terrorist Checks, Security Checks and DV clearances have fallen short in every month since August 2021, the watchdog found.
In January 2022, UKSV launched a short-term recovery plan, called the delivery stabilisation plan, which aims to reduce backlogs and improve turnaround times for all clearance levels by streamlining processes and working more efficiently.
The watchdog said Covid was one of the key reasons for UKSV’s deteriorating performance. But it also blamed recruitment and reliance on an “old and unstable” IT system, which has regular outages that slow down and halt the clearance process for extended periods.
The Cabinet Office’s initial efforts to modernise the IT infrastructure ran almost 50% over budget and ended in failure in 2021, with £2.5m written off last year.
Meanwhile, UKSV has estimated it needs 1,145 (full-time equivalent) staff in 2022-23, based on customer demand forecast, but had just 877 in November 2022, including agency staff and temporary staff from other departments.
To improve underlying system problems, UKSV has been implementing a modernisation programme since 2019, overhauling policies, processes and IT systems.
The reforms were originally supposed to be completed in March this year, but the Cabinet Office has not yet granted UKSV approval for the full business case for the programme, as it is concerned about the deliverability of the programme.
The NAO said progress has also slowed because UKSV chose to prioritise its Covid recovery plan and the transition of services from the MoD. The Cabinet Office currently expects to complete the programme by 2024-25 at the earliest.
The NAO said the Cabinet Office should "recognise the importance of modernising the national security vetting process and work quickly to design an implementation plan with key milestones in place".
A Cabinet Office spokesperson 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 UKSV 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 over the coming months."
On national security concerns, the Cabinet Office said it established a critical delivery service for all UKSV users during the Covid pandemic, which ensures essential government work can progress without national security impacts.