MPs doubt Cabinet Office’s ability to fix security-vetting failings

Public Accounts Committee accuses department of “blocking” UKSV reform and ignoring risks
Cabinet Office

By Jim Dunton

15 May 2023

A damning report from an influential group of MPs has accused the Cabinet Office of not taking its responsibility for national-security vetting seriously enough, and failing to resource the United Kingdom Security Vetting service properly.

UKSV 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. It was originally part of the MoD, but the Cabinet Office took over responsibility for it in 2020.

Earlier this year public, spending watchdog the National Audit Office said continued poor performance on the part of UKSV was putting national security at risk and hampering the effective functioning of government. They were especially concerned about “unacceptable” delays with providing high-level security clearances – known as Developed Vetting – and Counter Terrorist Checks.

Last week, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said they have “little faith” the Cabinet Office’s latest plans to transform UKSV will be any more successful than previous efforts, unless the department takes its responsibility for national-security vetting “more seriously”.

Their report follows an evidence-gathering session with Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm, UKSV chief executive Patricia Dreghorn and government chief security officer Vincent Devine.

PAC members said the Cabinet Office had “stymied” UKSV’s reform proposals by failing to approve the spending required to deliver them. They added that the organisation had been understaffed since its inception and was 23% short of its estimated need – including digital staff – as recently as November.

MPs said that unacceptable delays in processing clearances could result in departments being unable to progress government work. They said the Cabinet Office did not appear to have fully assessed the potential impact of this across government.

Their report said it was “unsurprising” that UKSV forecasts for 2020-21 did not anticipate the reduced demand for services that the Covid-19 lockdowns had caused. But it added that UKSV and its customers had failed to anticipate a resurgence of demand when pandemic restrictions were lifted – and that the situation was not the first time UKSV had been impacted by a sudden increase in demand.

Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier said the Cabinet Office “appears deaf” to the discomfort of staff across government with the level of risk created by its failure to get a grip on security-vetting services.

“The current governance structure actually appears to be a barrier to the necessary change,” she said.

“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.”

The Cabinet Office denied blocking reforms or other requests from UKSV and said it has worked closely with the organisation to deal with “unprecedented demand for vetting”.

A spokesperson said the department was continuing to reform and improve vetting processes at the same time as maintaining the necessary protocols for national and personnel security.

"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,” they said.

“As a result, turnaround times for the highest level of clearance have more than halved from April 2022 to April 2023.”

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