A Cabinet Office-backed decision to create a single vetting provider for civil servants, contractors and armed-forces specialists has driven up staff costs by 17% and resulted in a backlog of cases that is costing departments millions of pounds a year in inefficiencies, a new report has found.
A National Audit Office investigation into United Kingdom Security Vetting, which was established from two separate providers in 2017, found that that the move had not been supported by an assessment of the expected benefits, costs and risks.
It said that as of July this year the provider still had around 25,600 open cases and did not expect to reach its targets for “developed vetting”, which allows cleared individuals access to more sensitive assets, until December this year. In addition to DV, the provider’s two other most common categories of vetting are counter-terrorist checks and security checks.
UKSV is the successor body to the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Business Services National Security Vetting and Foreign and Commonwealth Services National Security Vetting, a trading fund of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was created following recommendations in 2015’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.
The NAO said that the Cabinet Office had promoted the MoD model because it believed the department had the capability to run the single-provider service, could readily scale the capacity, and that its protected budget would assure funding for vetting.
However, it said that even before UKSV went live, its programme board repeatedly rated risks associated with the merger of the previous two main providers of vetting services as “high”.
The NAO said backlogs “increased continuously” for the first eight months of the service, and that the Government Security Board had agreed to temporary changes to processes in relation to open DV cases in an attempt to reduce growing numbers. Those measures included postponing some renewals and allowing some interviews to be conducted over the phone rather than in person.
The NAO said an IT upgrade intended to create a single system to process applications had been responsible for a rise in the number of unprocessed cases. It said staff had been forced to re-process failed checks manually and conduct additional assurance checks when some 8,500 files with personal data proved to be digitally unreadable. Added to that, it said that 93% of automated checks involving the police national computer had failed.
According to the NAO, the UKSV had 2017-18 staff costs of £19m, an increase off 17% on the combined staff costs of its predecessor bodies in 2014-15. It said that despite determining that it needed 595 full-time staff, the provider had never had more 507 and was reliant on overtime, agency staff and contracting retired former staff to fill vacant posts.
The NAO said the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for vetting policy, had recently estimated that delays to vetting have caused inefficiencies costing £17m a year.
NAO head Amyas Morse said the UKSV’s predicament was not helpful to Whitehall or ministers.
“Considering the pressures facing government, the last thing we need is a non-functioning vetting system,” he said. “An effective system needs to be put in place urgently to ensure the government is able to use its staff effectively, giving them access to the right information, locations and equipment.”
Meg Hillier, who chairs parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said UKVA’s performance was not good enough.
“Despite spending more on staff than its two previous organisations combined, UKSV has amassed an enormous backlog,” she said. “UKSV needs to get its act together quickly, especially as the threats faced by the UK continue to increase.”
A government spokeswoman said national security was ministers’ highest priority and at no point had it been compromised by the new vetting service.
“We have already taken steps to address short-term challenges in its introduction, and the NAO has acknowledged timescales are improving and targets are being met,” she said.
“We will continue efforts to ensure the successful delivery of the reformed service, prioritising the vetting of critical roles as necessary.”
The spokeswoman added that measures put in place to address delays had included the introduction of a “fast-track” scheme for Brexit-related applications and the prioritisation of critical role.