Backlog in UK vetting poses national security risks, say MPs

The Whitehall department responsible for security vetting has presided over a mounting backlog that poses risks for national security and the “functioning of government”, MPs warned on Friday.

The Cabinet Office, which coordinates the delivery of policy in concert with other departments, assumed responsibility for UK Security Vetting (UKSV) in April 2020, giving it control over access to government information, including top secret files.

The report comes at a time of growing public frustration with backlogs building up across many public institutions from the NHS, the Passport Office, to the processing of asylum seekers.

It also coincides with increasing calls, including from within the ruling Conservative party, for the resignation of Simon Case, who leads the department, after a tumultuous period for the civil service.

The cross-party parliamentary public accounts committee, which scrutinises government spending, said the Cabinet Office had proved an impediment to reform at the UKSV.

It concluded that the department was “creating a risk environment many users across government are uncomfortable with”.

The committee also said it was concerned with “complacency” over renewing clearance for officials already in post, and that the UKSV had been understaffed since inception in 2017.

“The Cabinet Office appears deaf to the discomfort that staff across government have with the level of risk being created by its failure to get a grip on our national security vetting services,” Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said.

The report said the UKSV had failed to meet key targets since July 2021 for the most stringent levels of security vetting required when individuals have frequent and uncontrolled access to top secret assets.

It had also missed targets for lower level clearances in 30 out of the past 60 months, the report found, and noted that the backlog was still growing.

“The Cabinet Office . . . seems content to repeatedly extend DV [developed vetting, the highest security clearance in the UK] renewals as a means of managing demand, despite the increased risk associated,” the report said.

 Many departments across government that rely on the process were “uncomfortable” about the potential consequences, it added.

“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,” Hillier said.

The report recommended that the department sets out how the backlogs will be cleared, when UKSV will meet its targets and what changes it will make to working practices to avoid future delays.

The Cabinet Office said turnround times for the highest level of clearance had more than halved from April 2022 to April 2023, adding that it was continuing to reform and improve vetting processes.

“This has already resulted in over 200,000 security checks being successfully completed in the last year with the highest annual level of DV clearances since UKSV was created in 2017.”

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