The Whitehall department responsible for security vetting has presided over a growing backlog that poses risks to national security and “the functioning of government”, MPs warned on Friday.
The Cabinet Office, which co-ordinates policy delivery with other departments, took over 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 when people are growing frustrated with backlogs at many public institutions, from the NHS, passport offices to processing asylum seekers.
It also coincides with growing calls 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 scrutinizes government spending, said the Cabinet Office had proved an obstacle to reforming the UKSV.
It concluded that the department was “creating a dangerous environment that many government users are uncomfortable with”.
The committee also said it was “concerned with the complacency” of renewing clearances for officers already in post and that the UKSV was understaffed from the outset in 2017.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said, “The Cabinet Office is deafened by the level of risk that its failure to get a grip on our national security vetting services poses to employees across government.
The report said the UKSV had failed to meet key targets for the strictest level of security vetting from July 2021, when individuals have frequent and uncontrolled access to top secret assets.
It also missed targets for low-level approvals in 30 of the past 60 months, the report found, and noted that the backlog was still growing.
“The Cabinet Office . . . is content to extend DV frequently [developed vetting, the highest security clearance in the UK] “Renewals as a tool to manage demand, despite being associated with increased risk,” the report said.
Many government departments that rely on the process were “uneasy” about the possible consequences, it added.
“All this is totally unacceptable. We expect the Cabinet Office to immediately move forward with productive change in response to this report,” Hillier said.
The report recommends that the department determine how the backlog will be cleared, when UKSV will meet its targets and what changes it will make to working methods to avoid future delays.
The Cabinet Office said the turnaround time for the highest level of clearance has been more than halved from April 2022 to April 2023, adding that it continues to revise and improve verification processes.
“This has resulted in over 200,000 security checks being successfully completed in the last year with the highest level of DV clearances since the UKSV was formed in 2017.”