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UK taking ‘cavalier attitude’ to security clearance

Written on November 29, 2011

Basic practices such as vetting are as important to security as the armed forces but the UK government is not taking it seriously enough, argues think-tank director

The delivery of national security is one of the core tasks of government and, as any public servant knows, national security is not just about high policy and grand strategy but also the nuts and bolts of routine security practice. One of the most critical but neglected aspects of it is the provision of security clearance, or vetting, to those with access to sensitive or secret matters of state. Vetting keeps the wrong people out, but lets the right people in.

Anyone examining the attitude of the current British government to these nuts and bolts issues is likely to get a shock. This isn’t just because of the outrageous way Oliver Letwin and Vince Cable chose to dispose of their official papers, though a civil servant who followed their example could rightly expect to be sacked. No, it goes much deeper and further than this. The Fox-Werrity affair – like the Coulson affair which preceded it – illustrates more critically the damage that is done to good governance by cavalier attitudes towards security in general and vetting in particular. It is striking that this administration, unlike Tony Blair’s, refuses to insist that political advisors should be security cleared. Had it done so, neither Weritty nor Coulson would have got anywhere near Downing Street or the Ministry of Defence.

In fact, good security clearance is as much about inclusion as exclusion. Increasingly, vital government tasks are being executed by security cleared freelancing contractors. This is partly because freelancers possess specific expertise needed for particular projects, often involving national security issues and advanced IT skills and because government cuts mean that by 2015 some 500,000 public sector posts will disappear. However, posts may go but the work itself remains and it will be private contractors who fill the gaps. From the government’s point of view the use of freelancers is beneficial, too, because it can increase competition and drive down costs.

In consequence, it might be supposed that the government would be flexing every sinew in an attempt to encourage freelancers to enter the market place. Actually, as research undertaken for PCG, the freelancer’s organisation, and just published by Professor Anthony Glees and Dr Julian Richards,of Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies shows the precise reverse is the case.

It is obvious that freelancers doing sensitive work must have the same security clearance as permanent employees working in the same field. Some 250,000 individuals are vetted each year by either the Defence Vetting Agency or the Foreign Office Services. But full vetting is not merely expensive but it must, of course, be renewed at intervals. The government stipulates for this reason that no freelancer should be deterred from applying for a post because they do not have a current clearance. Instead, the vetting will take place once the job is theirs. Indeed, they need the job in order to get the vetting not least because the government must retain ownership of the vetting process.

To speed things, initial vetting is now done by a new computer system imaginatively code-named Cerberus after the hound from hell who kept the dead in Hades and the living on earth. Freelancers are perfectly happy with this principle because no one understands the importance of clearances more than they do – because they know exactly what it is their work entails.

Yet large numbers of them now discover that when they apply for jobs requiring clearances they are told that unless they possess existing clearances they will not be considered. 75 per cent of PCG members regularly apply for posts requiring vetting and 65 per cent of them do not have an existing clearance. Yet almost half of them, 46 per cent, received an outright rejection – of which 25 per cent were issued within 24 hours. While there may be several reasons for being rejected for any job, our research suggests to us that recruitment agencies are using the possession of a clearance as a filter to exclude half the applicants from the market place for their work.

This is both in direct contravention of government regulations but is also in itself a breach of security guidelines which stipulate that those with clearances must not disclose this fact to potential employers. To add insult to injury, Cerberus has not been working properly; it is slow, not fast and a huge backlog of cases is now likely to impact on the provision of clearances for the Olympics in 2012 much to the anguish of MI5, one assumes.

Applicants can win a contract only if they have a clearance but they can only get clearance if they win a contract – a classic Catch-22 situation. It is the Cabinet Office, Nick Clegg and Francis Maude who have the duty to resolve this issue. It has to be said our research has not fallen on deaf ears and there are now clear signs that officials understand there is no point in having regulations and not enforcing them. Our proposal for a security clearance forum may be realised which will bring together all interested parties to thrash out best practice and issue kite marks for those contractors who practice it. But now is not a good time to regard security clearances as a joke. Security relies as much on basic practice as on our armed forces or secret agencies.

Thanks to Professor Anthony Glees for this article