Security clearance levels in the UK: explained

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Contractors working in certain government departments and working with, or having access to, sensitive or classified information are required to be security cleared, writes Andy Chamberlian, director of policy at The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE).

When is security clearance required?

This requirement is often specified for engagements within the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), but also other government departments where contractors -- working on IT systems for example -- could have access to sensitive information.

Vetting, delays, and actually obtaining SC

Since 2020, the UK’s Security Vetting Process (UKSV) has been carried out by the Cabinet Office rather than the MoD. Unfortunately, an increase in demand for vetting and a slower than expected transition from the MoD has resulted in significant delays for contractors trying to obtain security clearance.

Here, exclusively for Free-Work, I’m going to outline what freelancers and contractors need to be aware of when considering or applying for an engagement that requires security clearance.

How does security clearance work?

To obtain security clearance you must go through the national security vetting process.

This involves a series of background checks that determine a person’s identity, reliability and integrity and ultimately, their suitability for the sensitive nature of the engagement.

The depth of these background checks varies depending on the security clearance level and amount of exposure to sensitive information which the engagement entails.

What if security clearance lapses, or expires?

Where a security clearance expires, the contractor must begin the process of re-applying for that clearance. However, you will need a sponsor to confirm that the role requires security clearance. In order to gain clearance, you will need to use the National Security’s Vetting Solution (NSVS) portal.

There are seven levels of national security clearance that contractors need to be aware of:

1.     Baseline Personnel Security Standard (BPSS) – The BPSS is a screening of all individuals with access to government assets, but it’s not considered a formal security clearance. Instead, this type of screening is simply seeking to make sure that you are entitled to work in the UK and that you share the values and integrity needed for government-related work.

You will be asked to provide employment history, identification and right to work status and have a clean criminal record.

2.     Accreditation Check (AC) – AC clearance is used in aviation security for individuals with access to the security restricted area of UK airports and is typically valid for up to five years.

You will be asked to provide all of the information required for the BPSS (above), plus you will also have to complete a check against records held by the UK government or its agencies.

3.     Counter Terrorist Check (CTC) – CTC clearance is for all individuals deemed to be in close proximity to public figures, or for work in areas unescorted that are assessed to be at particular risk of a terrorist attack, or for work with information that could be of value to terrorists.

Also referred to as ‘Level 1B’, CTC clearance must be formally reviewed after five years for contractors. But be aware, some government departments have a policy of issuing shorter clearances for their temporary workforce.

As the applicant/ candidate, you will be required to complete the BPSS clearance and then also complete a further security questionnaire, the answers to which will be scrutinised against security service records.

4.     Security Check (SC) – The SC clearance is required for individuals who have access to some secret assets and on occasion, supervised access to top secret assets.

This level of clearance must be formally reviewed after five years for contractors and, like CTC, may be issued for a shorter period by some departments.

You will be required to complete the BPSS clearance and then also complete a further security questionnaire, the answers to which will be scrutinised against security service records. A check of your credit and financial history will also be carried out.

5.     Enhanced Security Check (eSC) – This is used for specific engagements where an additional level of checks is required beyond the SC clearance.

At eSC level, you will be required to complete all the checks of the SC clearance and then also be required to attend an interview and be subject to a more rigorous financial check. This check will look at income and expenditure in detail.

6.     Developed Vetting (DV) – DV clearance is for individuals who have frequent and uncontrolled access to top secret assets or material.

You will be required to complete all the checks of the eSC clearance as well as completing a ‘DV security questionnaire.’

Finally, beware the Catch-22 of security clearance!

Contractors who don’t have clearance can unfortunately find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. They can only get clearance once they are offered a role which requires it, but very often they find that without a pre-existing clearance, they don’t get offered the role in the first place!

It shouldn’t be this way. Hirers are only supposed to ask about existing clearance after the candidate has been offered the role. Not only is this approach in line with the government’s agreed code of practice, it also ensures the best talent can compete for contracts which require clearance.

Written by

Andy Chamberlain

Director of Policy at IPSE

Andy is Director of Policy at the Association of Independent Professionals and Self-Employed (IPSE), the representative body for the UK’s self-employed community, including freelancers, contractors, consultants and independent professionals. He is responsible for IPSE’s tax policy and has a special expertise in labour market changes, employment status and IR35.

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