Security clearance guide for IT contractors

Over the past few years, we have highlighted the problems many contractors have when applying for roles which require applicants to hold ‘security clearance’.

In this guide, we look at why this is required, and how to obtain clearance.

Many Government contract roles require contractors to have security clearance before they can start work.

Such clearance is required as contractors may have access to sensitive or classified information.

The more sensitive a role is deemed to be, the more rigorous the initial checking process will be before clearance is given.

These checks are carried out by the Defence Business Services National Security Vetting (DBS NSV), which processes around 150,000 National Security Vetting (NSV) checks each year. The agency used to be known simply as the Defence Vetting Agency until 2011.

Inevitably, some checks take many weeks to complete, and therefore contractors who already possess unexpired security clearance clearly have a competitive advantage over other applicants.

Officially, there should not be an advantage, but many agencies still ask for current security clearance for a number of roles.

However, recruitment agents would say that there is a risk of putting forward non-cleared contractors to some roles, as they may have to wait several months before clearance is given – and if they don’t pass the checks, the agency would be forced to start the recruitment process again.

Security clearance levels

There are several levels of security clearance, as defined by the DBS NSV. The type of clearance required will clearly vary depending on the deemed ‘sensitivity’ of the contract role in question:

Basic checks (BC) – Initial basic checks to confirm a person’s identity.

Security check (SC) – for people employed in posts which have substantial access to ‘secret’ assets or occasional controlled access to ‘top secret’ information.

Developed vetting (DV) – needed for people with substantial unsupervised access to ‘top secret’ information.

Counter-terrorist check (CTC) – for people employed in posts with proximity to public figures, access to information or material assessed to be of value to terrorists or unescorted access to establishments assessed to be at risk from terrorist attack.

Do contractors need to have security clearance before applying to MOD contracts?

The official answer is “no”:

“The MoD contracting procedures make sure that there is no competitive advantage in having prior security clearances.”

Tellingly, the MoD states that it is aware that many commercial organisations (recruitment agencies and alike) advertise for contractors with existing security clearance, but it says that this practice is neither necessary nor desirable.

How to get security clearance?

The only way to get clearance is via a ‘sponsor’. Only individuals or companies who are contracted to work on specific MoD classified sites can act as your sponsor.

All applicants will have to complete one or more security questionnaires which will provide personal information to enable further checks to be carried out. Again, the depth of checks varies according to the level of access to sensitive information that the contract entails.

You can read the MoD’s thorough guide to how the vetting process works here.

What is the point of security clearance?

According to the MoD, “A security clearance provides a certain level of assurance at a point in time, as to an individual’s suitability to have trusted access to sensitive information.”

As you would expect, security clearances are constantly reviewed, and a contractor’s current clearance level is no guarantee of his future suitability to work on a classified project. If your security clearance expires, you will need to go through the process again.

The length of time you can expect to wait to be cleared once the process has begun depends on the type of check you will undergo. A basic check (BC) may take just a couple of weeks, but more complex checks such as the Security Check (SC) or Developed Vetting (DV) can take many weeks and months to complete.

Problems with security clearance

For many years, many contractors have viewed security cleared contracts as a ‘closed shop’, where you cannot get security clearance unless you are offered a classified Government contract, but you cannot gain the contract in the first place unless you have been security cleared.

The PCG has also campaigned to withdraw this competitive advantage over the past decade. The Cabinet Office even produced renewed guidance on how such roles should be advertised in April 2013.

However, despite such moves, many agencies still advertise contract roles which state ‘must have SC level clearance’, or similar.

Just type ‘security clearance’ into a job board search engine if you need any proof.

Obviously, many non-cleared contractors are hired for security cleared roles, but all the evidence suggests that you shouldn’t be surprised if you encounter bias in favour of contractors who are currently cleared – especially for ‘urgent’, or short-term contracts.

Partner Contractor Accountants

Last updated: 16th June 2019