Brief contents summary:
Security Clearance is granted as proof of an individual’s suitability to access sensitive and classified information without posing risk to national security. It is a protection measure and obtaining the SC status requires that an individual undergoes a vetting process. This process will differ depending on the level of clearance required for the particular role, with the higher levels of access requiring a highly rigorous vetting process. The process raises many questions which is why we have compiled this comprehensive guide to UK Security Clearance. If you are a looking into becoming DV-cleared, our free downloadable checklist at the end of this article provides you with a breakdown of all the personal information you need to have ready before you begin applying.
IT professionals who hold Security Clearance are in very high demand and tend to receive higher remuneration than their non-SC cleared counterparts. Holding an SC Clearance opens more doors for employment in the future because even if an individual applies for a job which in itself does not require Security Clearance, the fact that they hold one and have worked in a role which requires it is a strong selling point.
It is not up to any individual to decide that they want to obtain Security Clearance – it is decided by the employing organisation that then sponsors the candidate’s vetting process in order to clear them for that specific role.
A big reason for this is making sure that the process is controlled, transparent and uses government resources efficiently. A sponsor can verify that the applicant holds BPSS prior to commencing employment as well as verifying the need for a higher level of clearance. This streamlines a process that would otherwise turn into a bureaucratic nightmare with back-and-forth verifications, clarifications and a drain on government resources for all the ad-hoc applications.
Just as there is high demand for SC cleared candidates, there is also intense competition among non-SC cleared candidates to beat their competitors to a role which will sponsor them in obtaining Security Clearance. Once you get on the SC ladder it is much easier to progress and continue your career in SC jobs, but the first step is landing a job offer from a company which offers sponsorship. This creates a bit of a catch 22 – you need Security Clearance to get an SC job but you can’t apply for it yourself as you need a sponsor.
Once obtained, Security Clearance lasts for 5 years for contractors and 10 years for permanent candidates. If it is DV clearance that is held, that lasts for 7 years with a reinvestigation conducted after 5 years. If an individual decides to change jobs while their SC clearance still has time left on it, they are free to apply for other roles which require SC clearance. At this point they will not need to undergo the vetting process; they will be able to begin the work immediately. This is especially useful for contract roles which often require people to start as soon as possible due to the critical nature of the job which needs completing.
Security Clearance in the UK is divided into four levels.
Baseline Personnel Security Standard is the first and most basic mandatory check for anyone who has access to Government assets. BPSS does not grant individuals access to classified information but an employee cannot progress to the higher levels of clearance without BPSS being in place. The BPSS comprises of identity checks – ID confirmation and right to work, employment checks for the last 3 years and a basic disclosure criminal record check.
Counter-Terrorism Check or CTC is used to check whether individuals have connections to terrorist organisations and examining the level to which they are vulnerable to pressure from such groups. This is checked on a personal level as well as professional. This clearance is required for anyone who has access to material that may be targeted by terrorist groups, anyone who works in close proximity to public figures and anyone who has unrestricted access to certain establishments.
Security Check or SC is the most common type of security clearance. It is conducted for candidates that are entering jobs which would give them access to secret, and occasionally, top-secret government assets. This check includes going through MI5 records, doing credit checks, checking reports from previous employers and potentially a face-to-face interview. The candidate needs to have been a resident in the UK for at least 5 years. SC is transferable between different Government departments and it covers a variety of jobs.
Obtaining SC includes the following steps:
Developed Vetting or DV is the highest level of security clearance available in the UK and therefore requires the most rigorous process. This is mandatory for individuals with frequent or unrestricted access to Top Secret files, as well as for those who by the nature of their job have the potential to cause a similar amount of devastation and damage by means other than exposing Top Secret files.
This process requires the applicant to volunteer a large amount of personal information as it is of utmost importance that a full picture of the individual is painted in order to guarantee reliability and establish confidence. However, it is not an interrogation and should not feel like one. If the applicant would find such a process unacceptably intrusive it might be worth reconsidering applying for DV clearance, as there is no way to avoid it.
Here are some of the main topics that tend to get covered in the interview:
While the process is rigorous and highly detailed, the eligibility criteria are fairly widely encompassing. At a basic level, the applicant needs to have been a resident in the UK for at least 10 consecutive years. For some roles, especially national intelligence ones, individuals must be British Citizens to apply. While the vetting process includes examining the applicant’s criminal record, financial situation and things like a history of substance abuse; this should not be a problem for most professionals. And in some cases, Security Clearance can be granted to individuals despite having a criminal conviction, although this is not standard practice and should not be something an individual with an obviously questionable history relies on.
The MI5 clearly states that:
“Vetting officers are not employed to make moral judgements – they expect that people will have had varied life experiences and they will take a realistic view of modern life and its pressures. They are aware that life can be complicated and any difficulties that you have experienced will be carefully considered.”
The vetting process is conducted by highly experienced vetting officers who examine each application on a case-by-case basis, so individuals can be confident that their application process will be conducted with utmost care and attention.
It’s all about honesty
One of the most important things in the application process is honesty. As tempting as it might be to embellish some things and ‘forget’ others in hopes of improving one’s chances of passing, we would (alongside all the government bodies that conduct Security Clearance checks) strongly caution against that. The whole point of acquiring Security Clearance is receiving a stamp of approval of one’s integrity and trustworthiness to handle sensitive information with caution and care. Approaching a process which seeks to establish an individual’s integrity with a lack of integrity will only work against the applicant. The background checks, especially for the higher levels of clearance, are incredibly detailed and things a person might try to hide can surface during the investigation and thus ruin the applicant’s chances of ever seeing ‘SC cleared’ as a badge next to their name.
United Kingdom Security Vetting (USKV) take privacy and confidentiality very seriously – not just their own but also that of the applicants.
They abide by the Data Protection Act 1998 and ensure that personal data is kept in a lawful manner; that it remains accurate, up to date and used for no other purpose apart from national security vetting. Each questionnaire that is to be completed as part of the vetting process clearly outlines how the data provided will be used.
Vetting records are normally kept by the UKSV for the duration of the individual’s working life. The privacy and security standards are upheld throughout, regardless of whether the individual holds a ‘live’ security clearance and regardless of how sensitive or not the data might be.
Any personal information collected is handled with extremely strict confidence. Only if serious risks are identified – and this is an incredibly small number of cases – would the case be discussed with relevant security authorities. In a few cases, some information might be shared with line management with the goal of managing risk. In these scenarios, the applicant’s permission will always be asked for prior to doing this.
If you’re worried about the ‘Catch 22’ we mentioned earlier and are now wondering how in the world anyone gets into their first SC cleared job – there are some proven ways of getting your foot in the door.
It might seem like going for a contract SC role is the best way because you can get cleared, stay for a few months and then take your SC to the job you actually want. And yet in reality, the most successful way to go about building a Security Cleared career is by starting out in a permanent SC role.
The problem with looking for a contract SC role as your way of obtaining Security Clearance is that it’s nearly impossible to find an employer who will have the time to wait until all the checks go through. Contract roles are short-term and often urgent. The time-critical element of the roles means that the organisations are mostly looking for individuals who already hold a live clearance and can begin work right away. To delay the necessary work by weeks or even months, in the case of SC and DV clearances, is impossible.
It is not so with permanent roles. Due to the nature of these roles, there is an inherent delay period between the application and subsequent job offer and the start date of the role, regardless of whether the role requires SC or not. Individuals have notice periods, companies have budget restrictions and there are many more variables in between that all affect the start date. Organisations looking for permanent SC candidates are far more likely to be willing to wait for them to undergo clearance, and if the applicant is a strong candidate with the right background and experience, they are keen to get the SC stamp on that individual in order to benefit from their expertise.
Despite the process of applying for the higher level clearance being laborious, Security Cleared work is of great value and holds great potential for strong job satisfaction. There is excitement in having access to ‘Top Secret’ material, and having the SC badge is something that many are proud of both professionally and personally – their life and work have held up to very high standards of integrity.
Here at Certes, we work with many public sector organisations and their suppliers who look for candidates with Security Clearance. If you are interested in taking the plunge, explore the jobs we are currently recruiting for and feel free to get in touch with us for advice.
Follow the link to download your FREE Developed Vetting preparation checklist. It outlines all the documents and personal information you will need for your application - our recommendation is to get this ready before you begin.
May 29th 2018Our comprehensive guide to UK security clearance and free DV checklist
Find out more about the types of security clearance in the UK, how you can apply and where to look for your first security cleared job.
May 1st 2018The differences between artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning
We talk about the social, moral and political issues surrounding Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Deep Learning, but often we're not entirely sure what these terms mean.