VSJ – June 2004 – Sounding Board

Peter Davey, MIAP has encountered some problems in tendering for security-sensitive contracts. Here’s his story.

There is a ‘Chicken and Egg’ situation for companies tendering for contracts where the workers need to be cleared for security. When a position requires clearance, the ‘employer’ must sponsor a potential worker for vetting by the Security Agency for that position only. A move to any other position requires re-vetting. This takes time and money, and it is not surprising that a person who has already been vetted can generally be re-vetted for a different contract more quickly than one who has not been previously cleared. There is also a  ‘sell-by’ date on clearances – after a twelve month lapse, you will require fresh vetting rather than a re-vet. That is why, after over twenty years in the forces, and having handled material up to Top Secret (don’t ask – obviously), I am still not considered to have clearance.

Contracts are supposed to be let on a level playing field, but a client who needs a contractor quickly can be under great pressure to find someone who has current clearance to save time. This works against those who are not cleared. How do you get cleared? You win a contract in a ‘Security Cleared’ position. How do you win the contract? You need current clearance. Recent events have shown how necessary security clearance is in some areas and the work of the vetting agency cannot be skimped. But the current situation allows those at the top of the ladder to pull it up behind them leaving others who may be better qualified out in the cold. Over time, this will diminish the pool of available workers. It hardly needs to be said that it is also unfair.

The Defence Vetting Agency (DVA) is well aware of the problem and tries hard to educate those on the hiring side. The Deputy Chief Executive takes the position that discrimination on the basis of whether a contractor has current clearance is unacceptable and probably illegal. Look on Jobserve, and you will see requests for people ‘willing to be cleared’ – a visible change over a couple of years ago when you would have seen ‘must have current clearance’. But try applying for any of these positions and it will rapidly become plain that nothing has really changed. Once the client finds out that you have no current clearance, the line goes dead. There’s not even any need for the agent/client to say why – there are a thousand excuses and how many agencies even bother to get back to you when the answer is no?

I haven’t found the solution to this conundrum, but I have three suggestions:

  1. When trying for one of these contracts, keep correspondence. Unless asked straight out about previous vetting dates, etc., use a non-committal phrase about security; I generally say something like, ‘Clearance should be no problem at all – I’m already in touch with DVA about it.’ Quite true but, I confess, deliberately misleading. Also, ask the agent/client to forward a Security Questionnaire (SQ) to you ASAP. Until this is completed (re-) vetting cannot start. If you do obtain clear evidence that you have lost a contract just because of lack of current clearance (it’s only happened to me once) pass the details on to the Vetting Agency. Bear in mind that some agents will try hard for you and fail. The end client will also have his reasons, so try to understand.
  2. I have suggested to DVA (and I don’t think it was a new idea to them) that a form of provisional vetting could be introduced. Contractors chasing security cleared contracts would pay a fee (this would be unlikely to cover the full cost) for initial vetting, so that on the award of a contract they would be able to get the required re-vetting in the same accelerated time as those already in cleared positions.
  3. I understand from DVA that initial clearances now take very little more time that re-vets. Is it possible that, to educate their end-users, DVA might be willing to delay re-vets for an artificial couple of days so that the difference disappears? I can see a number of objections to this suggestion but, like positive discrimination, it might be an idea that has its day.

Maybe we in the IAP can work together with vetting agencies, potential clients and government to level out the bumps in this playing field.

A significant number of IAP members have extensive Forces experience and may be suffering similar problems. We’d like to know your experience because it informs our response to government in all its forms. You can contact Peter at psvdavey@lineone.net.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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