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Interview: Head of Civil Service on the ‘blackmailability’ of gay spies

Anastasia Kyriacou October 15, 2014
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PinkNews Exclusive
The Head of the Civil Service, Jeremy Heywood has spoken to PinkNews about the potential barriers of blackmail that LGBT employees may still face, while LGBT diversity champion Sue Owen commented on the “pockets of homophobia” and the hole in data on LGBT staff.

At the Civil Service’s Diversity and Equality awards on Friday, PinkNews spoke to Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, Jeremy Heywood as well as LGBT diversity champion Sue Owen about the challenges LGBT individuals face within the civil service.

The British Civil Service prides itself as one that seeks to be the best in the world and with 430,000 staff nationwide, it is “one of the best employers in the country”, according to Heywood. It is this which he says means that the civil service “must encourage people from all walks of life whatever their sexuality, race or religious leanings.”

“We can’t afford to exclude or unconsciously under-promote a major group in society”. – Jeremy Heywood

Heywood revealed that perhaps the most difficult sector to be LGBT is within the security agencies. He said that twenty years ago “being gay was probably one of those things where you were really worried that that would be blackmailable, because it wasn’t public and therefore you put yourselves in a compromising position.

“That’s all changed. But if there are one or two people who are
still feeling that it’s difficult to come out in the office and therefore potentially there is a blackmailable risk, then there is an issue. So that’s why we’ve got to create a culture in which everybody can express themselves properly and that’s what we are committed to.”

A recent survey on behalf of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for the first time analysed sexuality alongside occupation. The study revealed that 1.6.% of adults in Britain identify as being LGBT, and middle class professionals are 57% more likely to be open about their sexuality than their working class counterparts.

Head of policy at Stonewall, James Taylor said that: “the ONS survey still fails to represent the full picture of modern Britain, it clearly demonstrates that there are many workplaces where lesbian, gay and bisexual people don’t feel able to be themselves”.

Heywood believes that Stonewall has provided the accolade that the Civil Service recruits inclusively, but according to Sue Owen there is limited disclosure of civil servants sexuality, such as in one department where only 8% of employees even fill out the form.

Owen stressed that the biggest challenge to LGBT inclusivity is this sheer lack of data. She said:

“It would be naïve to assume that among a workforce of more than 400,000 there were not at least some who, consciously or unconsciously, treat others – both colleagues and customers – differently because of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality.

“One big issue we need to sort is the wide variation in rates of declaration for sexual orientation across departments – which range from 8% to 99%. We simply cannot tell at the moment if, for example, LGB&T staff are performing disproportionately well or poorly.”

Unlike for other minority groups such as disabled, BME and women, Heywood asserted the fact the Civil Service is yet to do an “exhaustive piece of research” based on LGBT staff. He said:

“I don’t think we have many issues with LGBT staff, but we aren’t complacent and in the last few days we’ve commissioned a specific report to look into that.

“We’re going to ask our staff and really test ourselves – could there be things getting in the way? Could there be some unconscious bias? Could there be specific issues? Are we advertising in the right places? What does it feel like to be an LGBT employee? Is there prejudice? Is there any concern at all in that community?

“I don’t believe there is actually and I don’t think this is an issue but we’re very, very keen to get to the bottom of what our all our staff think.” he added.

Sue Owen contrarily provided insight on the “pockets of homophobia” that exists across the country. When she holds LGBT diversity events departments have refused to pay for train tickets or allow gay employees the time off to attend, for instance.

The Civil Service chief acknowledged the problem of hidden issues such as those who feel unable to be open about their sexuality in the workplace due to fear of discrimination. To combat this, he said:

“We’re going to have to set up a safe space where people can make that sort of comment and if that comes through as a major issue obviously we’ll want to do something with it. All I can say is from the top of the civil service downwards we’ve got a real commitment to understand whether there is an issue here and if there is an issue, we’re going to sort it.”

He emphasised the importance of being open about your identity in the workplace: “I think having well-motivated and well-engaged staff is really important. If they’re feeling all the time that they can’t be who they are as people then that could be a problem.”

We asked Heywood what the Civil Service can do to change the public facing image of working there in order to make it a more approachable and viable career option for minority groups. He said:

“That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing this interview because I think it’s only by talking to specialist media – people who LGBT relate to, read, listen to in the media then maybe we can get some of the specific messages across.

“All I can say is that there is an absolute commitment on my part and my senior colleagues to make sure we run a diverse and equal and just civil service – not just for its own sake, although that is important, obviously it’s a moral issue but also I think it’s the best way of delivering a world class civil service.”

The new Talent Action Plan launched in September 2014 sets out how the Civil Service propose to “ensure that you can succeed in the Civil Service whoever you are” according to Sue Owen, by removing barriers for LGBT talent.

“The plan includes actions to require all managers to undertake Unconscious Bias learning and getting the most senior staff to support and mentor more junior employees, particularly talented individuals from underrepresented groups.” – Sue Owen

At the Civil Service Diversity and Equality awards, a trans prison project run by Sharon Drewell led to her winning the award for ‘Leading, Championing and Role Modelling’ for making a “massive difference” to transgender prisoners lives.

Related topics: civil service, Employment, Government, interview, Jeremy Heywood, MI5, ONS survey, Politics, Secret service, Stonewall, Sue Owen

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