‘Discrimination against gay people still a problem in UK civil service’ – says top official

By on 06/11/2015 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Richard Heaton is permanent secretary at the UK's Ministry of Justice

People who are lesbian, gay, bi or transgender still experience discrimination in the British civil service – despite significant progress made over the last three decades, one of its most senior members has said.

Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, was speaking at an event this week organised by London-based think-tank the Institute for Government discussing gender diversity.

Asked by Global Government Forum how easy it is for members of the LGBT community to move to the top of the civil service if they’re open about their sexuality, Heaton, who is openly gay, said: “I wouldn’t want to give the impression that we in the civil service have cracked the issue of discrimination in the LGBT field.

“I think it’s much much better than it was, but I think there are plenty of areas where, if you’re transgendered you’re probably encouraged to keep pretty quiet about it, or there’s implicit discrimination going on.

“If you’re working at a job centre and you’re an openly gay man you’ll probably get comments like: ‘You’re too gay’, so there’s plenty of stuff that I don’t think we’ve cracked.”

He added that progress in this area over the last 30 years “has been fantastically rewarding and positive.”

Heaton himself came face to face with rules putting gay people at a disadvantage 25 years ago.

In 1990, Heaton – a lawyer by trade, wanted to join the Foreign Office, but decided not to do so when he found out that an openly gay man would fail the security clearance, because homosexuality was viewed as a character defect and a blackmail threat.

Writing in role models – inspiring LGB people in the civil service, put together last year by the Civil Service Rainbow Alliance (CSRA) – the cross-government organisation for lesbian, gay and bisexual civil servants, Heaton described the experience as “a hell of a jolt.”

A few months later, he applied to the Home Office, which, he wrote, was “thought to be more relaxed” and got the job. “I’m glad I did,” he said, “and I’ve enjoyed every year of my civil service career since then.”

Just a year later, in 1991, the ban on clearance of homosexuals in the Foreign Office and the intelligence services was lifted in what John Major described as “the light of changing social attitudes”.

Heaton said that when reflecting “on that setback in 1990”, he realises “how far we’ve come since then: civil servants parade together on the pride march; gay rights have massively moved on at Westminster.”

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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