LGBT People: Diplomatic Service - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:25 am on 18 January 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Labour 11:25, 18 January 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the apology on 5 July 2021 by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for the historic ban on LGBT people serving in the Diplomatic Service, whether they will take steps to ascertain how many staff were dismissed or forced to resign between 1967 and 1991 as a result of the ban; and whether they have considered compensation similar to that proposed by Lord Etherton’s Independent Review into the service and experience of LGBT veterans who served prior to 2000, published in July 2023.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the FCDO has rightly apologised for the unjust ban on LGBT+ officers serving in the Diplomatic Service prior to 1991. The department is also actively monitoring the outcomes of the Etherton report, its effectiveness and the lessons learned, which could be learned for our organisation. I know the noble Baroness’s interest in this. I will follow up with her directly as we make progress in this respect.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Labour

I thank the Minister for that. Many years ago, my former colleague, the rather brilliant Gareth Williams, was a high-flying diplomat, but he was dismissed from the service the very moment he revealed that he was gay—no future, no career, no apology, no debate, and a great loss to the country, which therefore could not use the services of this very talented man. The Minister took action on this after I and my noble friend Lord Collins raised it with him, and we got the very welcome apology to which he referred. The problem is that that was not sent to my friend Gareth Williams nor, of course, to all the other people who were dismissed from the Foreign Office, and there has been no attempt to identify who was dismissed so that they can have the apology before anything else. Could we maybe look through the records and see who else lost their job, and at least make them aware of the apology for the ban on LGBT people working in the Diplomatic Service?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Of course. That is a very pragmatic and practical suggestion, which we will take forward. I assure the noble Baroness that we are doing exactly that and working with the sensitivity that is required. The noble Baroness would have noticed my Written Ministerial Statement issued at the start of this month on issues of accreditation, as part of modernising the FCDO for the diversity of our workforce today, for the kind of diverse families that are now involved with and rightly celebrated within the FCDO.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I know that the MoD found the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, immensely helpful. We were indebted to him for his excellent independent review. I have also had the privilege of working closely with my noble friend the Minister on a number of issues. This is complex and sensitive. I suggest that it would be a useful collaboration for the two departments to consider how they might work together and share experience.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Over many years, if I have learned one thing it is to listen to my noble friend very closely. Of course we will take that forward, but I assure her that, notwithstanding her departure from the Ministry of Defence, we continue to work very closely across the two departments.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, it is still extraordinary to think that this ban had ever been in place in the first place. The current situation is that many LGBT staff for the FCDO work in very complex and, indeed, hostile environments in their postings, regrettably all too many of which are in Commonwealth countries. Will the Minister agree that there had perhaps been a practice within the FCDO to suggest that LGBT staff should not apply to these postings—indeed, that would potentially cause complications with visa applications and housing support—but that there has been a very welcome cultural shift within the FCDO to ensure that postings facilitate LGBT staff to work in complex environments and then support them? I hope the Minister will agree that this is a long overdue but very welcome cultural shift. Does he agree that this is important for locally recruited staff in those countries as well?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I agree with the noble Lord, and I assure him that, certainly in my time at the Foreign Office as a joint Minister and at the FCDO, we have made great strides forward. I recognise the importance of the recent announcement we have made, both to facilitate and to demonstrate directly that this is a modern department, dealing with complex issues in the world but, equally, we are proud of all our diplomatic staff.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Non-affiliated

My Lords, I welcome this Question, which deals with an issue that some of us in this House have been working on for decades. Indeed, I was privileged to work with the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, on widening this issue into the Armed Forces. It is always good to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box on this issue. May I suggest that he encourage the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, to look at his report to see how it could be widened to deal with the diplomatic and intelligence services? Perhaps he could look at the Canadian model: the Canadian Government have considered equality of treatment for those in service to the Government, and I believe that serves as an excellent model.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord for his work in this area, and to that of my noble friend Lord Lexden, too, for what has been done in this place. I also acknowledge the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on the Opposition Front Bench, because we have worked closely on this issue. Of course I will take the suggestion forward in working with other key partners. I have gone through the recommendations of the report, and I know that the MoD has already implemented just about half of them. I think the MoD is looking very much at, and is seized on, recommending the important financial reward element, which has been acknowledged as a principle. Of course, in the two departments we will want to see what can be learnt from that. There are different ways of working, and I am sure there are crossovers, which are being looked at actively as I speak.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector), Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a distinct difference between the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO? Service records, and reasons for dismissal, were usually matters of public record, and known to friends and family. That is not always the case with employment in the FCDO and the intelligence services. Does he agree that there is, therefore, an increased onus on the department to actively seek out people who may have been victims of this policy, to ensure that they are aware of remedies and apologies to which they may be entitled.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I note what the noble Baroness has said. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, also pointed out, it is important that we are proactive, but also sensitive, in our approach. I assure the noble Baroness that that is exactly the approach of the FCDO, led by the permanent under-secretary in this respect.

Photo of Lord Herbert of South Downs Lord Herbert of South Downs Conservative

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register as chair of the Global Equality Caucus, and the Prime Minister’s special envoy on LGBT rights. The fact that people can now serve openly, regardless of their sexual orientation, throughout the Diplomatic Service, including at senior rank, with a number of such ambassadors representing our country, is obviously an immensely important step forward. Nevertheless, are there not still a number of countries where it would be very difficult for members of our Diplomatic Service to be open about their sexual orientation, particularly at senior level? That is a sign of the polarised world in which we increasingly find ourselves. Will my noble friend assure me that the Government will continue to take all possible steps to promote LGBT+ rights wherever possible, and particularly to take action in countries where those rights are being reversed?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Again, I acknowledge my noble friend’s important work as the special envoy for LGBT+ rights on behalf of the FCDO. I very much welcomed his direct participation. He rightly raises the issue of countries around the world. There are about 65 such countries—he alluded to this—31 of which are in the Commonwealth. We have taken a practical approach. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, will remember that during the premiership of my right honourable friend Theresa May we took specific steps on allocating finance, and then worked quite sensitively on, for example, legislative reform, to see how progress could be made. That focus continues.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I deeply appreciate what the noble Lord has done, particularly when we first raised this issue. One of the things that his department can do, and has been doing, is raising awareness through active civil society and supporting civil society, in the conditions that our diplomats face. I know that, certainly in Balkan countries, our ambassadors have been proactive in inviting civil society in to ensure that they are defended and can be vibrant. Can he reassure me that we will continue to do this work, and work with the APPG to which the noble Lord has just referred?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. We work in very practical terms, through invitations to particular events. He will appreciate, I know, the sensitivity in certain countries, where even meeting visiting Ministers is a challenge for those civil society representatives. We often consciously do not publicise the meetings but work constructively with them and will continue to do so. The important issue here is that we see progress. There has been regression but, as my noble friend Lord Herbert also pointed out, we stand forth and represent the rights of all communities and all people everywhere—but do so in a way that brings practical progress in their rights.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, as a result of the superb review by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, compensation will be made available for LGBT veterans who suffered so severely the effects of injustice. Should not compensation also be considered in relation to these other loyal servants of the Crown whose happiness was destroyed and careers ruined as a result of similar injustice?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, acknowledging my noble friend’s work in this area, I recognise the point he has raised. He will know that I cannot make that commitment at this point, but I assure him that we are looking carefully at the noble and learned Lord’s recommendations for the crossover application and at what more can be done.