Director GCHQ's speech at Stonewall Workplace Conference - as delivered

Last Updated: 21 Jun 2016
Full transcript of Robert Hannigan's speech at the conference on 15 April 2016. He speaks about the journey GCHQ has made in improving diversity in its workforce, and what he sees as some of the challenges for the future.

Speech - 15 Apr 2016

As delivered' by Director GCHQ at the Stonewall Workplace Conference on 15 April 2016.

Good morning and thank you Ruth, and thank you for inviting me. As Ruth said, I run a secret intelligence agency called GCHQ. We work on counter terrorism, cyber-attacks, serious crime, and other threats to the UK and our citizens online. So I don't get out much. There's a reason I wanted this to be one of my few public appearances. I'll explain why. 

I want to do a couple of things in just a few minutes. First of all to talk about our journey at GCHQ, with the help of three stories from three members of staff - one from the 1940s, one from the 1960s, and one from today. 

And then I want to say very briefly, as someone who has been involved in and strongly attached to this agenda in different bits of the Civil Service for 15 years, I want to say explain why it matters to me, some of the challenges for the future, as well as some of the problems we're yet to face.  

First, GCHQ. Those of you who saw The Imitation Game, who are Benedict Cumberbatch fans, or who have read about Bletchley Park, our wartime code-breaking centre, will know that our most famous member of staff was Alan Turing. He's become famous for two reasons - one, his mathematical genius which led to the breaking of the German Enigma code and shortening the Second World War and all the lives that that saved, but also the creation of the world's first digital computer and everything that now flows from that, including the Internet. He's also famous for being gay, and sadly famous for his treatment; his conviction, prosecution and chemical castration at the hands of the criminal justice system, and his subsequent suicide in 1954. 

So much has been said and filmed about Turing that I won't add to it this morning. But in our building he is revered as a genius, as a problem-solver who was not afraid to think differently and radically - an example to others. And in the horrifying story of his treatment, a small ray of light is that he was not abandoned by all of his colleagues at GCHQ - many stood by him and our then Head of Cryptanalysis - chief code breaker - testified at his trial. And Joan Clarke - Keira Knightley in the film - who was engaged to Turing, stayed a friend of his for the rest of his life. And she worked with us until the late 1970s and stayed in touch with us during the 1980s and had a long, brilliant career as a cryptographer.

It was partly to honour Turing that we lit up our building to celebrate IDAHOBiT day last year. It was also kind of an act of atonement - for the lost opportunity of his early death. Who knows what Turing would have gone on to do, where, for example, he might have taken his pioneering interest in Artificial Intelligence, which is the the thing everyone is talking about. We will never know and should, as a society, never repeat that mistake.

And that loss is not just about Turing.

When we lit up the building I had a long and moving letter from a former member of staff, Ian, who served in the RAF and joined us in 1961. After seven years of exemplary service, with very strong prospects for the future, he was interrogated on suspicion of being homosexual, he was summarily dismissed and escorted out of the building. He got no support from anyone in authority at all, even his union, and no-one ever followed up to check on his well-being or to show any compassion. Not surprisingly, his health suffered and the psychological effects of that humiliation were long-lasting. While he eventually found other employment in another part of the Civil Service, he is surely right in believing that in career terms he never reached the potential expected of him - his prospects were cut short, curtailed because he was subject to what now seem completely archaic rules on sexuality. 

In his letter, Ian asked me if I would apologise publicly on behalf of GCHQ - not in some way to 'pardon' him because, as he said, he did nothing wrong - but to apologise to him for his treatment. I am happy to do so today and to say how sorry I am that he and so many others were treated in this way, right up until the 1990s when the policy was rightly changed. The fact that it was common practice for decades reflected the intolerance of the times and the pressures of the Cold War, but it does not make it any less wrong and we should apologise for it.  

Their suffering was our loss and it was the nation's loss too because we cannot know what Ian and others who were dismissed would have gone on to do and achieve. We did not learn our lesson from Turing. 

And that is the real point of diversity for me. To do our job, which is solving some of the hardest technology problems the world faces for security reasons, we need all talents and we need people who dare to think differently and be different. We need different backgrounds, experiences, intellects, sexualities, because it is in mixing all of those together that you get the creativity and innovation we desperately need. As a technology-driven agency, we have to be a vibrant workplace and welcoming to all. Dull uniformity would completely destroy us. 

We are well-known - thanks to The Sunday Times and others - for celebrating neuro-diversity and have many staff on the autistic spectrum, with Aspergers or other syndromes: they are precious assets and essential to our work of keeping the country safe. 

And we need people to feel comfortable if they are to perform well. It's really interesting that when we lit the building up there was a surge of interest on our recruitment website. And it wasn't because every gay and lesbian engineer in the country suddenly decided to apply (though that would be a good result - there is an international IT skills shortage and those of you who are engineers please get in touch!), but I think the surge came because people looked at it, especially young people straight out of college or school, and thought "that's an organisation whose values I share and where I'll probably be happy working". It's not complicated. 

To bring you up to date, let me share one more recent story from a colleague who is a very talented cyber defence analyst. 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, we have a very active internal social media website where people share everything from the latest software developments to a completely bizarre series of hobbies. A couple of months ago someone pointed to a blog and said you really must read this one. It was titled "So it's goodbye from him" and I must admit my heart sank and thought this was another blog about someone being approached by the private sector and saying a fond farewell to GCHQ and going off to earn lots of money. In fact it was an incredibly powerful blog by a member of staff on being Transgender and finally taking the decision to start the process of transition. I can’t use her real name because of the nature of her work but I’ll call her 'Emma' here.

Two things made me really proud of that blog. We have a lot of courageous staff, civilian and military, straight and gay, who have deployed to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and other conflicts, and who are as I speak working alongside our military around the world. But it takes a particular kind of courage to write what Emma wrote in front of thousands of her colleagues - and not because she wanted the publicity but because, as she said, transitioning has to be public, there was no choice in keeping it personal even if she wanted to. 

The second reason I'm proud is because of the reaction. Not only was it the most 'liked' blog we've ever had, the comments were incredibly supportive: genuinely fascinated - because transgender is still poorly understood by many of us, myself included  -  full of respect and admiration, and sincerely wishing her well on the difficult path she described so well.  People were genuinely glad that she had been able to lay the foundations of a life ahead as the person she was meant to be.  And to come back to diversity, Emma is a talented member of staff, working to keep all of us safe.  We will all benefit from her journey in the end and that's what diversity is all about.

I'm also pleased to report that Ian will be visiting us in June to talk to our staff. I think it's really important that his experience is part of our history and that we write that into our record. We should not be afraid of learning from the past and past mistakes. He also tells me that leaving GCHQ brought him into contact with his future partner; they've been together for forty years. 

I wish I could introduce you to more of our current staff, so you could see the fantastic mix of passionate people we have got working for us. I have no doubt that that we have the Turings, Joan Clarkes, and James Ellis’ of the future among our staff: but for the moment they need to remain anonymous, but it's key that they can bring their true selves to work if they are to do their job to keep us safe. 

But we're not a utopia in GCHQ and we've further to go, of course. Stonewall has been a big part of helping us change. We trusted them to come into our secret world and work with our staff, including those we can’t name. They've given us lots of really practical help on HR policy, leadership and training. They've been a great help to our excellent staff network group, Pride, and our LGBT champions. But above all they are a constant, supportive and pragmatic friend. They challenge us, but they don't grandstand or preach - we have lots of people who do that to us all the time. They've been great and are more interested in making the change than shouting about it, which is hugely helpful. And we're bounding our way up the Stonewall Index, spurred on by Mi5 in the number one spot this year - competition is always good. 

And just to get to the wider picture. Stonewall's message of tolerance resonates with me, as does their message on acceptance. In GCHQ we spend so much of our time combating the opposite, most obviously in countering Daesh/ISIL. It is an organisation that hates difference, that channels its creativity into ever more perverted ways of killing dissidents, gay people, Jews, Christians, and other Muslims - just about anyone who they disagree with. They use sexual violence against women and girls as a routine weapon of terror and puts all of this online. If the twenty-first century has a warning about where religious, social and political intolerance leads, it is ISIL. This shows that acceptance is a real world good. 

But it is also true that intolerance is on the rise more broadly; being gay is harder today in many countries. We should celebrate the progress made in Europe and North America, but perhaps the greatest celebration should be over the nature of the debate in the UK, especially around same sex marriage. I don't want to live in a society that exchanges one set of intolerances for another. Nor do I want to live in a place where freedom of expression is curtailed; that really doesn't help us in the end. There must be limits - on incitement to violence or actual harm - but beyond that we should be really nervous of limiting free expression. And we should not kid ourselves that any of us are completely immune to group-think or fashionable prejudice. 

Finally, I know that I have talked a good bit about our history, partly because I'm fascinated. But passing judgements on previous eras, values and contexts always leaves me feeling slightly dishonest: not because it’s the wrong thing to do but because I wonder what future generations will say about us. And apologising for someone else’s behaviour in the past, when it wasn't mine, is always easy.

So how will we seen in twenty years’ time? 

I’ve been a 'Diversity Champion' in various bits of the Civil Service for 15 years (in fact it’s probably the only championship I’m ever going to get!). I think we’ve made huge strides in lots of areas, not least on sexual identity, thanks to many courageous individuals and organisations like Stonewall and others.  

But the great thing about progress for me is just that young people take it for granted; they pocket it and move on. I know that my children's generation find the idea of a gay identity completely unremarkable - they see it all around them in family, friends, and media. And they will regard the previous treatment of gay people as bizarre as the idea of denying votes to women.

But I suspect that same generation will also think we’ve not been as successful as we think we have. They will say we've much further to go, especially on the representation of women, and especially at senior levels in the public and private sectors. They won’t be much impressed on ethnic minority representation either. And they will probably judge we’ve gone backwards on social background and social mobility in the public sector. I’m confident that we’re working on these and there are loads of really good people doing good work, but we're not going as quickly as we'd like.

Within GCHQ we have a very good track record on understanding and supporting mental health. But more widely in the workplace, public and private, we are only beginning to understand the scale of mental health problems - how to help and how to allow staff affected to reach their potential. It's a huge untapped potential and it's a big challenge for us. 

And finally, there is already lots of evidence of unconscious bias against older staff in the private and public sectors. Given the demographics of the next fifty years, that's completely self-defeating. We need to seize the opportunity of older people in the workplace, and in wider society, for longer. We shouldn’t be afraid of discussing openly the problems and the opportunities of working much later in life. We need some imagination and flexibility. It’s an unfashionable area, but one that will affect us all.

So there is lots to do and I’ve absolutely no doubt that Stonewall will be leading the charge as always. Thank you for what you’ve done to help us in GCHQ, and know that as an employer we are with you in defending and promoting tolerance and acceptance without exception.


Robert Hannigan delivering his speech, image of GCHQ Doughnut lit up as a rainbow, behind
©Stonewall 2016