MI5 and MI6 have 'glaring lack' of ethnic minority and female staff at senior levels, report reveals

Just a third of the senior civil servants in MI5 are women – and the figure is even lower across other agencies

Kim Sengupta
Defence Editor
Wednesday 18 July 2018 10:21
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MI6 flew the rainbow flag in support of International Day Against Homophobia but MPs say the ‘wider public often has inaccurate and outdated perceptions about the agencies’
MI6 flew the rainbow flag in support of International Day Against Homophobia but MPs say the ‘wider public often has inaccurate and outdated perceptions about the agencies’

Just two of Britain’s security and intelligence agencies have any members from the ethnic minorities in senior ranks while women make up a disproportionately low numbers at that level across the board.

Although “significant progress” has been made in making MI5, MI6, GCHQ and other services more inclusive, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) found “at senior level in particular the intelligence community is still not gender-balanced and does not fully reflect the ethnic makeup of modern Britain ... There is a glaring lack of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff at senior civil service levels across the community.

“And although 31 per cent of the senior civil servants in MI5 are women, that figure is considerably lower – around 25 per cent – across the other agencies and rest of the intelligence community” the MPs said.

The report stated that only GCHQ, the government’s communications headquarters, have any black or Asians in the senior category. However, after its publication, MI5 wanted to point out that ethnic minority members have moved to senior positions in the last year.

Dominic Grieve, chairman of the ISC, said: “In an increasingly competitive employment market, it is important that the UK intelligence community is able to attract, and draw upon, the skill, talent and experience of all sectors of our society – to reflect, protect and promote our values, and keep our nation safe.

“It is essential that these organisations reflect the UK of today with a diverse and inclusive workforce. Diversity encourages challenge, drives innovation and ensures better decision making – whilst this is important in any organisation or sector, it is an operational imperative for the intelligence community.”

The ISC report looked at diversity and inclusivity at MI6, MI5, GCHQ, Defence Intelligence Agency, The Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), National Security Secretariat (NSS) and Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in compiling the report.

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Alex Younger, the MI6 chief, told the Committee: “The first [point] is that there is something of a risk of being seen as an elite organisation and therefore disconnecting from the nation and what it wants ... making sure we physically resemble the country we serve.

“If you look at Chilcot and the Iraq problems and what went wrong ... in large part this was about groupthink and groupthink is manifestly more likely to happen when you have the same sort of people seating around a table, so I also think in terms of quality of our decision making, it is absolutely key.”

Andrew Parker, head of MI5, pointed out that his service and its staff must reflect British society as a whole, the values it represents and have a common aim to combat the threat of groups like Isis. And that is one of the main “reasons why you would want to have a diverse workforce.”

Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, held that striving for diversity meant “changing the perception of a career in the intelligence community so that men and women from every part of society can imagine themselves thriving in the intelligence and security world.”

The ISC report, Diversity and Inclusion in the UK Intelligence Community, examined four key protected characteristics under the 2010 Equality Act – gender, race, sexuality and disability. It pointed out that MI5 and MI6 have both appeared in lists of the top 50 employers for women and those two agencies as well as GCHQ and the Home Office are included in the top 100 employers category of the LGBT rights group, Stonewall.

“However, as many of the people we have spoken to have acknowledged, there is much still to be done,” said the report. One of the problems with ethnic minority recruitment, said the ISC, is security vetting “which is bureaucratic, takes too long and is widely considered by many of those we met to be an inhibitor to diversity and nationality rules, and that the wider public often has inaccurate and outdated perceptions about the agencies in particular, and the type of staff they are now looking to recruit”.

Caroline Flint, one of the Committee members, said: “More must be done by the agencies to collect data about diversity, it is difficult to carry through a policy unless you have the data to work.” The report said that MI6 in particular have done well by returning to the “ tap on the shoulder” approach to recruitment. Ms Flint wanted to stress “ This does not mean concentrating on places like gentlemen’s clubs, but going to schools and colleges. Many people at the agencies are working hard at this, so pupils and students can relate to them.”

Another ISC member, Kevan Jones, urged simplification of the vetting procedure which can take up to six months and longer. “The agencies, of course, are competing with private industry, and sometimes you get people who just cannot wait any longer and join somewhere else.”

The Committee also suggested that the vetting procedure and nationality should reviewed. “For example a young woman from an Indian background was asked detailed questioned about her grandparents which was difficult because she did not have that level of information,” he said.

The ISC found that some mid-level managers in the agencies “do not always view diversity and inclusion as a priority issue.” Committee member Lord Janvrin said “this is something I think you will find in a lot of organisations. The people at the top get it the young people coming in are ready for new ideas, but it may take the mid-ranking people a bit longer, all managers should, of course, be encouraged to be involved.”

The report suggested mentoring as well as “reverse mentoring” as ways to promote diversity. “We believe that both would be useful. Reverse mentoring would be a good way for senior, older people to understand what people from under-represented groups feel,” said Lord Janvrin.

A Government spokesperson said: “As the report states, we have made significant progress in recent years, but there is clearly more to do. We remain committed to further improving this and will give full consideration to the conclusions and recommendations of the ISC’s report and respond formally in due course.”

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