Posted on July 13, 2010

Too Few Ethnic-Minority Staff at GCHQ, Claims Whitehall Report

Owen Bowcott, Guardian (London), July 11, 2010

A shortage of ethnic-minority staff with key language skills is hampering the intelligence services’ ability to eavesdrop on terrorist conversations, according to a leaked Whitehall report.

The study, produced by a Whitehall race adviser, warns that black and Asian officers working at the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham feel they are the subject of racial discrimination within the 5,500-strong organisation.

The 28-page report, The Representation of Black and Minority Ethnic People, was commissioned last year after concerns raised in a public document, GCHQ’s Capability Review. The inquiry was authorised by the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell.

Most of the agency’s work involves intercepting telephone calls and emails between terrorist suspects for MI5, and MI6 and a lack of officers with specialist knowledge of languages, such as Arabic or Urdu, was said to be a problem.

“It is . . . critical to have a diverse staff group who are able to profile and recognise certain behaviour patterns and communications,” the report says. “There is a very small pool of black and minority ethnic employees within the total workforce . . . specific concerns have been raised by both management and staff around the language team. This area of work is unusually diverse within the organisation.”

The policy of local community recruitment should be expanded from Cheltenham to areas such as Birmingham “which has more visible diversity”, the report recommends. Equality and diversity should be “embedded” in recruitment practice because . . . “this is critical to good national security intelligence and is also a form of future proofing by preparing the organisation to be receptive to more diverse staff.”

By September last year, the percentage of black and ethnic minority employees stood at only 2.49% of the workforce. The report records some GCHQ officers’ experiences of discrimination:

* “I wasn’t born here and although I have been security cleared, I am constantly challenged about my loyalty to Britain by my colleagues.”

* “The security officers ask questions which are culturally inappropriate, insensitive and offensive.”

* “As black and minority ethnic employees, we have to work harder than our white counterparts and for less reward.”

MI5 was the first intelligence service to recognise the importance of recruiting ethnic minority officers who might be able to penetrate terrorist networks. MI6 has followed suit.

Responding to the report, leaked to the Sunday Times, a GCHQ press officer said the recruitment freeze complicated attempts to increase ethnic diversity. “Our capability review in June 2009 reflected that GCHQ continued to fall short in meeting our targets,” he said. “GCHQ’s board commissioned a review to assist in supporting our commitment to increasing the numbers of black and minority ethnic staff, their progression and contribution.

“We are making a number of improvements to our policies and practices, including: a dedicated diversity officer; relaunch of our black and minority ethnic network with a target to increase membership; co-ordinated community engagement with diverse schools and community projects; review of university diversity data to help us identify universities to target; and internal awareness raising such as diversity week.”