The former Welsh government official who won an apology from the Foreign Office to LGBT staff

Gareth Williams with Foreign Office colleagues, blurred
Gareth Williams played a pivotal role in winning an apology from the Foreign Office Credit: Gareth Williams

A former Welsh Government official whose early hopes of a diplomatic career were ended as a result of a "misguided" ban on LGBT staff in the Foreign Office, has spoken to ITV News about how he campaigned to have the historic wrong recognised.

When the Foreign Office apologised almost three decades on, it was a significant moment for Gareth Williams, who played a pivotal role in winning that apology.

Mr Williams, who until this year was a senior adviser to the First Minister, welcomed the apology but has told ITV News the effect of the ban on his own career led to mental health problems throughout his life and is still “difficult and upsetting” decades later.

Gareth Williams (left of picture with brown case) accompanies Mark Drakeford to Brexit talks in 2018 Credit: Adrian Masters

In the mid 1980s, Gareth was told his Foreign Office career was at an end because of his sexuality. At another interview with another part of the civil service, he was asked if he would “bring the civil service into disrepute.”

While he went on to have a successful career in other areas of politics, he said that what happened “certainly affected my mental health, and I've had a few periods of quite serious depression.”

“People like me who were brought up in the 70s felt that homosexuality may be legal but it still wasn't something you could talk about freely and that means there's always a feeling of ‘perhaps they're right, everybody's right and I’m wrong.’ 

“And I think being ejected from a career that I really cared about and felt I was good at - it’s taken me a long time to get to the point of really believing that they were in the wrong.”

Gareth Williams in the early 1980s with Foreign Office colleagues on a day out

In 1982, Gareth Williams joined the Diplomatic Service straight from university as a "fast streamer" which meant he would be earmarked for early promotion.

"It was only by accident on the day of my final interview that I discovered that homosexuality continued to be a bar to working for what was then the FCO", he said.

"Perhaps unsurprisingly this was not highlighted in its recruitment materials.

“At that point I believed I was gay but had never been involved in a  relationship with another man.

“When I went through the process, I told the vetting officer this - which was in itself not easy as I had only come out to a handful of very close friends. I was told  ‘not to worry about it’ but to report if anything changed.”

A few years later, Gareth was based at the British Embassy in Stockholm when he began a relationship with a male Swedish diplomat. In the interests of openness, he said he informed the head of personnel when he was back in the UK on leave.

“While not entirely surprised, I was nevertheless shocked to be told that, despite my honesty and the fact that throughout the five years in the Diplomatic Service I had consistently received high commendation for my performance, my career in the Foreign Office was at an end.

“I would be allowed to serve out the remainder of my term in Stockholm but would then have to give up the job which I loved.”

Eventually a transfer was arranged to the Home Civil Service, in the then Welsh Office but before this was confirmed he had to fly to Cardiff at his own expense, where he said, “I was quizzed about  whether I would bring the civil service into disrepute because of my sexuality.”

The FCDO's top civil servant, Sir Philip Barton made the public apology in July 2021 Credit: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

In July this year the Foreign Office issued its public apology for the ban which had been lifted thirty years earlier, in July 1991.

In his message to staff, the department’s most senior civil servant Sir Philip Barton said it had been a “misguided view” to believe that LGBT people were more susceptible to blackmail than straight counterparts.

“The ban was in place because there was a perception that LGBT people were more susceptible than their straight counterparts to blackmail and, therefore, that they posed a security risk,” Sir Philip said.

“Because of this misguided view, people’s careers were ended, cut short, or stopped before they could even begin.

“And the diplomatic service undoubtedly deprived itself of some of the UK’s brightest and best talent.

“I want to apologise publicly for the ban and the impact it had on our LGBT staff and their loved ones, both here in the UK and abroad.”

Gareth welcomed the apology.

“I was particularly pleased that they picked up on the fact that it was counter productive, that the official reason was because of the security risk but actually the only reason that there was a security risk was because ... it made people conceal their sexuality and therefore made them liable to blackmail.”

It was, he said, the “illogicality” of the policy which made him angry and turn his personal hurt into a campaign to have the historic wrong recognised.

He said that he tried to get the ban overturned but was told support for it came from the very top - the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“I challenged the policy up to and including in a meeting with the Chief Clerk who was the second most senior civil servant in the FCO but with no success. The clinching argument was that the Prime Minister of the day was adamant that the policy was correct.”

“Even more than 30 years later, and despite having in many ways had a very successful career as well as a personal life which I have every reason to be grateful for, the hurt of having a career I loved cut short still lingers. Someone less fortunate could have had their lives destroyed by this treatment.”

Since the ban was lifted in 1991 there has been a change in culture both in the Foreign Office and throughout government.

But Gareth said, “Of course, I am pleased that the culture of the Diplomatic Service has changed so profoundly, but it remains the case that discrimination against LGBT people was perpetuated in the FCO, as in the military and the  intelligence services, long after it should have been.”

After earlier apologies from the Ministry of Defence and the Intelligence Services, Gareth worked with his MP and other senior political figures asking them to press for an apology, actions he was told privately, which led to the public statement.  

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in Whitehall, London Credit: PA, Steffan Rousseau

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will not comment on the specifics of Gareth’s case but a spokesperson emphasised that the apology from Sir Philip had deliberately been made very publicly. 

Gareth has been calling for an acknowledgement of the impact on people’s lives and careers and the apology states that “because of this misguided view, people’s careers were ended, cut short, or stopped before they could even begin. And the diplomatic service undoubtedly deprived itself of some of the UK’s brightest and best talent.”

I understand that, within the department, the apology was seen as a heartfelt one which is why it was taken so seriously and made so public.

As for Gareth, he is pleased to have succeeded in his campaign.

“I think part of why it's important to get these things on the record and stated clearly is it makes it more difficult for society and for institutions to backslide. It's about getting things on the record and clear recognition that jobs like the Foreign Office should be making the best of everybody's talents and not trying to make judgments about what is more socially acceptable or not.

“I'm sure there are people who went through the same thing and didn't have such a fortunate outcome. And I feel I also owe it to them to have sort of got something at last on the record about it.”