Armed forces ban on gays under fire

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Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces minister, is under growing pressure to admit gays into the military following a leaked draft report from the Ministry of Defence recommending a relaxation of the present ban.

Despite the fierce opposition to such a move from the military command, an MoD committee set up to review the issue has concluded that Britain should follow the "don't ask, don't tell" policy adopted by the United States.

The Government was forced to confront the issue in the face of legal challenges. Although four service personnel lost their cases against the armed forces in the High Court last year, they would almost certainly win compensation under THE European Convention on Human Rights and sooner or later the United Kingdom will have to conform to European law.

Although the proposals of the MoD "homosexual assessment panel", set up after the legal ruling last September, may be changed when they are presented to forces chiefs, they suggest a softening in its position. They propose that homosexual orientation would no longer be automatic grounds for dismissal, but active homosexual contact between members of the forces would remain banned. Commanders would no longer be allowed to ask subordinates if they were gay. An MoD spokeswoman stressed that any findings in the report were provisional.

"The question of relaxing the ban is one of several options being looked at and this is the beginning of a fairly long process. They are looking at the situation and the options, but we're a very long way from any conclusion," she said.

Gay campaigners say the proposals go far enough to protect homosexuals in the military. Angela Mason, director of Stone-wall, said: "We welcome the fact that evidence from the many other countries that have lifted the ban shows it causes no problems whatsoever. But we don't think the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy ... is the way forward. There's been no decrease in the number of people who have been discharged on the grounds of homosexuality, and it effectively acts as a blanket ban."

Instead, Stonewall, which supported the four service personnel in their legal challenge, will put an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill, now making its way through parliament.

"It will state all unauthorised sexual conduct while on duty, or between people of different ranks, should be an offence. That would deal with the issue once and for all," Ms Mason said.

The chiefs have proved determined to protect the existing policy. Admiral Sir Jock Slater, First Sea Lord, said last year that he and his colleagues were "in no doubt that the [existing] policy should stand".