Legal Affairs Correspondent
The First Sea Lord yesterday showed the strength of high-level hostility to gays in the armed forces when he pre-empted a policy review to say he would not allow them in the front line or in offices and the Army and RAF chiefs felt the same.
Earlier this week the Ministry of Defence announced a review of the ban on gays and Westminster interpreted the move as a signal that Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, is preparing to climb down at least partially in the face of a legal challenge to the ban by four dismissed servicemen and women.
But Admiral Sir Jock Slater, the senior Navy officer, said: "The stand in one word is no. We are talking declared homosexuals. Very definitely no," he told the Western Morning News in Plymouth. The fact other countries accepted homosexuals was not necessarily a yardstick by which the British forces should work, Sir Jock said.
"We are looking right across the board at our policy during the next five months. But the Chiefs of Staff are in no doubt that the policy should stand. Everyone in the Navy is committed to going to sea and therefore there is no question of it being acceptable ashore but not at sea.
"I look then at the conditions at sea, where they are relatively cramped, they are crowded, it can be tough, it can be stressful. And then I ask myself if you have declared homosexuals in your midst, what will that do to the trust and confidence of the people within that ship? And the answer I come to every time is that it will undermine the very trust and confidence on which a disciplined service fights - the esprit de corps," he said.
Sir Jock said the Royal Navy was "legally right" at the moment to discharge declared or discovered homosexuals.
The MoD review follows scathing criticisms of Britain's policy by a High Court judge in June. Lord Justice Brown said he had to uphold the ban on gays as lawful, but with "hesitation and regret". He said the "tide of history" was against the Ministry of Defence and predicted the policy would eventually collapse, but said it was for Parliament and not the courts to change the law.
The next stage of the legal case will be be heard by the Court of Appeal next month and then probably by the House of Lords next year. If necessary the servicemen and women will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. If the ban is found unlawful, the Ministry of Defence will face huge compensation claims from discharged gay service personnel.
The review team of civil servants and representatives from the Army, Navy and RAF will start work later this month and work quickly. They have been told to report by January. Their report will be considered by the Commons Defence Select Committee early next year.