Forces review may give gays supporting role

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Homosexual rights campaigners yesterday welcomed a partial climbdown by defence chiefs which could see gays and lesbians serving in support units but not in fighting units such as the Parachute Regiment, the SAS or the Royal Marines.

Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, and Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, have decided to commission an independent civilian study of the effects of the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces, and the implications of lifting it. They may make a distinction between homosexual orientation and behaviour, allowing non-active homosexuals to serve. Currently, homosexuals are discharged, whatever their service records.

Heads of the armed forces and ministers recognise the ban leaves Britain out of line with most of the world and is likely to become unenforceable if challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.

Stonewall, the gay rights pressure group, welcomed the study but demanded an immediate moratorium on charges and investigations into alleged serving homosexuals. Emma Peskin, its spokesman, said: "We very much hope that the study will be constructive and look dispassionately at the debate." She said Stonewall would fight for the total removal of the ban in all branches of the military. The pressure group says a code of conduct would mean the presence of homosexuals would not undermine morale or discipline.

The Government's move follows a recent High Court ruling, which upheld the ban but warned change was inevitable, and criticised ministers for making decisions without evidence.

Although the case brought by four ex-service homosexuals was dismissed unanimously, Lord Justice Brown said he refused the applications with "hesitation and regret". He emphasised that the "tide of history" was against the Ministry of Defence and predicted the policy would eventually collapse.

Mr Soames has asked the military whether it believes a civilian-led investigation should be carried out into the entire issue of homosexuality in the forces.

Lord Henley, a defence minister, said last week that it was not feasible to employ homosexuals in some areas of the armed forces but not in others.

But some military officials believe there would be advantages to such a move as it would ease pressure on the MoD, while keeping the ban in the frontline and in units where people serve in close confines, such as submarines.

Britain is one of the last Nato countries to enforce a total ban on homosexuals in its forces - only Turkey has a similar policy.