Gays set to serve but not in the front line

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

Defence ministers are prepared to allow gays in the armed forces, but are determined to keep them out of the front line. The compromise limiting gays to the support services will disappoint gay rights campaigners and is certain to lead to further legal challenges.

Ministers, who are to receive detailed recommendations after an internal Ministry of Defence review of the rules, believe the that the policy under which gays are automatically dismissed is no longer tenable.

The chiefs of staff are fiercely opposed to admitting gays to the armed services. Ministers are ready to allow a partial easing of the rules, but the ban will not be lifted on front line forces.

Campaigners for gay rights said last night the MoD would find it impossible to determine where the line should be drawn.

The chiefs of staff have warned ministers not to allow gays to serve in the armed forces, on the grounds that it would undermine fighting effectiveness.

The issue could lead to a vote in the Commons. Stonewall, the gay rights campaign, is planning a meeting at the Commons on 8 February to lobby for support for an amendment to the Armed Forces Discipline Act to allow equal treatment in the armed forces for homosexuals.

The Act would make it a disciplinary offence for any members of the armed forces to have sex on duty. Michael Brown, the former Tory whip, is calling for a free vote on the issue.

Homosexuality in the armed forces was decriminalised in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act but they are automatically discharged, if they are found to be gay. The United States introduced a "don't ask and don't tell" policy, which tolerated gays, but this has not reduced the number being discharged.

Ministers were forced to review the law, after repeated legal challenges to the ban by gays discharged from the armed forces. The results of the review will be announced shortly to the Commons committee gathering evidence for the bill to renew the discipline acts for the armed forces for the next five years.

Ministry of Defence officials said last night that the report had not been seen by ministers, and it was too soon to say what decisions would be reached. But ministers are unwilling to change the law on the front line forces.