Labour Conference: Armed forces threat to keep gay ban could cost millions

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The Independent Online
TAXPAYERS FACE a multi-million-pound legal bill if armed forces chiefs insist on keeping gays out of the military, campaign groups warned.

A European Court of Human Rights ruling tomorrow is almost certain to render the British ban illegal, but military top brass are refusing to countenance a change in policy until 2001. This leaves the Ministry of Defence open to dozens of lawsuits. It could add to legal costs already estimated at more than pounds 6m as well as spark compensation claims.

The gay rights campaign Stonewall cautioned against continuing to sack soldiers, sailors and airmen because of their sexuality. "If ministers make the mistake of ignoring the ruling, we will be straight in court," a spokesman said.

Angela Mason, the executive director of Stonewall, plans to demand an immediate response to the European Court ruling from the defence secretary George Robertson at Labour's conference in Bournemouth.

Despite tomorrow's anticipated judgment, senior MoD sources said the Government, aware of deep-seated opposition to lifting the ban in the upper echelons of the armed forces, still plans a lengthy review. They insisted that the Armed Forces Bill in June 2001 was still "the most appropriate context in which to view this".

After a four-year legal battle, Jeanette Smith, a former RAF nurse; John Beckett, a naval rating; Duncan Lustig-Prean, an ex-Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy; and Graeme Grady, an RAF administrator, could face another wait to see the British armed forces admitting homosexuals as a matter of policy.

About 1,000 gay men and women have been drummed out of the services.

However, the Government's decision to allow the case to go to Europe means that only around 150 of them - whose industrial tribunal cases are live - will be eligible for compensation if the court's ruling goes against the Government. That bill is already expected to run into millions but, if military chiefs refuse to lift the ban immediately, compensation claims are certain to follow.