Military Life: Armed forces win U-turn over gays in military

The Government is accused of reversing its stated policy by defending the military's ban on homosexuals. Michael Streeter looks at the prospect of an expensive legal battle.

Before the general election Labour made clear their opposition to the ban on gays serving in the armed forces. Now, ministers are believed to have decided to defend a legal action brought by four former service people sacked by the Ministry of Defence for being homosexual.

If true, and the claim was not denied yesterday, the decision will lead to accusations of a U-turn by politicians in the face of opposition by senior military personnel. Many officers still believe that having gays in the service would compromise "combat effectiveness".

The action before the European Court of Human Rights claims that the Government's ban on gays in the services breaches human rights conventions. One of the four litigants, former Royal Navy lieutenant commander Duncan Lustig-Prean, warned yesterday that opposition by ministers could cost million of pounds in compensation, and accused Labour of going back on assurances once in power.

The MoD yesterday denied that its lawyers had formally responded to the court. However, sources did not deny they would be opposing the case.

It was also pointed out that before any changes of policy ministers had maintained they would need to consult with the chiefs of staff to canvass their views - a process that has not yet begun.

The Government faces a second legal front on the same issue. In March a medical naval assistant, Terry Perkins, who was sacked for being gay, won the right to take his case to the European Court of Justice under the EU's equal treatment directive. A ruling is expected late next year.

If defeated on this issue the Government could be landed with a multi- million pound compensation bill for the thousands of gays dismissed from the service in recent years.

In a separate development, ministers have given the go ahead to all members of the military to send their views on the future of the armed forces in confidence to the MoD.

The Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, has extended the same invitation to all MoD civil servants, as part of the strategic defence review. "I am especially keen to hear more from those with the most direct interest in the review - members of the armed forces and civilian staff in the MoD," he said.

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