Scouts lift ban on gay pack leaders

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The Scout Association's decision to lift the ban on gay people serving as leaders among its 500,000-strong ranks was last night condemned by Conservative MPs as "potentially catastrophic" for the movement.

It is only after years of debate that the Scouts, founded in 1908 by Lord Baden-Powell to develop boys' character and responsibility, have adopted an equal opportunities policy.

But after it emerged that the Scouts were ahead of the armed forces in moves to adopt an equal opportunities policy,Warren Hawksley, Conservative MP for Stourbridge and Halesowen, was quick to knock the decision. The move, he said, was "disastrous" for the Scout Association.

"Irrespective of whether children will be in any danger or not, parents will be put off," said Mr Hawksley, "they will be frightened by this move, and will not want to let their children join the Scouts. That will considerably reduce the opportunities for youngsters to become Scouts, which will be very sad."

The majority of the Scouts' 10,000 volunteer leaders welcomed the policy, in order to protect both leaders and young recruits from harassment on the grounds of their sexual status.

"The change of policy was made very quietly but when I heard about it I was euphoric," said one pack leader, who asked to remain anonymous. "Although my job is voluntary, I have been worried about being known to be gay, although the kids I look after, and their parents, do know and seem relaxed about my sexuality." The policy is contained in a new set of rules which have been drawn up to take the organisation into the next millennium.

"We are one of the first organisations of our kind to implement such a policy, although it was not a short process," said John Fogg, of the Scout Association, which set up a working party to consider the issue three years ago.

Not everyone is necessarily home and dry. Mr Fogg pointed out that the policy states that anyone wishing to work with the Scouts must be "a fit and appropriate person".

"The final decisions are made by local people and the reality is that a person acceptable in one part of the country might not be acceptable in another.

"People in Islington might have different opinions from people living in a rural community in the north of Scotland."

Mr Fogg said it was not in fact a change of policy, because equal opportunities have been a fundamental part of the scouting movement since 1908. It was, instead, an attempt to clarify the association's position. "We are now setting those principles out in a clearly defined way that will help people, particularly existing leaders, when it comes to recruitment and deciding whether or not to accept people as leaders," he said.

"Our policy is firmly that no young person or adult should receive less favourable treatment because of their sexuality, gender, marital status or ethnic origin. We don't think this should be a cause for concern."