Soames pledges to defend forces' ban on gays

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The Independent Online
HEATHER MILLS

Home Affairs Correspondent

The controversial ban on gays in the armed services will be defended by the Government "every inch of the way" - even though it is likely to be forced to change its policy by the European Court of Human Rights.

Yesterday Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, cited a survey of servicemen and women which found 80 per cent supported the existing ban, - and claimed any change would harm operational effectiveness, could lead to breaches of trust at critical moments and a serious loss of morale.

A postal survey of 13,500 service people, and detailed questionnaires completed by 1,710 military personnel, found that the vast majority did not regard homosexuality as "normal" or "natural"- some expressing extreme homophobic views. Four out of five males said the thought of sexual acts between two men revolted them and a similar number claimed homosexual cliques would damage unit cohesion.

But gay rights groups yesterday accused the Ministry of Defence of rigging the poll to maximise support for its exclusion of gays and lesbians, saying questions were loaded and those surveyed were forced to give their names. Some were obliged to fill in forms in front of senior officers who had already expressed their opposition.

Angela Mason, of the group Stonewall which is supporting the legal challenge to the ban, which - if it fails in the Lords - will appeal to the court in Strasbourg, said: "The climate created around the survey was such that it was difficult for people to express an honest opinion."

But she claimed that, more importantly, the evidence from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Israel, which did not operate or had lifted bans, was that there had been no impact on fighting power. "These conclusions seem to have been totally ignored in the report's main recommendations."

Four gay ex-service personnel - the former Lt Cdr Duncan Lustig-Prean, 36, ex-RAF Sgt Graeme Grady, 32, ex-RAF nurse Jeanette Smith, 28, and the former navy weapons engineer John Beckett, 25, have so far unsuccessfully fought to challenge the ban in the British courts and are waiting to take their case to the House of Lords. If they fail in their attempt, their claims of discrimination will go to the European courts. Lawyers have advised the Government that its policy could well be outlawed by human rights judges in Strasbourg.

Yesterday it emerged that the MoD is also likely to be found guilty of racial discrimination. A two-year investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality has apparently found that racism is often encountered within the Army. But while the CRE would not comment, the MoD, which has accepted the investigation's broad findings, insisted it was not "widespread". Figures for 1993/94 show that recruitment from the ethnic minorities totalled just 1.8 per cent in the Royal Navy, 1 per cent in the Army and 0.5 per cent in the RAF.

However, Mr Soames, armed with the 250-page review by the Homosexuality Policy Assessment Team - which is based largely on the survey of forces personnel - remained confident about policy. He said of the review: "We believe we would stand a very good chance in the European Court."

The report, set up late last year to review the gay ban after the legal challenges, concludes that "homosexuality remains in practice incompatible with service life if the Armed Services in their present form are to be maintained at their full . . . fighting power".

Another view, page 15

Leading article, page 15

The view from the mess hall

"I would never serve in a unit where a known homosexual is serving and I like many others would quite happily smash their faces in if I found any in my unit." Army Corporal, aged 29.

"If a homosexual was on board he will have an accident waiting for him when no one is looking." Naval seaman, aged 23.

"The prospect of accepting homosexuals into our ranks is the last straw." RAF Squadron Leader.

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