European court lets Marines ban women

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A female cook who was refused a job with the Royal Marines lost her claim for equal treatment yesterday when the European Court of Justice upheld a ban on women serving as front-line soldiers.

A female cook who was refused a job with the Royal Marines lost her claim for equal treatment yesterday when the European Court of Justice upheld a ban on women serving as front-line soldiers.

The Luxembourg court ruled that the Royal Marines was entitled to exclude women because it was made up of "special combat units" in which each marine must be capable of killing at close quarters. This requirement extends to the marines' cooks.

Angela Sirdar joined the Army in 1983 at the age of 17 and was a cook for 11 years before requesting a transfer to the Royal Marines. She was offered a job, which was later withdrawn when the marines found she was a woman. The Royal Navy imposes a strict ban on female marines.

Her sex discrimination claim at an employment tribunal in Bury St Edmunds was passed to Luxembourg to decide the scope of EU equality laws on"employment in the armed forces or in one of its bodies".

Yesterday the court upheld the ban in cases where it could be shown that deploying women soldiers was detrimental to "public security" or compromised the combat effectiveness of the fighting force.

The marines, the court said, was entitled to exclude women because it deployed "special combat units pursuing activities for which sex is a determining factor". The court ruled: "The fundamental characteristics of the Royal Marines is their rapid deployment capacity as assault troops in a wide variety of military actions." The judges said the marines worked on the "interoperability" principle in which each individual must be able to fight, independent of his specialisation. They endorsed the ministry's insistence that the employment of women would make it difficult to maintain this principle.

However, the court urged a rigorous check on whether the "special conditions" under which the marines operate made the total exclusion of women necessary to meet defence requirements.

Mrs Sirdar was backed by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which is chaired by Julie Mellor. She said combat effectiveness issues serve as a barrier to 30 per cent of jobs in the armed forces. Yesterday's court ruling made absolutely clear that exclusion from these posts must be justified by being subject to "rigorous tests." Ms Mellor said the Ministry of Defence should "urgently review" all remaining exclusions of women to determine whether they comply with the court's test.

The ministry said it was "encouraged" by the court's ruling but disappointed it had ruled that decisions on combat effect-iveness could be challenged under European legislation.