Armed forces ban on gays to be lifted next year

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The ban on gays serving in the armed forces will be lifted by the Government early next year as part of a drive to make the services an equal opportunities employer. Former chiefs of staff opposed lifting the ban on the basis that it would undermine discipline.

The ban on gays serving in the armed forces will be lifted by the Government early next year as part of a drive to make the services an equal opportunities employer. Former chiefs of staff opposed lifting the ban on the basis that it would undermine discipline.

The Government was forced to lift the ban by a European ruling and yesterday it took steps to encourage more blacks, Asians and women into the front line.

Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, launched a campaign for equal opportunities in the forces at a conference with Mo Mowlam, the Cabinet Office Minister, as part of Tony Blair's modernising agenda.

A new code of conduct covering behaviour standards for all personnel, including homosexuals, will be introduced at the same time as lifting the ban on gays in the armed forces to meet the concerns of some service chiefs that it could lead to problems with discipline.

Mr Hoon said Britain was required to lift the ban because of a European Court of Human Rights ruling after an appeal by former members of the armed forces who claimed it was a breach of their rights. He said: "The European Court of Human Rights ruled it was inconsistent with the private life of any member of the armed forces. We have made it clear that we accept that judgment. We are looking at ways of implementing it consistent with service discipline."

He added that the armed forces already had a tough code of conduct to stop bullying of gays or others. The final decision on the code of practice had not been taken and it was necessary to produce a formula that was acceptable to the military. "I recognise these are difficult, sensitive questions for the officers and that is why we are approaching this judgment with some care," he said.

A Royal Navy lieutenant-commander, Duncan Lustig-Preen, RAF sergeant Graeme Grady, RAF nurse Jeanette Smith and Navy weapons engineer John Beckett were dismissed for being gay but won their case in the European court in May.

Mr Lustig-Preen praised the Labour government for acting swiftly but said the remarks of some service chiefs implying that "queer-bashing was acceptable" meant a lot of work had to be done to change attitudes in the armed forces.

"I am confident the Government has moved swiftly and consulted those individuals and groups with expertise in this area. The code of conduct not only protects the vulnerabilities of gays but also the sensitivities of heterosexuals in the workplace," he said.

The Ministry of Defence conference in Birmingham was designed to encourage more recruits from the ethnic minorities and women. At present, 1 per cent of members of the armed forces are from ethnic minorities and just under 8 per cent are women. The target is to double the number of ethnic- minority recruits and, in the long term, to reflect the 5 per cent levels in society.

Mr Hoon said problems of discrimination in the forces had already been addressed. "The problem now is that, rather like light from a distant star, the message has gone out from the services but we have to ensure it reaches those parts of the ethnic communities that are still a little suspicious and doubtful."

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