Soames Pledges to Defend Forces' Ban on Gays

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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. …