London (CNSNews.com) - British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon announced that the ban on homosexuals in the military will be lifted soon, probably within the next month.
And in another effort to present the armed forces as an equal-opportunity employer, Hoon Tuesday will open a conference aiming to attract more women and members of ethnic minorities to sign up. The country's volunteer army currently is about 4,000 members short of recruitment goals.
Prompted by a European court ruling in September, the Defense Ministry will publish a new code of conduct prohibiting inappropriate sexual behavior by any personnel on duty, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
The move is an attempt to adopt liberal European standards while placating service chiefs' fears that scrapping the ban on homosexuals will reduce the effectiveness of the military. It comes at a time when the U.S. forces' compromise policy of "don't ask, don't tell" has come under renewed scrutiny and criticism.
In September, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that four British soldiers dismissed for being homosexuals had been subjected to "inhuman and degrading treatment" and the infringement of various rights.
"Someone's sexuality is a private matter," Hoon said in an interview with a London newspaper. "People are entitled to a private life ... but I want to make sure that any solution to this problem does not jeopardize the effectiveness of our armed forces."
It's reported that up to 60 homosexuals were forced to leave the services each year under the ban. The scrapping coincides with attempts to broaden the spectrum of recruits.
The role of women, particularly the areas in which they are allowed to serve, will be probed at today's conference.
Hoon said women should have every opportunity to compete with their male counterparts in advancing up the ranks, although he said they would not yet be allowed to serve in frontline combat units.
The ministry also hopes to increase the number of members of ethnic minorities, to reflect the national ratio. Currently only about two percent of service personnel are black or Asian.
Although progress had been made in this regard, Hoon told a British radio station it was taking time for the word to filter down to "those parts of the ethnic minorities who are still suspicious."
The Labor government came under fire last month after reports that the services were prepared to recruit certain categories of convicted criminals.
The ministry said it was looking for "excellent young recruits" some of whom "may have made a mistake" but who had paid for it.
Only those serving sentences of two years of less, and who were under 18 when jailed would be eligible. Those convicted on drug or sexual offenses or racially-motivated crimes would be excluded.
The opposition Conservatives said the government's defense policy was "in tatters."
"Our military services are so over-stretched and desperate for soldiers that they are entertaining the idea of going into prisons to recruit," said defense spokesman Iain Duncan Smith.
"The government has cut \'a3600m ($960 million) a year out of the defense budget, with more armed forces more committed across the world. They have driven the ministry of defense to desperate measures."
The ministry rejected criticism that the army was "turning to crime" or "scraping the barrel" to beef up its recruiting, insisting young offenders would "have to meet our rigorous recruitment standards."