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Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 23:55 GMT
Call for fair ruling on women soldiers
Women soldiers undergo training
Women already serve in some front line units
Female soldiers should not be blocked from serving on the front line just because of the "moral distaste" of military top brass.

That is the message from MPs on the Commons defence select committee, who say operational effectiveness should be the deciding factor.

The committee was reacting to comments by the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Charles Guthrie, before he retired last week.

Sir Charles expressed concerns about allowing women to serve in the infantry or the Royal Armoured Corps.

"It is not made clear, in enunciating this policy on women in combat roles, whether this exclusion is on the grounds of physiological ability or moral distaste for women having to do such work," the committee said in its latest report.

"If it is the latter, it is time that it was abandoned."

The Army is currently assessing whether to allow women to serve in front line combat units, with a report due to go to ministers in the spring.

Sir Charles' replacement as Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, is perceived as being more sympathetic to front line women soldiers.

Sir Michael said on Thursday that women already occupied combat roles on ships and in planes, and that female soldiers in the artillery may find themselves nearer the front line than the infantry.

Staff levels

The Commons report warned that pay and benefits for service personnel may need to rise to address shortages of staff.

While it said that staff levels had not yet reached a "critical state", there were "severe localised crises" - most noticeably in fast jet pilots and defence medical services.

"A great question mark hangs over the whole issue, and it is the usual one of resources," the report said.

"In choosing to seek to be a force for good, and to use the UK's armed forces in pursuit of that aim, the government has chosen a policy which cannot be had on the cheap."

But the Ministry of Defence accused the committee of overstating the forces' recruitment problems.

"The current manning position is not as bad as the committee says," an MoD spokesman insisted.

"Although no single measure can resolve the issue, a number of key initiatives have already been introduced and the armed forces continue to work on improvements for all personnel."

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