It has been called the last respectable prejudice, but for those who lose their jobs and livelihoods as a result there is nothing dignified about homophobia. Despite having legalised homosexual conduct between consenting adults more than 30 years ago, Britain retains some of the most discriminatory practices in the western world. Last week the European Court of Human Rights told the British military - seen as a barometer of social attitude, that a ban on homosexuals was unlawful. The ruling followed a five-year legal battle by four former members of the armed forces who had been forced to resign in line with a long standing policy after their sexual orientation was discovered. Homosexual acts by servicemen had remained criminal acts long after they had been decriminalised in the rest of society. It was only five years ago that they ceased to be illegal in civil law, although it remained an offence in military law punishable by immediate dismissal. But the court found the Ministry of Defence's absolute ban breached the European convention covering the right to respect a man or woman's private life. The court concluded that the British Government had produced no convincing reasons to support its policy against homosexuals in the armed forces despite claims that the presence of gays in the ranks would have a substantial effect on morale and consequently on fighting power and operational effectiveness. About 60 people a year are made to resign from the armed services because of their sexual orientation, even though many have good service records and have caused no disruption to their colleagues. But following the European court's ruling, the Ministry of Defence agreed to immediately suspend its policy despite the inevitable protests from senior officers. The military cited an opinion survey among the troops which found 95 per cent were opposed to any change in the existing regulations, though opponents pointed out army policy was not usually decided on such democratic grounds. Most other Nato countries already operate a lenient attitude towards gay service personnel which means British soldiers on operations in Kosovo and elsewhere are already working alongside homosexuals. In France homosexuality in the military is 'tolerated' while Germany has no ban, though homosexuality can be a bar to promotion. The Netherlands lifted a ban in 1972 and the integration of gays into the armed forces is actively supported. Gay rights activists are hoping the landmark judgment against discrimination in the military will help the promotion of equal rights in the civilian community. A number of test cases brought before employment tribunals have failed to establish what the legal situation is, including one case brought by a brain surgeon who had lost his job in a London hospital. The doctor dropped his action earlier this summer claiming prejudice by the tribunal itself. Unlike those who suffer sex or race discrimination in the workplace, there is no specific law to protect homosexuals from prejudice, and evidence suggests many find it particularly difficult to maintain jobs in the public sector. Earlier this month a Home Office report found the fire service to be institutionally homophobic as well as racist and sexist. The report found that gay firefighters were effectively forced to keep their sexuality secret and some had been forced out of the service. In the police there was a similar attitude, though senior officers have embarked on a campaign to try to recruit homosexuals by advertising in gay magazines in a bid to bring greater diversity within the constabulary. Gay groups also report a disproportionate number of complaints of discrimination from those working in the post office. In July the government rejected plans to include in new employment laws protection from harassment for gays by their employers. Angela Mason, the executive director of Stonewall, a respected gay lobby group, said thousands of people in all walks of life still suffered harassment because of their sexual orientation. 'Every day we are contacted by men and women who are no longer prepared to put up with discrimination. 'But homophobia remains the last respectable prejudice,' she said. 'I am only to conscious we are treated as second-class citizens in this country, that young lesbians and gay men are still growing up isolated and vulnerable and that abuse and violence are still part of their everyday experience.' The ruling Labour Party has traditionally been sympathetic to the rights of gays and at its annual conference last week a number of members of parliament spoke in support of the need to legislate to put an end to discrimination. But while the government has stalled on including such measures in employment legislation, it has pledged to repeal laws that prohibit local authorities from spending money on programmes to increase understanding within the community.