The Conservative Party has over the last year aimed to change its image amongst the gay community, this has included inviting more gay and lesbian politicians to join the party and backing laws such as civil partnerships and the new Equality Act, now the party has become the latest major British employer to join Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme.

The programme promotes good practice around sexual orientation issues and assists employers in recruiting and retaining lesbian and gay staff.

Conservative Party Chairman Francis Maude said: “This seems to us absolutely the right thing to do. It’s not just about gay, lesbian and bisexual people. People should see us as a party that is inclusive and respectful of everyone in society.”

Ben Summerskill, Stonewall chief executive, said: “We’re delighted that the Conservative Party has agreed that it is the time to embark on this work. In order to recruit the very best people in the UK labour market in 2006, it’s necessary to demonstrate that you are a progressive employer.”

Membership of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme is not an endorsement of good practice; the accolade of being one of the country’s most “gay-friendly” employers is only awarded by Stonewall through its annual Workplace Equality Index. However, Stonewall develops a work plan with each programme member after being convinced that there is a commitment within an organisation to make progress.

“After lengthy discussions with Francis Maude and his senior staff, we were persuaded that there is a real commitment to change and progress,” said Mr Summerskill. “The challenge for the next two years will be to transform that commitment into practical outcomes.”

Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme now has 240 members – including the Royal Navy, British Airways and Sainsbury’s – who between them employ nearly four million people. Recent recruits include McKinsey, Manchester City Football Club and Ikea.

Activities developed with Stonewall Diversity Champions members include training in ‘diversity awareness’, benefits reviews and reviewing recruitment practice. The Conservative Party employs more than 200 staff across Britain.