West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service has defended an optional questionnaire it sent to all its staff asking them to state their sexual orientation.

The service is working with gay equality organisation Stonewall to try and improve diversity within the organisation and conditions for gay, lesbian and bisexual staff.

Unnamed firefighters had complained to the Yorkshire Evening Post about the exercise, claiming it was a waste of money and a “gross intrusion into privacy.”

The Fire Brigades Union has expressed support for the survey and said similar initiatives had been taken across the UK.

A spokesperson for the service told the paper that the questionnaire is “a statistical snapshot from which we might learn.”

“For example, if no-one is willing to admit they are gay – and that flouts all statistical knowledge – then that might tell us something about the culture of the service and that people might feel uncomfortable in the workplace.

“We do not think our organisation is any more homophobic than anywhere else.

“The survey is part of our wider work of being a good employer. It is helpful to know if there are significant numbers of a sexual orientation because we may be able to make their lives easier.”

Currently less than 0.5% of the national fire service are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual, equivalent to less than 270 people.

7% of the working population identify themselves as LGB.

A letter that accompanies the questionnaire states:

“We have a requirement from Communities and Local Government, as part of the National Equality and Diversity Strategy, to monitor all our staff to capture equality information.

“This information will be collated by the equality and diversity manager and used to provide total numbers only to the Communities and Local Government Department and senior managers.”

The strategy covers all strands of diversity – age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability and religion.

The priority areas for action are: providing leadership and promoting inclusion; effective service delivery and community engagement; attraction and recruitment; measuring action and sharing success and accountability.

In May the Fire Minister announced a new strategy to encourage gay people to join the fire service and ensure equality in career progression.

The Fire Brigades Union said that only 150 of its members are openly gay out of a uniformed workforce of 46,000.

Parmjit Dhanda, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Communities and Local Government, said the fire service lags behind the police and prison service.

All 46 local fire and rescue services in England will now work towards the new aims and £2m of Government funding will be available.

In April £3m was pledged by central government to promote improvements in equality and diversity, with an emphasis on encouraging people from groups currently under to consider a career in the Fire and Rescue Service.

The minister said he wants to change attitudes and behaviours within the day to day life of the service.

A recent survey of firefighters found that while most feel valued and have good working relationships, harassment, discrimination and even assaults are not uncommon in the workplace.

A third of respondents had experienced bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months and a quarter said they had been verbally abused.

There was also evidence of discrimination by individuals against work colleagues on grounds of age, gender, sexuality and race.

The Equality Bill will form part of the Queen’s Speech, the government’s programme for the forthcoming session of Parliament, which will be presented in December.

It includes proposals for all public bodies to promote equality for gay and lesbian people in addition to their current duty to consider how their spending decisions, employment practices and service delivery affect people whatever their race, disability or gender.