The Royal Air Force took steps to “artificially inflate” its diversity numbers in a bid to hit a key government target for female and ethnic minority recruits, three defence sources have claimed and leaked documents have suggested.

The RAF denied it had acted in any way illegally with its recruitment practices.

James Heappey, the Armed Forces minister, said any evidence of positive discrimination would be investigated and would not be tolerated.

“We have asked for the Armed Forces to improve their diversity, but we will not accept courses beginning anything other than full, and we won’t accept any lowering of standards, and we won’t accept any operational impact,” he said.

“But we’re content for the chief of the air staff and his team to look at what they could legally do in terms of positive action, providing that the conditions the secretary of state and I have set are met.”

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Armed Forces minister responds to leaked papers

The informed sources have alleged that recruitment officers were directed to prioritise the placement of women and ethnic minorities on training courses in the year to 31 March 2021.

One of the sources alleged this included bringing into the pipeline dozens of female and minority ethnic candidates early and paying them salaries earlier than their white male counterparts.

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This was “in order to artificially inflate the numbers” for that recruiting year, the source said, adding: “This was clearly positive discrimination.”

Positive discrimination – the promotion of someone solely based on a specific, protected characteristic – is illegal under equality legislation. This differs from positive action, which allows an employer to take certain steps to improve workplace diversity.

RAF declared it had hit government-set targets in March 2021

Sky News revealed this week that the head of RAF recruitment had resigned in protest at what defence sources described as “impossible” diversity targets for the current year.

The sources said that the RAF’s recruitment force of around 450 personnel had been put under pressure for much longer, though, in particular during the build up to the year to March 2021.

At that time, a different head of recruitment had been in place.

The air force, led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, was striving to meet government-set targets to increase the flow of female recruits to 20% and the flow of ethnic minorities to 10% by 2020.

On 24 March 2021, with much fanfare, the RAF declared this had happened.

“Royal Air Force Recruitment and Selection – in collaboration with key stakeholders – has been working extremely hard to make the RAF a more diverse organisation that is better reflective of the society it serves,” it said in a statement.

“Through targeted interventions, within a legal framework of positive action, across the attract, recruit and select space, a wide range of stakeholders have been engaged, including BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] and gender networks, to identify barriers to BAME and female recruitment.”

Levels achieved were ‘fudged’, source claims

But the breakdown of recruitment figures backing up the claim of meeting the target has not been released.

The Ministry of Defence’s public, biannual diversity statistics for the year to 31 March 2021 said – by contrast – that the female inflow rate was 18.3%, rather than 20%.

The RAF said the discrepancy was because its data had excluded women re-joining the service.

In addition, the levels that were achieved were “fudged”, an informed source claimed.

A leaked internal email seen by Sky News revealed that the RAF chose to ditch so-called selection or suitability interviews for all candidates between 1 December 2020 and 31 March 2021 under what was described by a senior officer as a “trial”.

The interview is a way for the RAF’s recruitment arm to sift through applicants and only push through those deemed more likely to succeed in the rest of the selection process. The remainder of the process includes things like an aptitude test and medical and fitness tests.

A second informed source said removing the interview for everyone meant that a larger pool of women and ethnic minority candidates was created to be loaded onto training courses.

“This was not well received by the entire recruitment force as it removed the ability to filter out those who were not suitable for training in that instance,” the source said.

“It was contested at all levels, but we were told to crack on and implement it.”

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RAF: Jobs ‘paused for white men’

‘No consideration was to be given to their performance’

The RAF, however, said the “pausing” of these interviews happened to see if the selection process could be sped up to hit overall recruitment targets at a time when the country was facing significant disruption because of the COVID pandemic.

It said this was not a move taken specifically in relation to meeting that year’s ethnic minority or women targets.

However, a third informed source claimed: “The pressure and direction from senior leaders were that all female and ethnic minority candidates are to be given priority treatment in the processing of their application.

“No consideration was to be given to their performance, so long as they have achieved the minimum standard, they were prioritised for movement forward, essentially meaning white males were left behind in the process or offered dates for their next test that were after their prioritised peers.

“This was seen by the management team as positive action and not discrimination on the basis that they are not refusing the non-prioritised applicants the ability to move through the system, or refuse them the opportunity of employment based on their protected characteristic.”

A separate document offered evidence of a direction to prioritise female and ethnic minority recruits.

One read: “The Recruitment Force continues to prioritise female candidates from the VA [Virtual Armed Forces Careers Office] for CRM [customer relationship management].”

Another document said the progression of ethnic minority candidates was similarly being tracked, adding: “The Recruitment Force continues to prioritise BAME candidates from the VA for CRM, whilst Rec Ops [recruitment operations] prioritises its loading onto BRTC [basic training course]”.

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All female RAF flypast at Wembley

Former RAF fighter pilot considering taking legal action

In addition, Tim Davies, a former RAF fighter pilot, released a leaked recruitment force email on his YouTube channel that similarly appeared to confirm the service was at the very least willing to help push women and ethnic minority candidates through the selection process faster.

“AFCOs [Armed Forces Careers Offices] are to remove booked pilot, RPAS [drone operators], WSO [weapons system operators] and Int [intelligence] candidates from CBAT [aptitude test] events within the above dates unless BAME and female,” the email read. The dates were from 26 October 2020 to 23 November 2020.

Mr Davies said he was considering taking legal action against the RAF under equality legislation.

“This is positive discrimination against someone because of an immutable characteristic, which we know in this case happens to be their skin colour and their sex it’s white men. It’s indefensible what’s happening right now within the service,” he told Sky News in an interview.

An RAF spokesperson however said that the service had been aware of the email at the time and its “senior leadership took immediate action to address this erroneous direction”.

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“From October 2020, the RAF provided immediate training to Area Commanders and RAF personnel at Armed Forces Careers Offices to ensure selection and recruiting activities were consistent with legislation,” the spokesperson said.

On the alleged front-loading of female and ethnic minority candidates into training courses ahead of the end of the March 2021 year to hit diversity targets, the RAF said the people who were brought forward were told they would need to wait for a longer period of time at the training college, RAF Halton, and had been willing to do so.

But the defence sources said the move meant that RAF recruiters started the next 12-month period with a deficit of female and ethnic minority candidates in the pipeline and new diversity targets to meet, the sources said.

Another document supported this claim.

Talking about the female target, it said: “The pipeline remains depleted of women Cs (candidates) following the advance loading of these Cs in Q4 of TY 20/21 [January-March 2021].”

Responding to the overall allegations, the RAF defended its recruitment action, saying the Recruitment and Selection executive team understood the difference between positive action and positive discrimination.

“Operational effectiveness is of paramount importance, and no one is lowering the standards to join the Royal Air Force. The RAF recruits for many professions and, like the rest of the Armed Forces, is determined to be a force that reflects the society it serves to protect,” a spokesperson said.

“The Royal Air Force has a well-earned reputation for operational excellence that is founded on the quality of all our people. We will always seek to recruit the best talent available to us.”