The RAF’s head of recruitment refused to follow an order to prioritise women and ethnic minority candidates over white men because she believed it was “unlawful”, defence sources have claimed and a leaked email has revealed.
The group captain – whose subsequent resignation was revealed exclusively by Sky News – told her boss in the email earlier this month that she was not willing to allocate slots on Royal Air Force training courses based purely on a specific gender or ethnicity, according to a copy of the message, seen by Sky News.
Such a move had raised concerns about the possibility of positive discrimination, which is illegal, the defence sources said.
“This is unlawful,” the officer, who heads the RAF’s 450-strong recruitment team, wrote in the email, dated 4 August, adding: “I am not prepared to delegate or abdicate the responsibility of actioning that order to my staff.”
Defence sources said the group captain – who has not been named – resigned from her post on the same day because she had not been prepared to implement the “course loading” order or force it upon her recruitment team.
They said the officer – who sources described as a highly-regarded individual – made the reasons for her decision clear in a separate resignation letter sent to her chain of command.
Her official job title was Group Captain Recruitment & Selection, based at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire.
A government minister on Friday said any evidence of potential positive discrimination – the illegal promotion of someone solely based on a specific, protected characteristic – within the RAF would be investigated and those responsible held to account.
James Heappey, the Armed Forces minister, was speaking after Sky News reported on Tuesday that the head of recruitment had resigned over what defence sources described as an “effective pause” on offering jobs to white men in favour of women and ethnic minorities to hit “impossible” diversity targets.
Mr Heappey disputed this characterisation of the pause.
He said that Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, who heads the RAF, had asked his team to “pause” offering training slots to all candidates while he and his senior leaders consider how they might take legal steps – so-called positive action – to assist improving diversity levels on various training courses in the year to March 2023.
“If there are avenues for the chief of the air staff to look at positive action, then that’s fine and he’s created himself room to do that. But we must be absolutely clear that no policy is implemented,” Mr Heappey said.
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Defence sources told Sky News that this pause started in late June.
Yet, the RAF recruitment team received a new order on 2 August from the chain of command, the sources said.
The subsequent 4 August email from the head of recruitment referenced this “course loading direction/order” from Air Vice Marshal Maria Byford, the chief of staff personnel, who is Air Chief Marshal Wigston’s top personnel officer.
The group captain wrote that in line with this order, her recruitment team was “to course load any remaining women and EM [ethnic minorities] in those priority professions that are ready, even if the EA [enlisted aviator] candidates are not ‘first past the post'”.
The RAF uses a ‘first past the post’ system when recruiting non-officers. It means slots on training courses are given to the candidates who pass the various stages of selection, which include aptitude, medical and fitness tests, fastest.
The group captain wrote in her email that the order to load women and ethnic minorities alone was “not actioned”.
“This direction is to make offers of employment to additional women and EM [ethnic minority] candidates solely on the basis of their protected characteristics and in preference to non-EM men who have successfully passed all selection criteria ahead of them,” she wrote.
She said such a move would be against equality legislation and against the RAF’s own legal guidance.
“I strongly agree that it is incredibly important to do all within our collective power to support the RAF’s commitment to increasing diversity,” the group captain wrote.
“This should however be achieved through lawful and proportionate means.”
A spokesperson for the RAF said the concerns raised by the now-resigned head of recruitment had been “addressed” by her chain of command.
“The RAF recruits people from the widest possible pool of talent and is becoming a more diverse organisation, but we will not do so at the expense of our high standards, operational effectiveness, or adherence to legal obligations,” the spokesperson said.
“We frequently review our recruitment processes, seeking legal advice to ensure that we are mindful of our legal obligations.
“Any allegations that we have failed to do so are investigated without delay. The concern raised in this instance was addressed by the chain of command at the time and we continue our work to ensure recruitment processes remain compliant with all policy and legal requirements.”
Successive governments have been challenging all three armed services – the RAF, the army and the Royal Navy – for years to improve their diversity statistics in what has traditionally been a predominately white, male profession.
It is a goal championed by defence chiefs.
The MOD has announced it aims to increase the ratio of female recruits coming into the Armed Forces in general to 30% by 2030 from around 12%.
The RAF is aiming to go further. It is seeking for the ratio of female air force recruits to hit 40% by the end of the decade – more than double the current level.
The target for ethnic minorities is to reach 20% of all air force recruits within the same timeframe, up from around 10%.
But defence sources have accused Air Chief Marshal Wigston of appearing willing to compromise UK security at a time of growing threats from Russia and China in pursuit of albeit important goals such as improving diversity and inclusion.
Mr Heappey was pressed on a central allegation from the defence sources that the head of the RAF has built a culture within his service around the importance of diversity and inclusion, which has perhaps prompted his chain of command to prioritise the delivery of diversity targets over the air force’s operational requirements.
The minister said: “If that is a culture that exists, I’m sure that we will be encouraging the Chief of the Air Staff to get after it, to make very clear within the RAF what the policy is.”
Spelling out the priority for the UK’s defence ministers, he said: “I want the chief of the air staff and the other chiefs to get after our lack of diversity, but at definitely no expense to our ability as a war-fighting organisation to keep our nation safe”.
Asked whether he still had confidence in Air Chief Marshal Wigston, Mr Heappey said: “Yes.”