The head of the Royal Air Force signalled he was ready to “bend” his service out of shape and test “the limit of the law” to improve diversity, according to an informed source and the leaked transcript of an internal meeting.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston has always maintained that efforts under his leadership to increase the ratio of ethnic minority and female recruits had no impact on the RAF’s operational effectiveness and that standards were never compromised.
But a second source – a serving RAF airman – claimed: “Us ‘on the shop floor’ so to speak are struggling. We haven’t got enough people to do the jobs and are desperate to have new recruits, new people – constantly…
“It appears they put political correctness and their own arbitrary target of increasing ethnic minorities and women recruitment ahead of actually getting people through the training pipeline to us at the coal face.”
Sky News revealed last year that the head of RAF recruitment resigned in protest at what was alleged to be an “illegal order” effectively to pause the placing of white male recruits onto training courses in favour of women and ethnic minorities.
The order was never implemented but only because Group Captain Elizabeth Nicholl refused to obey it and quit.
Her resignation as head of recruitment and selection prompted an official inquiry, but its results have yet to be made public.
Questions have also been raised about how the RAF just over a year earlier fast-tracked dozens of women and ethnic minority recruits onto training courses ahead of their white male counterparts.
Appearing before MPs in February, Air Chief Marshal Wigston admitted to a general failing by his organisation after what he described as his “aspirational goal” to boost diversity “trickled down” to become an “unattainable” target for individual recruitment officers.
Now, new insight can be revealed into the internal dialogue on diversity that was taking place within the RAF during his tenure.
The informed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed the RAF’s top personnel officer, Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Maria Byford, shared a direction she had received from Air Chief Marshal Wigston about the need to prioritise ethnic minorities and women over white men when it comes to recruitment. This allegedly happened a couple of months before the resignation of the head of recruitment.
“In June 2022, Chief of Air Personnel AVM Byford sent correspondence to her staff stating CAS (Chief of the Air Staff) was prepared to bend the operational inflow requirement for the RAF out of shape for the next three years to meet diversity levels of ambition,” the source said.
Sky News understands this claim is part of the evidence gathered by the non-statutory inquiry into what prompted the head of recruitment to resign.
The source said the desire to bend the RAF out of shape appeared to contrast with the air chief’s subsequent assurance to parliament’s defence select committee that “there was no compromise of entry standards.
There was no impact on the standard of recruits from any background. There was no impact on the frontline or on operational effectiveness”.
Separately, Sky News has seen the transcript of a virtual meeting the air chief held with members of the RAF’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) network via Zoom on 18 June 2020.
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During the session, he made clear his ambition to improve diversity within recruitment as well as within a system of allocating honours and awards to aviators in recognition of service.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston is quoted as saying: “All white, all male lists of anything are unacceptable”, according to the document.
It carried a disclaimer that this was not a verbatim transcript, noting that it drew from notes taken by staff who were listening “and captures the key aspects from the question-and-answer session”.
At one point, the air chief and the RAF’s then senior non-commissioned officer, Warrant Officer Jake Alpert, who also participated, were asked whether the service planned to use positive action to ensure there is fairer representation of ethnic minorities.
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Positive action is a legal tool to help employers increase diversity by prioritising a minority candidate over, for example, their white, male counterpart if they are equally qualified.
The two RAF leaders said they believed in positive action.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston was quoted as saying he was impatient for speedy improvements in the RAF’s ethnic minority figures, noting that the ratio stood at just 6% of all recruits in 2019 and he wanted it to reach 20% by 2030.
He said if changes around recruitment and other areas were not happening fast enough towards the end of his time as chief “then I’m going to take it as far as I can in the law – right up to the point of quotas and push positive action to the limit of the law…
“We are already taking positive action and I don’t accept honours and awards that aren’t representative of our population”.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston is due to retire from the RAF in June after almost four years in the post.
Sky News asked Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, about the recruitment controversy in an interview last Thursday.
He said he would seek to make the findings of the inquiry public once they were finalised and said that anyone found to have been at fault would be held to account.
“Ultimately what people need to understand is that no one was prevented from joining the RAF as a result of these conditions,” Mr Wallace said.
“Fundamentally what the air force was trying to do was to make sure there were more women being recruited into the air force. There was no lowering of the standards.
“There was no gerrymandering or fixing but ultimately what this inquiry has been looking at is the process of the leadership and its relationship between those in charge at the time and whether they were listened to when they felt there was something going awry.”
An RAF spokesperson said: “The RAF is constantly reviewing its recruiting practices in order to improve the diversity of its workforce.
“During the period in question our selection standards did not drop and there was no impact on the operational effectiveness of the RAF, however, in hindsight, we accept that despite the best of intentions, that some mistakes were made.
“The RAF is now confident that our approach is correct.”
The RAF also pushed back on the suggestion from the anonymous serving RAF airman about a shortage of recruits, saying figures for the past year to March – which have yet to be released – will show the service hit well over 90% of its recruitment targets.
This outperformed the rest of the armed forces.