Ben Wallace says RAF diversity policy was ‘wrong’
Recently appointed Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton has “apologised unreservedly” after an official inquiry found the Royal Air Force illegally discriminated against white men as part of a recruitment drive intended to increase diversity within its ranks.
However, he also confirmed none of the RAF’s senior leaders, including his predecessor in the role Sir Mike Wigston, would face any official sanctions as a result of the highly critical investigation.
Sir Richard pointed the finger at flawed legal advice which indicated a drive in 2020 and 2021, to fast-track ethnic people from ethnic minorities and female recruits into training slots, counted as positive action as opposed to positive discrimination, which is against the law.
Meanwhile Defence Secretary Ben Wallace voiced his concern about the treatment of Group Captain Lizzy Nicholl, the RAF’s former head of recruitment, who ended up losing her job after voicing her concerns about the legality of the recruitment drive.
In a statement issued via the RAF’s website today, Sir Richard referred to the independent non-statutory inquiry (NSI) into RAF recruitment, which was initiated by Sir Mike in September of last year.
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The RAF’s policy amounted to positive discrimination, which is illegal, the report found
The 72-page report made 12 recommendations, all of which he had accepted, Sir Richard added.
He explained: “In September 2022, we acknowledged that the RAF had made mistakes in the way we had offered places on training courses to people selected to join the RAF.
“The NSI confirmed that in 2020 and 2021, a total of 161 enlisted aviators, who were either women or from ethnic minority backgrounds, were accelerated onto initial training ahead of other candidates.
“The belief at that time, based on the understanding of the recruiting process and interpretation of the legal advice, was that this practice demonstrated acceptable, positive action. We now know that it did not, and I apologise unreservedly to all those affected.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace
Sir Richard said the RAF accepted some men had been discriminated against, including a group of 31 individuals who likely missed the opportunity to qualify for a £5,000 joining bonus or golden handshake.
All these people had been retrospectively offered any financial payment they potentially missed out on, Sir Richard said.
He continued: “Those involved in recruiting and selection throughout this period acted with the best of intentions; but it is clear that people responsible for implementing these policies did raise concerns at the time, and the way in which long-term aspirational goals set by senior leadership to improve diversity in the RAF were translated into personal performance targets was wrong.
“I apologise unreservedly to the recruiting and selection team and the former Group Captain recruiting and selection for the cumulative pressure placed on them to achieve those aspirational goals.”
People joining the RAF during the period in question met the necessary standards, and therefore entered the service on merit.
Former Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston
Everyone accelerated into training had already passed all of the RAF’s selection criteria and assessments, meaning there was no compromise of entry standards and no impact on operational effectiveness, he stressed.
Sir Richard said: “We will learn the lessons from the NSI. We have rigorously scrutinised our recruiting practices and continue to monitor our recruitment processes. We will not make the same mistakes again.
“While I remain determined to improve levels of inclusion and diversity in the RAF, we will ensure that our methods are beyond reproach.
“We are working hard to restore trust and confidence in our recruitment processes, and I am hugely grateful for the hard work of the Recruiting and Selection teams right across the country who continue to achieve the best recruiting performance in defence.”
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Wallace said what had happened was a “significant error” and a “cause for regret” for the RAF.
Sir Richard Knighton was appointed Air Chief Marshal in March
The treatment of Group Captain Lizzy Nicholl needed to be “looked at considerably”, he added, saying scrutiny was needed as to “why she was ignored, why indeed she was put under that pressure.
“And I don’t want to see anyone put under pressure to do something like what we’ve seen in the RAF”.
Group Captain Nicholl’s position became untenable after Air Vice Marshal Maria Byford, reporting directly to Sir Mike, insisted that the order was to be carried out despite warnings that it was illegal.
Addressing the dispute, the report said: “We found that concerns were raised at the time by R&S [recruitment and selection] staff but that those who led the initiatives believed that they were ‘pushing the boundaries’ of positive action rather than acting unlawfully.
“We found that the chain of command’s reaction to the former Group Capt R&S was overly defensive and not properly considered whether she might have been justified in what she said regarding previous acts of positive discrimination or the legality of what she was asked to do; and that insufficient effort had been made to determine the facts.”