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The head of the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) issued a statement on 29 June 2023 accepting that previous RAF initiatives to increase the numbers of women and ethnic minorities in the force led to unlawful positive discrimination that penalised white male applicants.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Rich Knighton, Chief of the Air Staff, accepted all of the recommendations of ‘The RAF Recruiting and Selection Non-Statutory Inquiry [NSI]’, which was published the same day.

“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,” stated ACM Knighton. “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.”

Group Captain Lizzie Nicholl, the RAF’s former head of recruiting and selection (Gp Capt R&S), resigned from her post on 4 August 2022, charging that “prior to her arrival clear acts of positive discrimination had taken place; and that during her tenure she had endured relentless institutional pressure to carry out overt acts of positive discrimination which she believed to be immoral, unethical and illegal”, the inquiry stated.

While the NSI found that “those who led the initiatives believed that they were ‘pushing the boundaries’ of positive action rather than acting unlawfully”, it noted “that the former Gp Capt R&S received legal advice in May and June 2022 that indicated that the pull forward of candidates based on protected characteristics was contrary to the Equality Act 2010, which provided reasonable justification for the former Gp Capt R&S to state that acts of positive discrimination had taken place in RY20/21.”

RAF chief ACM Knighton has apologised for unlawful positive discrimination prior to his appointment that illegally penalised white male applicants. (Crown Copyright)

The NSI additionally found “that the chain of command’s reaction to the former Gp Capt R&S’s concerns was overly defensive, and had 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”.

It did not, however, uphold the assertion from Gp Capt Nicholl that the pressure that she and her staff had endured amounted to institutionalised bullying.

Gp Capt Nicholl had stated that, because the targets that she was required to achieve for female and ethnic minority inflow were not informed by societal or scientific evidence, she was being set up for failure, and that the overzealous pursuit of unrealistic levels of ambition had created a sense of disillusionment across her organisation.

The NSI noted that she “felt compelled to challenge the toxic culture of chasing statistics, and that she therefore felt forced to resign from her role”.

ACM Knighton conceded in his statement that 31 individuals had been held back in training and missed the opportunity to qualify for a £5,000 (EUR 5,822) joining bonus. These personnel are now being compensated.

The air chief concluded his statement by saying, “The RAF has prided itself over its 105-year history on being a meritocracy, where someone’s ability and potential has always mattered more than where they came from or what they looked like. The RAF will continue to be a meritocracy and we will always aim to attract the best people from the widest talent pool, to help make the RAF the most operationally effective force it can be.”

Peter Felstead