The head of the Royal Air Force admitted to mistakes and failings after it was claimed that the former head of recruitment had identified “around 160 cases” of discrimination against white men.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, appearing before a committee of MPs on Wednesday for the first time since the scandal broke last year, said it had been wrong for “stretching aspirational” goals – that he set to improve diversity in the RAF – to end up as “unattainable” recruitment targets for his recruitment teams.
“That put intolerable stress on them and that was a failing of the organisation – where an aspirational goal becomes an individual’s target,” he said.
Looking incredibly uncomfortable, the RAF chief, for the first time in public, also offered an apology to Group Captain Lizzy Nicholl for feeling as though she had no choice but to resign as head of recruitment.
However, he insisted that there had not been any “active discrimination” against white men.
The RAF chief came under heavy fire from the defence select committee over what happened to Group Captain Nicholl, who quit because she refused to implement what she deemed to be an “unlawful order” to favour women and ethnic minorities when selecting individuals for training courses.
Sky News first reported the resignation last August.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, said that he believed legal action was going to be taken against the RAF over the matter, which he called a “blot on the copy book” of the air force.
He said the order that the head of recruitment refused to implement had come down from her chain of command, noting that Air Chief Marshal Wigston sat at the top.
“My question today is: ‘Did the wrong person resign?'” Mr Ellwood asked.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston said that he was limited in what he could say about Group Captain Nicholl’s case because it is the topic of an ongoing inquiry. It revolved around an order that was given to the officer last August and was never implemented because she quit.
Before this happened, though, Mr Ellwood said she had allegedly already discovered a recruitment practice that appeared to favour women and ethnic minority candidates over white men in a bid to improve the RAF’s diversity targets.
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“She determined that, I understand, about 160 cases of positive discrimination had taken place and she ended up having to resign not wishing to go through with this policy,” Mr Ellwood said.
The RAF chief admitted that mistakes had been made “historically”.
He said it hinged around how certain recruits – based on gender and ethnicity – had been accelerated onto courses ahead of white men, something that was only identified as an “error” at the start of last year.
“Prior to that a limited number of women and ethnic minority candidates who had passed through the recruiting system were allocated additional slots onto basic training,” Air Chief Marshal Wigston said.
However, he stressed that no one had done anything intentionally wrong.
“Throughout all of this, I have seen nothing to indicate that people were giving directions that they believed to be unlawful.
“They were working under the assumption that what they were doing was lawful and it was all done under the best of intent to tackle this intractable challenge,” he said, referring to the goal to recruit more women and ethnic minorities.
As for his own track record, the head of the air force said: “I make no apologies for setting a challenging aspirational goal for the Royal Air Force for diversity.
“Those are challenging goals, those are stretching aspirational levels of ambition … One of the mistakes we have identified is that that aspirational goal … when it was translated into the strategy and then translated into our business plan and then trickled down into individual recruiting officers’, recruiting sergeants’ in-year personal objectives and was an unattainable target that put intolerable stress on them, and that was a failing of the organisation where an aspirational goal becomes an individual’s target.”