Sajid Javid has said it would be “complete nonsense” if the RAF has placed an “effective pause” on offering jobs to white male recruits in favour of women and ethnic minorities.
It comes after defence sources told Sky News on Tuesday that the head of RAF recruitment had resigned in protest at the move which aims to hit “impossible” diversity targets.
The senior female officer apparently handed in her notice in recent days amid concerns that any such restrictions on hiring, however temporary and limited, could undermine the fighting strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the sources said.
The defence sources accused Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the head of the RAF, 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.
An RAF spokesperson disputed the allegations.
But former cabinet minister Mr Javid said organisations should not be recruiting on the basis of race.
“I don’t think any organisation, whether it’s the RAF or any other public or private organisation, should be recruiting on the basis of one’s race,” he told Sky News.
“Of course, we want to see a diverse workforce, we want to see all talents come through.
“And I happen to think having more diversity actually increases the productivity of your workforce.
“But it should not be based on race – whether it’s black, white or anything.”
An RAF spokesperson said: “There is no pause in Royal Air Force recruitment and no new policy with regards to meeting in-year recruitment requirements.
“Royal Air Force commanders will not shy away from the challenges we face building a service that attracts and recruits talent from every part of the UK workforce.
“As with the Royal Navy and British Army, we are doing everything we can to encourage recruiting from under-represented groups and ensure we have a diverse workforce.
“The Royal Air Force has a well-earned reputation for operational excellence that is founded on the quality of all our people. We will always seek to recruit the best talent available to us”.
Also responding to questions from Sky News on the issue, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “Operational effectiveness is of paramount importance and no one is lowering the standards to join the Royal Air Force.
“The RAF recruits for many professions and, like the rest of the armed forces, is determined to be a force that reflects the society it serves to protect.”
Neither spokesperson addressed the resignation of the head of RAF recruitment.
The RAF does not typically comment on individuals.
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 predominantly white, male profession.
It is a goal championed by defence chiefs.
Senior leaders appear to be prioritising diversity over operational needs, according to defence sources.
They said the RAF’s recruitment arm has effectively been told to take a pause on offering jobs to white male recruits in the hope that more slots can be filled by women and ethnic minorities during this financial year.
“We are all really pro-diversity and we want to see better representation across the services but… levels of ambition for ethnic targets… are absolutely crazy,” one of the sources said.
“There is no scientific or cultural background to these particular levels of ambition.”
Another source called the diversity targets “impossible”.
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 – which was the first of the services to open all roles to women and already has the highest ratio of females – is aiming to go further. It wants 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%.