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RAF and Red Arrows: When will bullying and harassment stop?

It's a sad and unfortunate fact of our current modern times that sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace is still prevalent and appears to be getting worse. We only need look at the revelations this week of work practices within the civil service and government departments that have been revealed during the Covid enquiry as examples.

At Irwin Mitchell we specialise in bullying and harassment claims within the military and act for a number of clients who have either been bullied, harassed and/or sexually harassed during the course of their service and, even worse still, faced sexual assault and rape. 

This week, yet more revelations of such practices were revealed following the publication of the Non-Statutory Inquiry report allegations relating to the RAF Red.

The Red Arrows aerobatic display team is an impressive unit which performs stand out routines on distinctive Hawk fast jets. By 2023 this team had performed nearly 5,000 displays in over 50 countries. However, the damning report into the Red Arrows has found predatory behaviour towards women was “widespread and normalised.” The investigation further revealed incidents of sexual harassment, bullying and misogyny. 

The investigation came about following complaints by three female whistleblowers who first spoke out in 2021. It was reported there was a prevalent and widespread behaviour of women in the Red Arrows being hounded for sex and plied with alcohol in what appeared to be a predatory and toxic drinking culture. The complaints from the three women were initially reported to their chain of command but nothing had been done. The allegations dated back to 2017.

The published report reveals that in some instances women were treated as ‘property’. For this reason, some women would try and avoid drinking to avoid finding themselves in invidious positions with their squadron leaders which resulted in women normalising the behaviour they experienced with many saying they had ‘got used to it’.

Women in the squadron had to deal with unwanted comments about their appearance, sexual text messages and unwanted physical contact. 

The inquiry concluded that the harassment was predominately directed at women. The RAF said many of the examples of sexual harassment were not challenged and that there was found to be a “bystander culture….and an unwillingness to take action that could be viewed as unpopular.” 

There were also two reported cases of exposure of genitalia.

Robert Courts, chairman of the Defence Committee, said the inquiry findings showed there were "serious cultural problems running deep within the unit."

The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Richard Knighton has said he was appalled by the findings and has “unreservedly” apologised.

He said: “The reports show that during the period investigated, unacceptable behaviours were widespread and ‘normalised’ on the Red Arrows. These included sexual harassment, bullying and an alcohol-focused culture.

“The situation was compounded by a ‘bystander culture’, meaning people did not challenge what was happening. The behaviours described by witnesses in the reports have no place in the Royal Air Force – or anywhere else.

“The findings of the investigations are clear. Actions have been taken against a number of individuals, up to and including dismissal from the service.

“I was appalled when I read the investigation findings. The behaviour of a minority of individuals has harmed the squadron’s reputation and that of the Royal Air Force.

“Like my predecessor, I am intent on rebuilding public trust in one of our highest-profile units. I know that the current team is working hard to do just that.

“The leadership, air and ground crews of the Red Arrows have undergone many changes since the period covered by the investigations, with few still serving on the squadron from that time. I have confidence in the command and people of the current squadron.

“More broadly, I would like to make it very clear today that where appropriate, I will not hesitate to use the most severe sanctions available to me to deal with those whose behaviour harms others.”

What is clear is that there are still very deep-rooted problems within the military and despite the revelations in this report, fundamental change is needed. What is disappointing is that a separate military police investigation has confirmed that none of the allegations highlighted between 2017 and 2021 met the threshold for criminal charges. 

We need to see change in challenging and removing bullying and sexual harassment by the Ministry of Defence. 

There are already guidelines in the form of the Joint Service Publications for these kinds of situations but it's clear these guidelines and recommendations aren't being followed or adhered to. We can only hope that from the results of this investigation and report we see some change for the better, to improve the working conditions for these extremely talented individuals in the RAF Red Arrows and the wider military.

If you've been affected by bullying and harassment within the military, find out more and how to get in touch with our specialist team at the dedication section on our website.