RAF flies into sex discrimination row

The Royal Air Force risks humiliation if found guilty of discrimination in a pending industrial tribunal, predicts Roger Pearson.

Discrimination in the armed forces will hit the headlines again in December when a ruling is expected on a major sex discrimination claim against the RAF. If the ruling goes against it, it could prove a major embarrassment to the air force.

The RAF was taken to the Croydon Industrial Tribunal in September this year by 41-year-old Flight Sergeant Julie Flanagan. She was the only female non-commissioned officer (NCO) at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Base at RAF Fylingdale near Whitby in North Yorkshire, where she was responsible for teaching airmen how to use the early warning system.

At the tribunal hearing, her solicitor, John Mackenzie of Fleet Street firm Sheratte Caleb, described her as a first class NCO, but claimed that this had been her downfall and that she had been "too good for her own good".

After 22 years with the air force, Flanagan, who was number two in the training department at RAF Fylingdale, was transferred to the Shetland Islands.

She claims that her transfer was provoked by a letter she wrote to senior officers last year, in which she complained that the computer system being used in training was five years out of date.

It is alleged that, on reading the letter, her immediate superior "blew his top" and that she was then summoned to see a squadron leader who accused her of trying to undermine authority.

Prior to this incident, Flanagan had received excellent reports on her work. But it is claimed that after the incident her report was down-graded, taking her out of line for promotion.

Mackenzie, who specialises in representing members of the armed forces, told the tribunal that her last assessment had accused her of becoming hysterical when she faced criticism. However, he argued that it was her professionalism which had created considerable resentment from the officers who, it is claimed, ultimately orchestrated her downfall.

The RAF denies that any discrimination occurred.