An MP has described the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office's IT system as “inept” after the head of the Afghanistan Task Force said he had to regularly delete emails to keep his inbox working during the crisis last year.
The exchange was part of a hearing called after a second whistle blower accused senior FCDO officials of intentionally misleading MPs over the prime minister’s involvement in the evacuation of animals from Afghanistan.
FCDO permanent secretary Philip Barton and Afghanistan evacuation crisis chief Nigel Casey appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday to explain how the department was instructed to evacuate staff and animals from charity Nowzad.
The officials were unable to clarify who had made the political decision to approve the rescue during Operation Pitting last year, while their explanation for “inadvertently misleading” the committee in January over whether they were aware of the PM’s alleged involvement in the decision left MPs puzzled.
The prime minister has always denied being involved in the process assisting British citizen Pen Farthing and more than 100 cats and dogs cared for by his charity Nowzad to be airlifted from Kabul as thousands of others were attempting to flee as the Taliban took over.
FCDO officials explain why they ‘inadvertently misled’ committee
In written testimony published by the Foreign Affairs select committee on Monday, Grade 6 official Josie Stewart suggested that FCDO senior officials "intentionally" misled the committee in January when giving evidence about the decision.
Barton told the committee in December that he was “not aware of the decision making” on the Nowzad case and Casey told the MPs on January 25 he had not received emails attributing the decision to the PM, after being asked by the committee to look for them.
But the committee then published a message from a senior official referring to “the PM’s decision” on Farthing’s animals, copied to Casey on August 25. Barton apologised in a letter on January 27 for providing “inadvertently inaccurate” info to MPs.
Explaining why he had failed to tell MPs about the email he was copied into, Casey told the committee on Monday he may have deleted emails referring to the PM’s involvement in the decision and so could not find them.
“It is possible I could have deleted the emails. My email inbox was exploding,” Casey said.
He said he had to focus on emails which were addressed directly to him for him to take action on and it was “quite possible” that he “weeded” out other emails.
The PM’s special representative for Afghanistan said he had been focused on a terrorist threat to the evacuation on the day he was copied into the email about the PM ordering the evacuation of Nowzad staff.
MP Alicia Kearns, who previously worked in communications at the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, questioned why he would then need to delete the deleted items section of his inbox.
Responding, Casey said: “I do that as a matter of routine, because otherwise the whole capacity of your inbox gums up and stops working.”
Kearns said she “never once” had to empty out her inbox when she worked at the MoD but did have to when she worked at the foreign office.
“The issue is that the FCDO IT is inept and cannot cope with crisis,” she said.
“Clearly, there is a problem with the FCDO IT system that FCDO civil servants regularly have to delete all their items, whereas other departments I have worked at I never had to do it in years of working with them.”
In her written testimony, Stewart said those working on the Afghanistan response had been told not to delete emails.
But Casey said staff had received the instruction to keep emails on 23 September in response to litigation, a month after the email in question, adding “after that I certainly haven’t deleted any more”.
Responding to Kearns’ criticism, Barton said the department is “investing in new IT as we bring the new departments together to make sure we have a common platform – I am sure that will deliver faster speeds and bigger inboxes”.
Problems with the Foreign Office IT systems that have not been resolved since the ministry merged with the Department for International Development in 2020, with officials reportedly saying they are undermining the government’s response to the Russia-Ukraine war.
Whistleblower Raphael Marshall, a former FCDO staffer, sounded the alarm in December about a “chaotic” IT system during the evacuation of British and Afghan nationals after the fall of Kabul last summer.
Perm sec claims official mistakenly linked PM to Nowzad decision
Stewart, whose evidence corroborates much of Marshall’s account of the chaos around the withdrawal from Afghanistan, said it was “widespread knowledge" in the FCDO Crisis Centre that the decision to support Nowzad came from Johnson.
But Barton told the committee on Monday there had been a mix-up. The FCDO perm sec said the head of the team dealing with Leave Outside The Rules (LOTR) cases had mistakenly attributed the Nowzad decision to the PM in an email to colleagues, which may have caused others to believe this was the case.
"This was an assumption he made based on the fact it had come from the national security adviser which was understandable given the many voices in the media at the time claiming that the prime minister had made the decision,” Barton.
“It is sometimes the case that when things have been communicated by the centre of government, they are ascribed to the prime minister,” he added.
“Now we have enough [information] to understand how staff in good faith believed at the time that the decision had been attributed to the PM.”
Barton and Casey said they were informed Nowzad staff and animals could be evacuated under LOTR by defence secretary Ben Wallaces’s tweet on 25 August.
The FCDO officials said they then contacted national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove, who confirmed to them that they should call forward Nowzad for evacuation from Kabul.
They then spoke to the foreign office secretary Dominic Raab’s private office, and were told to “get on with it”, Casey added.
The officials told the committee they still do not know who authorised the evacuation.
Committee chair Tom Tugendhat expressed his shock that Barton, who has been a civil servant since 1986, did not have "curiosity" about who made the political decision, with the FCDO officials insisting that they asked Lovegrove and that was that. However, Casey added that he would like to know who made the decision.
Chris Bryant, another MP on the committee, told the officials he doesn’t “buy any of it”.