Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton says he is “not aware” of the prime minister’s involvement in the evacuation of animals from Afghanistan, despite the emergence of letters which suggest Boris Johnson gave the go-ahead.
In new leaked Foreign Office emails, published by the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, officials say Boris Johnson authorised the rescue of cats and dogs from Afghanistan during the fall of Kabul, despite the prime minister claiming he had no role in the case.
Nowzad charity owner Pen Farthing launched a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul last summer, using a plane funded by donations.
The government sponsored clearance for a chartered flight, which airlifted Farthing and 150 animals from Kabul Airport on 29 August, leading to allegations that animals were prioritised over people in the rescue effort.
But in a letter to Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat on 17 January, Barton said he did not have reason to believe No.10 had supported the decision to help evacuate the animals.
Responding to the MPs’ questions about whether he believed the PM was involved, or if he had reason to believe FCDO staff attributed the decision to the prime minister, he said: “I am not aware of that, beyond speculation in the public domain.”
He also said Nigel Casey, the prime minister’s special representative for Afghanistan, had not received any correspondence suggesting Johnson had intervened in the Nowzad case.
However, the emails leaked by whistleblower Raphael Marshall – a former civil servant at the FCDO – show that Casey did receive an email from an FCDO official on 25 August which twice refers to “the PM’s decision” to evacuate staff of the animal charity.
In the other of the two leaked emails, an official in Foreign Office minister Zac Goldsmith’s office writes: “The PM has just authorised their [Nowzad’s] staff and animals to be evacuated.”
In his letter to the committee, Barton said consular staff had “repeatedly” urged Farthing to take up the offer of military evacuation.
“The FCDO’s interest was first and foremost with the safety of Pen Farthing as a British national,” he said.
Nowzad staff were among the groups of Afghan nationals FCDO staff had flagged to be considered for evacuation if space became available, he said. They were called forward for evacuation “towards the very end of the evacuation”.
“Once Nowzad staff had been called forward for evacuation, the Defence Secretary made a public statement that, if Pen Farthing brought the animals in Nowzad’s care to the airport, MoD would seek a landing slot for the charter flight Nowzad had organised,” Barton wrote.
“That charter flight left Kabul only after the evacuation of all civilians had been completed and the cross-government civilian Rapid Deployment Team, which had been processing civilians for evacuation, had left. Nowzad’s Afghan staff were unable to access the airport and later left Afghanistan by a different route.”
‘At no point did PM instruct staff’
Downing Street has repeatedly denied claims that Johnson had any role in authorising individual evacuations during the evacuation effort, known as Operation Pitting, including the animal evacuation.
“At no point did the prime minister instruct staff to take any particular course of action on Nowzad,” a No.10 spokesman said.
The leaked emails show “what those officials thought was happening” rather than the truth, a government source told the Guardian.
Farthing, a former royal marine, denies the PM had any involvement in the evacuation of his animals, which was named “Operation Ark”.
In another letter, leaked to LBC, the PM’s private secretary Trudy Harrison confirms to Farthing that his staff and the animals, as well as himself, have clearance to be evacuated from Kabul Airport via a chartered flight. Nowzad’s Afghan staff had to be left behind, but later made it safely to Pakistan.
Harrison signed off the email as “parliamentary private secretary to prime minister” alongside MP for Copeland, No.10 said she was acting in her role as a constituency MP in this case.
In Barton's letter to the FCDO committee, he also responds to a question asking how long officials had spent on the Nowzad evacuation.
The FCDO perm sec, who was criticised for being on leave for the first 11 days of the evacuation, said it was impossible to estimate how long was spent on any one case, but “cases in which ministers, MPs, or in this case, the wider public took an interest consumed a significant amount of staff time”.
Barton previously told MPs: “If I had my time again I would have come back from my leave earlier than I did."
More than 15,000 people were airlifted to safety on more than 100 flights from Kabul Airport in response to the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.