Foreign Office chief Sir Philip Barton has said he regrets not returning from annual leave during the UK’s evacuation from Afghanistan, but denied the effort was undermined by a “clocking-off culture” at the department.
Giving evidence to parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday afternoon, Barton confirmed he was on holiday at the same time as then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab as Kabul fell in August.
He did not return to work until 26 August – 11 days after the evacuation began.
“I have reflected a lot since August on my leave and if I had my time again I would have come back from my leave earlier than I did,” the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office permanent secretary told MPs.
Asked if he had ever changed holiday plans in a crisis before – and if he thought it normal to do so – he confirmed he had, and said he had learned a lesson that he should have returned sooner.
Pressed on the wisdom of going on holiday at all, Barton said that at the beginning of his leave on 9 August, there was “no inevitability at that point that Kabul was going to fall in the period that it fell”.
"The best assessment was that it could take some time. There was no certainty over the timescale,” he added.
He said he“stayed in touch” with officials while on holiday and that he had left an acting permanent secretary in place as cover during his absence, as well as a director general to lead on Afghanistan.
Questions were also raised about Raab, who faced calls to resign after it emerged he did not return from his Crete holiday during the crisis. He has since been reshuffled to the Ministry of Justice.
The minister returned from his holiday earlier than Barton, but in an earlier evidence session refused to confirm the dates he was away.
Asked if the FCDO had a record of the dates Raab was away and if he would write to the committee with the information, Barton repeatedly declined to confirm whether he would be able to do so.
"I’m happy to take that question away," he said.
'Complex and difficult'
Committee member Alicia Kearns, a former civil servant who worked in comms roles at several departments before becoming a Conservative MP, grilled Barton repeatedly on how his absence affected staff working on the evacuation from the crisis centre in the UK.
Kearns, who worked on the Foreign Office’s communication campaigns in Syria and Iraq, said she had spent considerable time in crisis centres, and pressed Barton on whether his insistence that the FCDO had a duty of care to its staff applied to those in the UK as well as those on the ground in Afghanistan.
“This was a catastrophe of incomparable nature,” she said, referring to evidence submitted by the whistleblower Raphael Marshall to the committee. Marshall’s evidence described staff being asked to volunteer for shifts, rather than being compelled; limited IT systems; and chaotic processes.
Based on Marshall’s claims, Kearns demanded: “Do you think those you put in place to take your role in your absence failed in their duties?”
Barton replied: “No, I don’t think they did fail… it was an extremely complex and difficult crisis.”
He said the government had managed to evacuate 15,000 people, but added: “I do acknowledge there were things that we could have done better and we all wish we could have got more people out and I’m sure there are lessons we can learn.”
Barton later said that since returning to London he had been a “regular visitor” to the crisis centre.
Work-life balance claims ‘based on a misunderstanding’
While he accepted some of the points raised in Marshall’s evidence, Barton pushed back against the suggestion that the evacuation drive was hampered by an over-prioritisation by the Foreign Office of staff work-life balance.
Marshall said staff were told only to work for eight hours a day and that “ the FCDO’s approach has undermined organisational effectiveness”.
Challenged by Conservative MP Bob Seeley that the claim make the department look “complacent and waffly and woolly and unfocused and a bit rubbish”, Barton said “I simply don’t recognise that”.
“I think it’s based on a misunderstanding,” he said.
“There isn’t a clocking-off culture at all in the FCDO; we actually spend more time trying to persuade [people] not to work too hard and to burn out. In terms of the eight hours, when we’re in a full-blown crisis, it is very intense. We do have an eight-hour shift system and we make sure therefore that people are getting a period of rest and then coming back onto shifts.”
He added: “This wasn’t about work-life balance, this is about rostering shifts in a crisis to make sure people don’t burn out in a crisis and work too long in one period of time.”
He said after encountering problems with staffing during the hurricanes crisis in the Caribbean in 2017, the department had reviewed its processes and created a “directorate crisis list” that enabled it to call in officials from different areas of the department.
But he did say when it conducts a lessons-learned exercise on the crisis, it will consider “the extent to which that worked effectively, how we can be more agile, how we can be able to access contingent capability without reducing significantly our ability to deliver day-in, day-out business”.
Appearing alongside Barton, Nigel Casey, the prime minister’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and FCDO director for Afghanistan, added that there had been an “element of compulsion” as DGs were asked to produce a given number of staff for the response.
'Not about lack of urgency'
Barton confirmed Marshall’s account in the evidence submitted to the committee that the staffer had emailed him on 31 August after four days in the crisis team with concerns that the civil service code had been breached.
He said the investigation into Marshall’s concerns had been carried out by a senior former head of mission who had not been involved in the Afghanistan crisis response.
“She acknowledged that staff working under huge pressure had done their best to deliver the right outcomes,” Barton said.
The FCDO has faced particular criticism over its handling of correspondence during the crisis.
Marshall’s evidence said the email system was disorganised and that “thousands” of emails went unread as staff became overwhelmed with the volume.
Barton said the department would be looking at how to create more contingency resource for handling email correspondence on a mass scale in future.
“I genuinely don’t think it was about lack of urgency or lack of grip, I think it was about the complexity of the circumstances we all faced,” he said.
He added that the department had taken on board feedback from the committee and its own lessons-learned exercise on how it responded to the Covid pandemic, which led it to increase capacity and resources for handling calls.
Following the evidence session, committee chair Tom Tugendhat said MPs remained "concerned about the Foreign Office's role in the evacuation effort".
"We have seen the disintegration of a nation British troops laid down their lives to protect," the Conservative MP added.
"In leaving, many Afghan friends and partners were abandoned. This crisis demanded, and deserved, the full attention of the Foreign Office.
"It seems that junior staff members and soldiers bore most of the burden, having been placed under huge pressure to make life-or-death decisions with insufficient guidance, support or oversight.
"The evidence we've heard today points to a lack of leadership, urgency and adequate resourcing.
"It is deeply painful how badly we have let Afghanistan down."