New whistleblower claims FCDO senior officials 'intentionally' misled MPs over decision to evacuate dogs from Afghanistan

Official claims staff have lost confidence in FCDO leadership
Foreign Office FCDO King Charles Street HQ

By Suzannah Brecknell

21 Mar 2022

A second whistleblower in the Foreign Office has backed up claims Boris Johnson personally intervened in the decision to evacuate rescue animals from Afghanistan during the UK’s military withdrawal from the country last year.

In written testimony published by the Foreign Affairs select committee today, Grade 6 official Josie Stewart also suggests that FCDO senior officials "intentionally" misled MPs when giving evidence about the decision.

Stewart had worked for the Department for International Development, including at the British Embassy in Kabul, and now works at the FCDO, which was created by merging the development department into the Foreign Office. She volunteered to work on the Afghanistan Crisis Response, and said that she now feels " a strong sense of moral injury for having been part of something so badly managed, and so focused on managing reputational risk and political fallout rather than the actual crisis and associated human tragedy."

She adds that she has chosen to publish her testimony because she cannot "accept the lack of accountability" for failures relating to the Afghanistan evacuation, and "the disregard that I have seen over recent months, during this inquiry, of core tenets of the Nolan Principles of Public Life: the issuing of misleading statements and stifling of information which harms accountability in government and the public interest."

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.

But Stewart said it was “widespread knowledge" in the FCDO Crisis Centre that the decision to support Nowzad came from Johnson.

Stewart said she does not find Barton's explanation of having given “inadvertently inaccurate answers” to the cross-party group of MPs about this matter “credible”.

During an evidence session in December, Barton told the committee he was “not aware of the decision making” on the Nowzad case, and in January said he had no reason to believe FCDO staff attributed the decision to the Prime Minister.

He said Nigel Casey, director of the FCDO’s Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran Directorate, had not received emails on this matter, but the committee then published a message from a senior official referring to “the PM’s decision” on Farthing’s animals, copied to Casey. 

Barton returned to face the MPs and apologised for “inadvertently inaccurate answers”, stating Casey had been busy and did not remember the email, but a day later the BBC published further emails showing Casey wrote an email himself asking “Number 10” for input on the case. 

“I cannot fathom why either Philip Barton or Nigel Casey would have intentionally lied to the Committee, but I believe that they must have done so both in the letter dated 17 January and in the oral testimony given on 25 January”, Stewart said.

She pointed to the fact Casey “explicitly testified that he had searched his emails and found nothing of relevance”, but that when Stewart searched her emails she found multiple which referenced “the PM’s decision on Nowzad”into which he was copied.

She said the only possible explanations are that Casey deleted his emails against departmental policy, “he did not know how to use the 'CTRL-F' function in Outlook”, or that “he was lying”.

The official who said she now expects to lose her job, said she was not aware of any “deliberate decision to prioritise animals over people”, but said the decisions were not in line with policy.

Stewart's evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee also corroborates much of fellow whistleblower Raphael Marshall’s account of the chaos around the withdrawal and how vulnerable Afghans were selected for evacuation.

Stewart, who has worked on crises response efforts during the 2013 civil war in South Sudan and 2014 Ebola outbreak in 2014,  said she "cannot understand what happened to the fundamentals of basic management competence during the [Afghanistan] crisis response".

As well as detailing the confused manner in which correspondence was managed, supporting Marshall's account, Stewart said:  "There was no accountability, continuity, focus, or control between and across shifts. I have never in my career seen anything within the civil service so badly managed."

She noted that while an internal review has taken place following Marshall's evidence, "staff have not seen the internal investigation report, nor any meaningful accountability or action resulting from it".

"The Sue Gray update and the Boardman review both flag the existence of inadequate speak-up cultures within central government," she continued, "where civil servants either felt unable to raise concerns or did not trust the system to deal with concerns in an appropriate way.

"FCDO has a responsibility to be open and accountable, to not mislead Parliament or the public, to take internal concerns seriously and act on them, and to establish the right climate so staff trust in that."

She adds that the reason why "committed, capable, morally-attuned civil servants within FCDO are feeling the need to share information externally without authorisation" is not because of challenges in ministerial relationships but because "people have lost confidence in FCDO leadership".

Barton and Casey will appear before the foreign affairs select committee this afternoon to answer further questions on the matter following Stewart’s evidence.

Read the most recent articles written by Suzannah Brecknell - Bridge builders: How civil servants helped the nation mourn Queen Elizabeth II

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