The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has acknowledged its handing of last summer’s chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan has left it with “fundamental lessons to learn”.
Its admission came in a detailed response to a scathing report from members of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who called for FCDO permanent under-secretary Sir Philip Barton to resign over “deep failures of leadership” in relation to the crisis.
MPs also accused the department of giving “evasive, and often deliberately misleading” answers to their questions, and said the FCDO’s “appalling mismanagement” of the evacuation had likely cost hundreds of people who aided the UK their chance to leave the country.
The FCDO conceded that its “special cases” evacuation scheme for Afghans who supported the UK effort without being directly employed by the UK government had “many shortcomings”, was “poorly communicated”, and that prioritisation of cases was “far from perfect”.
The department also said staffing gaps in some of its teams handling the evacuation had caused a “significant” impact on officials’ welfare. Its response said it was a “matter of great regret” that two FCDO staff had gone public with their concerns about the department’s operations.
“The government accepts that there were areas of its crisis response which need improvement, and is determined to raise standards in its preparedness for, and response to, future crises,” its introduction to the response said.
Select committee chair Tom Tugendhat said the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and the US and the UK’s failure to manage the consequences, left a black mark on Britain’s record.
But he said he was pleased the FCDO had acknowledged and accepted many of the criticisms put forward in the committee’s May report.
“This disaster has exposed serious failings in the department and I hope that this response signals the start of a sincere attempt to remedy these failures,” he said.
“It is clear that leadership within the Foreign Office fell desperately short before, during and after the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The UK’s allies in the country were left with false hope of rescue, while junior Foreign Office staff members were forced to make life and death decisions without proper support.
“They should never have been put in this position. I would like to thank again the brave whistleblowers who came forward for their contribution to exposing these facts.”
Tugendhat said last summer’s departure of western forces was a tragedy for the Afghan people, who were now suffering through a humanitarian crisis and the return of a brutal and oppressive regime.
“After two decades of direct involvement, the UK has a duty to the people of Afghanistan,” he said.
Fellow committee member Chris Bryant said that despite a multitude of concessions, the FCDO response did not explain the contrasting versions of events relating to the evacuation from Afghanistan of cats and dogs supported by the Nowzad charity, run by Pen Farthing.
“The information we received from the Foreign Office on the Nowzad case in the course of the inquiry varied between intentionally evasive and deliberately misleading,” Bryant said.
“Our report called on the political and diplomatic leadership of the Foreign Office to make a fresh start and re-commit to transparency and positive engagement with parliament after this experience. Judging by the continuing evasions in this response, they are not listening.”
He said there had been “few signs” that foreign secretary Liz Truss – installed to replace Dominic Raab in September last year following the crisis – and the Foreign Office were able to learn lessons.
“If this continues, we risk another catastrophe further undermining our standing on the world stage,” he said.
In January, a series of leaked emails raised questions about the government’s claims that prime minister Boris Johnson had not been involved in authorising the evacuation of animals looked after by Nowzad from Afghanistan.
They prompted Barton to apologise to the committee for providing “inadvertently incorrect” information on the issue.
In Friday’s report the FDCO said it had “recently reviewed its whistleblowing policy against industry best practice”, and pledged that the department “would not penalise, any member of staff for raising concerns in line with the procedures and with the law”.