Last year’s evacuation of Kabul saw social and mainstream media absorbed by the campaign to evacuate staff members of Nowzad, a charity run by the animal rights advocate Pen Farthing. Subsequent whistleblowers and leaks suggested the decision – heavily criticised because of its impact on the wider UK evacuation effort – came from the prime minister (repeatedly denied by No10). Unsurprisingly this was the main topic of this week’s select committee hearing on the Afghan evacuation with Sir Philip Barton, the FCDO’s permanent secretary, and Nigel Casey, the lead official on Afghanistan.
It was an awkward and at times shambolic evidence session, and one which suggested that the FCDO is facing serious problems in staff morale and internal processes for crisis management. As the war in Ukraine continues, the Foreign Affairs Committee now needs to investigate whether the latest FCDO changes are resolving or adding to these problems.
The select committee wanted to determine who signed off the decision to prioritise the Nowzad staff evacuation. Barton and Casey referred repeatedly to a tweet sent by defence secretary Ben Wallace saying that Nowzad had been approved for evacuation, and said they then checked with the national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove, whether this meant that the FCDO should go ahead with evacuating Nowzad. Lovegrove confirmed that it did. But beyond Lovegrove, the FCDO officials could not say who made the ultimate decision – was it Wallace, or was it the prime minister? Lovegrove works for Boris Johnson and it is unlikely that he would sign off such a move without direct authority from the prime minister.
In political terms the question of who made the decision matters mostly because of the prime minister’s repeated denials. A letter suggesting his parliamentary private secretary was involved (which was later, inexplicably, attributed to her constituency role) has added to the unease about the truthfulness of No10’s responses. But this confusion also reveals a worryingly chaotic decision making process at the top of government on an issue that was life or death for those fleeing Kabul.
Keeping track of minute-by-minute communication during a crisis is never easy and, as Casey said, more serious issues like terror threats were taking up officials’ time. But the fact that Barton and Casey are unable – or unwilling – to say who made this decision adds to rather than resolves concerns. As Chris Bryant, a member of the committee, said, “it is difficult to have confidence that the whole truth is out there.”
The painful Nowzad discussion was not the only part of hearing which suggested serious problems at the FCDO, with committee member Alicia Kearns, a former FCDO official with experience in the crisis centre, taking Barton and Casey to task for how the crisis response team had been structured and run.
A ten-minute discussion about email management was excruciating, particularly when Casey was pushed into confessing to deleting emails because he did not have enough support to manage his inbox and the volume of emails sent. It raises yet more questions about basic processes at the FCDO. In her written evidence, Josie Stewart, the Foreign Office whistleblower whose evidence prompted the hearing, said that during the evacuation her IT was “incompatible” with her colleagues because she had been a DfID employee before that department merged with the FCO in September 2020.
And perhaps most importantly, the whole episode revealed a worrying lack of communication and trust within FCDO. Stewart said that she did not feel comfortable raising her concerns internally in the department as she did not think they would be acted upon, and Barton’s responses to questions on Stewart’s future will not have reassured her colleagues. This echoes the finding from Sue Gray that Downing Street does not have proper support for staff who want to raise concerns about government working practices. More needs to be done to make sure officials can raise concerns, rather than feel their only outlet is to appear before a select committee or leak to a journalist.
Barton said the FCDO has reflected on the Afghan evacuation and undertaken a “lessons learned” exercise, but is the FCDO in a fit state to take those lessons on board? Morale is clearly low after multiple crises, including Brexit, the pandemic, Afghanistan and now Ukraine. The department recently announced big changes to its top management team, with one well-respected director general leaving, reportedly because he did not agree with the new structures.  None of this is new – Philip Hammond, foreign secretary from 2014-16, said that “the Foreign Office is suffering from something of an identity crisis, because… it’s been hollowed out.”
That the merger of the FCO and DfID, announced almost two years ago, is still playing out is not a surprise – big restructures of departments take a long time. But while the FCDO is still finding its feet as an organisation – including sorting out its IT systems – it will be less able to discharge its responsibilities, including crisis management. Nobody doubts the dedication and hard work of FCDO staff. Senior officials now need to sort out these issues – and to ensure that the same mistakes do not happen again.
- Worley W, Exclusive: FCDO undergoes major personnel reforms, gets second top official, 17 March 2022, https://www.devex.com/news/exclusive-fcdo-undergoes-major-personnel-reforms-gets-second-top-official-102888