Foreign Office ‘regrets’ confusion over Nowzad evacuation

·5-min read
Pen Farthing, founder of animal rescue charity Nowzad (Nowzad/PA) (PA Media)
Pen Farthing, founder of animal rescue charity Nowzad (Nowzad/PA) (PA Media)

The Government has said it “regrets” the time taken to establish the decision-making process behind a controversial effort to evacuate animal welfare charity staff from Afghanistan.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said ministers and officials had given evidence to an inquiry led by a cross-party committee of MPs in “good faith”, and “at no stage” sought to be “deliberately” misleading.

The FCDO acknowledged that an “error” in internal communication left some staff believing the Prime Minister had made the decision to call Nowzad’s staff forward for evacuation.

Downing Street has previously denied Boris Johnson played any role in prioritising their removal.

In this particular case, more care should have been taken within the FCDO in how the decision was communicated to staff

FCDO

However, the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) said in a scathing report earlier this year that “multiple senior officials” believed he had and “we have yet to be offered a plausible alternative explanation”.

Addressing the FAC report, in which it was accused of giving “intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading” responses to the committee’s investigations, the FCDO acknowledged that “more care should have been taken” within the department in how the decision was communicated to staff.

“The Government regrets that it took as long as it did to establish what the decision-making process had been in this case, and how the decision was communicated internally to FCDO staff,” it said.

“The Government acknowledges again that the way the decision to call forward Nowzad staff for evacuation was made was exceptional.

“It agrees that, in this particular case, more care should have been taken within the FCDO in how the decision was communicated to staff.

“It acknowledges again that an error in the way the decision was communicated internally left some FCDO staff believing that the Prime Minister had made the decision.

Former Royal Marine Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing (PA) (PA Media)
Former Royal Marine Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing (PA) (PA Media)

“The FCDO agrees with the committee on the importance of accurate record keeping, even in a complex, fast-moving crisis such as this.”

Nowzad was set up by former Royal Marine Paul “Pen” Farthing, who launched a high-profile campaign to get his staff and animals out of Kabul as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan last year.

The Tory-led FAC said in its report the charity’s workers were called for evacuation “at the last minute” despite not meeting the Foreign Office’s prioritisation criteria “after a mysterious intervention from elsewhere in Government”.

In the end, they fled Afghanistan to Pakistan rather than on a plane from Kabul.

The charity’s animals were able to leave on a charter flight with Mr Farthing, which the MPs said absorbed “significant” resources during the chaotic period.

So far we have had few signs that the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office are able to learn valuable lessons from this experience

Chris Bryant

Labour MP Chris Bryant, a member of the FAC, said the FCDO’s response failed to “clarify or explain the inconsistencies in their statements to the committee”.

“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,” he said.

“Judging by the continuing evasions in this response, they are not listening.

“So far we have had few signs that the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office are able to learn valuable lessons from this experience.

“If this continues, we risk another catastrophe further undermining our standing on the world stage.”

The Foreign Office also acknowledged the scope of its effort to evacuate those who did not qualify for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme was “poorly communicated publicly and to Parliament”, and therefore its confines were “not well understood”.

The FAC said in its report that “under-resourcing of the evacuation effort in a crucial period likely cost hundreds of people their chance to leave the country, and as a result likely cost lives”.

However, the FCDO denied that the decision to temporarily withdraw its staff overnight on August 14-15, with the exception of the ambassador and a small number of embassy colleagues, represented “mismanagement”.

Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the FAC, said: “I am pleased that the Foreign Office has acknowledged and accepted many of the criticisms put forward in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report.

We have a tried and tested Whitehall system, but really, it's too siloed, and it's too risk-averse

Tobias Ellwood, Defence Select Committee

“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.”

Commenting on the report, chairman of the Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood told the BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme the Government needs to “recognise that the Whitehall construct is simply not designed to deal with enduring emergencies”.

Mr Ellwood, who now sits as an independent MP after losing the Tory party whip, added: “There isn’t that operational strategic decision-making. We have a tried and tested Whitehall system, but really, it’s too siloed, and it’s too risk-averse.

“There’s an expectation that Britain will step forward as other nations perhaps hesitate. We can only do that if we have the machinery in place to make the decisions or to make the advisory recommendations to whoever is prime minister at the time.”

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said: “The Conservative Government degraded the UK’s international reputation and made the world less safe with its disastrous handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer.

“The Government’s evasiveness over the Nowzad evacuation typifies its shambolic approach, and they are still failing to come clean about who in Government was making critical national security decisions.”

Mr Lammy also accused the Government of ignoring “the humanitarian catastrophe of millions on the brink of starvation in Afghanistan”.

“Ministers must urgently set out a comprehensive strategy for engaging with Afghanistan to support the millions of civilians who are starving, restore the 0.7% commitment to international aid, and lead the world by convening an emergency global food summit with the UN,” he said.

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