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MPs quizzing the Government’s national security adviser expressed frustration as they were met with a lack of clarity over who authorised the evacuation of animal charity staff from Afghanistan.
Sir Stephen Lovegrove was accused of giving evidence that was “opposite” to that supplied by top civil servant Sir Philip Barton, as he said the Nowzad workers were on a “pre-approved list” before August 25 2021, and he had not given a “direction” to airlift them out of the country.
He told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) the “actual decision” to call them forward was delegated to officials and military officers who had a “better understanding of the way to maximise the number of people who we could get safely onto those flights”.
“So exactly where those decisions would have been taken, I’m afraid I cannot quite tell you – almost certainly in PJHQ (Permanent Joint Headquarters),” he said.
In a tweet on August 25, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the charity staff had been cleared to come forward under the “leave outside the rules” (LOTR) scheme.
Now that Pen Farthing’s staff have been cleared to come forward under LOTR I have authorised MOD to facilitate their processing alongside all other eligible personnel at HKIA. At that stage, if he arrives with his animals we will seek a slot for his plane. @DefenceHQ
— Rt. Hon Ben Wallace MP (@BWallaceMP) August 25, 2021
Put to him that Sir Philip, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) permanent under-secretary, previously told the committee that the workers were not prioritised to be called forward before that date, Sir Stephen said: “That is not my information – my information is that they were put on the list on August 21.”
He said he did not know which minister had signed this off.
But he added: “Not being on the list is not the same as being not prioritised to be called forward. They can be on the list but they don’t have to be prioritised on the list.”
Sir Philip had argued that officials were mistaken in referring to the Nowzad decision being made by the Prime Minister.
He said staff had seen Mr Wallace’s tweet, after which Sir Stephen confirmed to a senior FCDO official that they should proceed with calling the charity workers forward.
Appearing before the FAC in March, Sir Philip discussed FCDO officials referring to what they thought was a prime ministerial decision in emails, adding: “In particular, the head of the team dealing with LOTR cases in turn communicated the decision to his team. We know that, in doing so, he presented that as a decision made by the Prime Minister.
“This was an assumption he made based on the fact it had come from the national security adviser, which was understandable given the many voices in the media at the time claiming that the Prime Minister had made the decision.”
But Sir Stephen told the committee that he did not give a “direction” to evacuate the workers.
“The idea that I gave a direction, (I) certainly didn’t give a direction, all I would have done was check that it was in order to call forward Nowzad on the basis that they were included in the LOTR list,” he said.
He said he would have checked with his staff that Nowzad was on the list, but admitted that he had never seen the list itself.
The national security adviser said he had “no doubt” that Mr Wallace’s tweet would have been discussed at a meeting with Whitehall colleagues that morning.
He said it was likely that he then “briefly checked that the Nowzad staff were technically eligible to be called forward”, discovered that they were, and “confirmed that as being in order”.
He added: “I certainly have no recollection of speaking to No 10.”
The committee criticised Sir Stephen at several points for what they deemed to be a lack of preparation for the meeting.
Labour MP Chris Bryant said: “You knew you were coming here today. This has been hotly contested for months. And you’re basically now coming here and speculating about what might or might not have happened.”