Foreign Office IT slammed as diplomat cites need for ‘routine’ deletion of emails during Afghanistan crisis

Written by Tevye Markson on 25 March 2022 in News

Parliamentary committee hears that messages were deleted as a matter of course ‘otherwise inbox gums up and stops working’

Credit: Ervins Strauhmanis/CC BY 2.0

An MP has described the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office's IT system as “inept” after the head of the Afghanistan Task Force said he had to regularly delete emails to keep his inbox functioning during the crisis last year.

The exchange was part of a hearing called after a second whistle-blower accused senior FCDO officials of intentionally misleading MPs over the prime minister’s involvement in the evacuation of animals from Afghanistan. 

FCDO permanent secretary Philip Barton and Afghanistan evacuation crisis chief Nigel Casey appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday to explain how the department was instructed to evacuate staff and animals from charity Nowzad. 

The officials were unable to clarify who had made the political decision to approve the rescue during Operation Pitting last year, while their explanation for “inadvertently misleading” the committee in January over whether they were aware of the PM’s alleged involvement in the decision left MPs puzzled. 

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. 

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In written testimony published by the Foreign Affairs select committee on Monday, Grade 6 official Josie Stewart suggested that FCDO senior officials "intentionally" misled the committee in January when giving evidence about the decision. 

Barton told the committee in December that he was “not aware of the decision making” on the Nowzad case and Casey told the MPs on January 25 he had not received emails attributing the decision to the PM, after being asked by the committee to look for them. 

But the committee then published a message from a senior official referring to “the PM’s decision” on Farthing’s animals, copied to Casey on August 25. Barton apologised in a letter on January 27 for providing “inadvertently inaccurate” info to MPs. 

Explaining why he had failed to tell MPs about the email he was copied into, Casey told the committee on Monday he may have deleted emails referring to the PM’s involvement in the decision and so could not find them. 

“It is possible I could have deleted the emails. My email inbox was exploding,” Casey said.  

He said he had to focus on emails which were addressed directly to him for him to take action on and it was “quite possible” that he “weeded” out other emails. 

The PM’s special representative for Afghanistan said he had been focused on a terrorist threat to the evacuation on the day he was copied into the email about the PM ordering the evacuation of Nowzad staff. 

MP Alicia Kearns, who previously worked in communications at the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, questioned why he would then need to delete the deleted items section of his inbox. 

Responding, Casey said: “I do that as a matter of routine, because otherwise the whole capacity of your inbox gums up and stops working.” 

Kearns said she “never once” had to empty out her inbox when she worked at the MoD but did have to when she worked at the foreign office. 

“The issue is that the FCDO IT is inept and cannot cope with crisis,” she said. “Clearly, there is a problem with the FCDO IT system that FCDO civil servants regularly have to delete all their items, whereas other departments I have worked at I never had to do it in years of working with them.” 

In her written testimony,  Stewart said those working on the Afghanistan response had been told not to delete emails.

But Casey said staff had received the instruction to keep emails on 23 September in response to litigation, a month after the email in question, adding “after that I certainly haven’t deleted any more”. 

Responding to Kearns’ criticism, Barton said the department is “investing in new IT as we bring the new departments together to make sure we have a common platform – I am sure that will deliver faster speeds and bigger inboxes”. 

Problems with the Foreign Office IT systems that have not been resolved since the ministry merged with the Department for International Development in 2020, with officials reportedly saying they are undermining the government’s response to the Russia-Ukraine war

Whistle blower Raphael Marshall, a former FCDO staffer, sounded the alarm in December about a “chaotic” IT system during the evacuation of British and Afghan nationals after the fall of Kabul last summer. 


About the author

Tevye Markson is a reporter at PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @TevyeMarkson.


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