This courageous 25-year-old who blew the whistle on Kabul airlifts shambles has delivered the most devastating indictment of our entitled civil service in history, writes ROSS CLARK
Whitehall’s Sir Humphreys must be ruing the day they hired Raphael Marshall straight from Oxford University in 2018.
He had a glittering CV, of course, having been awarded a double first in history and named ‘Best Speaker in the World’ at the World Universities Debating Championships the previous year.
But, unfortunately for the top brass, in the three years he spent working as a civil servant at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Marshall obstinately refused to conform to its unbelievably self-indulgent office culture.
As a result, this courageous junior official was in the perfect position to come up with a devastatingly clear-eyed insider’s account of his department’s shameful mishandling of August’s Afghan refugee crisis.
His 39-page submission to the Commons foreign affairs select committee is perhaps the most damning indictment of the modern civil service ever produced.
He paints a picture of an organisation so dysfunctional that, at the height of an international crisis of mammoth proportions – one in which thousands of lives were at stake – managers and staff alike continued to work from home and knock off after an absolute maximum of eight hours at their desks.
Raphael Marshall (pictured), a junior civil servant, has claimed he was at times the only person dealing with thousands of emails from those desperate to flee the Taliban
To read Marshall’s words, you cannot avoid the conclusion that the civil service has become less concerned with executing the vital duties with which it is charged than it is with ensuring its staff have the correct work/life balance.
And Marshall is no disgruntled employee determined to lob a hand grenade at his former employers.
The 25-year-old says he had been looking forward to a long career there and even has praise for his immediate superior.
But he cannot disguise his outrage over the can’t-do attitude he encountered when he was put on a desk charged with enabling the evacuation of Afghans who had helped with the Allied occupation and who were now at risk of being murdered by the Taliban.
There were only a few days to receive and process applications from Afghan citizens who needed to get out of the country as the deadline of August 31 – the date when Allied forces had agreed to leave Kabul Airport for good – was fast approaching.
And yet, at times, says Marshall, he was the only member of his team – which was responsible specifically for the evacuation of Afghans not directly employed by the British military – at his desk.
As a result of the lack of staff, he says, thousands of emails from people desperate to leave the country, and carrying disturbing subject lines such as ‘Please save my children’, were not even answered, let alone processed.
Many of these people, he believes, have subsequently been murdered by the Taliban.
Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, left, with Permanent Under Secretary Philip Barton. Mr Raab received widespread criticism for his handling of the Afghanistan evacuation
But why were there so few Foreign Office officials carrying out this work?
‘In my opinion,’ writes Marshall, ‘staffing shortages were exacerbated by some staff working from home, which hampered communication.’
Even the team leader of the whole exercise, he says, was trying to work from home as the crisis intensified.
Not only that, says Marshall, ‘the default expectation remained that staff would only work eight hours a day, five days a week’.
No one was asked to work shifts unless they volunteered for them – which meant that hardly anyone was available on the night of August 22-23 as the brief window on evacuation began to close.
‘I believe this reflects a deliberate drive by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to prioritise “work-life balance”,’ writes Marshall.
Disgracefully, he adds, staff who put in more than eight hours a day were told that they were ‘inefficient’ and ‘selfish’ – on the basis that it ‘potentially pressures other employees to do so as well’.
And this self-indulgent way of working stretched all the way to the very top. Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, famously said in September that she preferred working from home because she could spend more time on her Peloton exercise bicycle.
Taliban fighters pose for a photograph in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 19 earlier this year
Chaotic crowds on an approach to Kabul Airport as thousands desperately tried to flee the country
She was clearly leading by example because it is said that only 20 per cent of her staff were ever in the office at any one time.
One might have thought that – at the height of a crisis – more employees would have been asked to go into the office or put in a bit of overtime but clock-watching bosses instead encouraged them to leave the minute that their eight-hour shifts were up.
Senior leaders were even asked to ‘set a good example’ by not sending emails out of working hours.
Bizarrely, while its civil servants were told to go home and enjoy quality time with their families, the Foreign Office drafted in the Army to help out.
But their effectiveness was undermined by yet another display of breathtaking incompetence that meant one group of eight solders was forced to share just one computer for almost an entire day.
Marshall was even told off for contacting the British Embassy in Washington to try to set up the soldiers with the telephone lines to Kabul which they required to do their job.
The allied invasion and occupation of Afghanistan – as we know – eventually ended in failure after President Joe Biden’s humiliating decision to evacuate the last US troops.
But it would never have got off the ground in the first place if our troops had the same work-shy attitude as our civil servants.
Again and again, the Government is forced to resort to calling in our uncomplaining armed forces to make up for the failures of Government agencies – and private companies contracted to provide public services – to do their jobs properly.
In the past couple of months alone we have had soldiers driving ambulances, administering Covid jabs and restoring power to the thousands of homes cut off by Storm Arwen.
Afghan people sit inside a US military aircraft preparing to leave Afghanistan via the military airport in Kabul in August
Imagine, too, what would have happened during Covid lockdowns had intensive-care doctors and nurses adopted the same attitude as civil servants?
Or if supermarket staff and employees of food producers had done so? The country would have starved. Instead, they carried on working so we could all eat.
By contrast, even after mass vaccination, we have large numbers of civil servants still refusing to go back to their desks on the pretext that it is too risky.
The whole fashion for working from home is a middle-class indulgence. While pen-pushers seem to think it is a human right not to have to go to the trouble of leaving home in the mornings, there are many millions of manual workers who carry on going to work because they have to. After all, you can’t work as a welder from your spare bedroom.
It was never going to be possible for the Foreign Office to save the lives of all Afghans who deserved to be evacuated.
That some would be left behind was a certainty as soon as a hapless President Biden decided to cut and run from the land known as ‘the graveyard of empires’.
Moreover, among some of those agitating to be evacuated, it is certain that there will have been terrorists trying to take advantage of the situation in order to settle in Britain and wreak havoc.
All claims needed to be checked thoroughly. But, at the very least, the Foreign Office owed it to the many Afghans who had assisted the Allied occupation to give their applications serious consideration.
Staff should have been told to sacrifice an August weekend in a bid to save as many lives as possible. Some, as Marshall notes, did so.
But others shamefully walked off duty, hiding behind a self-indulgent work culture which puts their own wellbeing above the lives of desperate people in fear of death.
It leaves one asking: What is the principal purpose of the Foreign Office? To represent Britain’s overseas interests and to do what we can as a nation to help others in distress? Or to provide its staff with pleasant – and not too taxing – careers?
Sadly, a brave whistleblower in the shape of Raphael Marshall has provided us with the answer.
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