A whistleblower who was dismissed by the Foreign Office after helping to expose the Government’s much-criticised response to the fall of Kabul has claimed she “witnessed the biggest foreign policy failure of our time” and “devastating failings”, a judge was told.
Josie Stewart, a former senior official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), lost her job after an interview with the BBC in which she spoke about her “traumatic experiences” working in the FCDO Afghanistan Crisis Centre in summer 2021.
She is taking the Government to court in a case to test the legal protections for whistleblowers – challenging her dismissal after she spoke anonymously to the BBC only for her identity to be revealed when her unredacted emails were accidentally posted on social media.
The case will decide the extent of the rights of civil servants to make public interest disclosures to the press when “misleading claims” from ministers and civil servants are made to Parliament and the media, according to Ms Stewart’s lawyers.
Ms Stewart’s final witness statement was referred to at a preliminary hearing at Central London Employment Tribunal hearing on Thursday, ahead of the three-week final tribunal which will start on May 2 next year.
In it the whistleblower claims she “witnessed denial, lies and the complete lack of accountability” while working on the Afghan crisis response.
She said: “In my career as a civil servant, I witnessed many failings within government and was privy to much information that would have made a good news story.
“I disclosed none of it.
“But through the Afghan evacuation, I witnessed both the biggest foreign policy failure of our time and the shameful handling of the resulting crisis.
“I knew people, friends and former colleagues whose lives were on the line.
“And then I witnessed the denial, the lies and the complete lack of accountability for these devastating failings.
“Our established systems of scrutiny were not working, so I felt I had no choice but to enable the public to know the truth.
“It should not have been necessary to do what I did. I am angry that I had to.
“The loss of my career has impacted me profoundly, and I do not think this is fair.
“I believe that the law should protect people who disclose information in the public interest, in exceptional circumstances such as these.”
Gavin Millar KC, for the claimant, said: “We do say, quite straightforwardly, that the public position of the Foreign Office in Parliament and in the press failed to acknowledge the failings of the Afghan Crisis Centre.”
Referencing Ms Stewart’s evidence, he said that on August 26 2021 Boris Johnson was quoted in the national media as saying “we’ve got the overwhelming majority of those to whom we owe that debt out of Afghanistan”.
But Ms Stewart has challenged this as a “misleading statement”.
She said: “I knew this to be a lie, because I knew no one had conducted any exercise to even identify who specifically the people to whom we owed a debt were, the majority of emails in the crisis mailboxes had not been read, and, based on my personal knowledge of the UK’s activities in Afghanistan, I knew that only a fraction of those who met the LOTR (leave outside the immigration rules) criteria had made it through our process and been evacuated.
“I believe that the prime minister must have known this.”
She also suggested that the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on September 1 2021 was “misleading”.
She said: “Mr Raab was asked by the committee if he was content that the effort within the crisis centre matched requirements. He said yes.”
On Wednesday, Ben Cooper KC, for the FCDO, argued that admitting the challenged evidence to the tribunal would involve “improper questioning” of proceedings in Parliament in breach of article nine of the Bill of Rights 1689 and general principles of parliamentary privilege.
Article nine says: “The freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
In an interview with the Guardian in February, Ms Stewart, who was head of illicit finance at the FCDO, warned civil servants increasingly saw it as their job to protect ministers rather than to serve the public.
She said the change could be traced back to Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister and that it was particularly striking in the summer of 2021 as the Afghan capital, Kabul, fell in the face of the Taliban advance.
She joined the Department for International Development in 2015 and remained an employee when it merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to form the FCDO in 2020 before she was dismissed in September 2022.
A Cabinet Office spokesman has said: “The Cabinet Secretary is proud to lead a Civil Service that works day in, day out to deliver the Government’s priorities for the people of this country.
“His focus is on ensuring the whole of government is working together to put in place the very best public services for the British people.”
An FCDO spokesman has said: “We are rightly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight.
“This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second-largest evacuation carried out by any country. We implemented lessons learned from the Afghanistan response in our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
The FCDO has been approached for comment in response to Ms Stewart’s statement.