A whistleblower who helped expose the Government’s chaotic response to the fall of Kabul has warned that the Civil Service has become dangerously politicised.
Josie Stewart, a former senior official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), said civil servants increasingly saw it as their job to protect ministers rather than to serve the public.
Ms Stewart, who lost her job after giving an interview to the BBC, said the change could be traced back to Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister.
She said the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who was appointed after Mr Johnson entered No 10, was “very much seen as Johnson’s person rather than a head of the Civil Service standing up for the Civil Service”.
In an interview with the Guardian, she said: “I increasingly saw senior officials interpreting their role as doing what ministers say and providing protections to ministers.
“It was almost as if their first loyalty (was) to their political leaders rather than to the public.
“Essentially people who said ‘yes’ and went along with it and bought into this shift in culture and approach were those whose careers went well. Those who resisted either found themselves buried somewhere or looking for jobs elsewhere.”
Ms Stewart, who was head of illicit finance at the FCDO, said it was particularly striking in the summer of 2021 as the Afghan capital, Kabul, fell in the face of the Taliban advance.
“The almost entire objective politically was to come out of it looking OK to the UK public, rather than to save lives or fulfil a responsibility to the Afghan people,” she said.
“It was shocking in terms of the scale and how brazen and obvious it was to civil servants working on it.”
Her comments will add to the pressure on Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time and is currently under investigation for the alleged bullying of his officials.
Ms Stewart, who now works for the organisation Transparency International, is currently taking the Government to court in a case to test the legal protections for whistleblowers.
She is 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.
She said morale in the Civil Service had been further undermined by the partygate scandal by Mr Case which sent out the message that it was the job of officials “to protect their political masters”.
“Our system depends on the fundamental necessity of honesty and truth in government and I think the now well-documented breakdown of some of that in No 10 and elsewhere under Boris Johnson has filtered down and out across government and down into the civil service,” she said.
“Once you break a pretty fundamental ‘rule’ of the importance of truth, then all the other rules become less strong as well … Like who are you there to serve, is it politicians or is it the public, and how on a daily basis does that play out?”
In response, a Cabinet Office spokesman 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 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 learnt from the Afghanistan response in our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
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