Dubai: Due to concerns that the legal protections for whistleblowers are insufficient to protect civil servants, a former senior official at the British Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office is suing the UK government.
Josie Stewart, a former employee of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office who was fired after going public with information about the haphazard UK response to Kabul's fall, claimed that the British civil service has become so dangerously politicised that those who dare to speak out run the risk of losing their positions or being marginalised.
She claimed that former coworkers believed their duty was to defend ministers, some of whom were more concerned with "looking good" than serving the public good.
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Stewart, who oversaw the FCDO's illicit finance division, lost her job as a result of an unnamed BBC interview she gave regarding the administration's handling of the disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. On the grounds of the Public Interest Disclosure Act's provisions, she is contesting her termination.
In her first interview since being fired, she claimed that domestic political concerns had influenced the government's plan for the withdrawal of its forces. She continued by saying that ministers were more concerned with media attention and "the political fallout" than saving lives.
The pressure on Dominic Raab, who was the foreign secretary at the time and is currently defending his political career in the wake of bullying allegations, which he denies, is increased by her legal action. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, Raab faced harsh criticism for not leaving his vacation early.
During her seven years with the FCDO, Stewart spent two years working at the British embassy in Kabul. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, she volunteered to work in the Whitehall crisis centre. She claimed, among other things, that the British public was not expected to care about the evacuation of locals who had assisted British troops and officials.
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Her case, whose final hearing is scheduled for September, may establish a precedent for how the courts handle cases like hers in the future. For example, it may clarify whether whistleblowers can avoid dismissal if they reveal information in "exceptionally serious circumstances" and it should therefore be regarded as "reasonable" to have done so.
The 42-year-old Stewart stated in an interview with The Guardian that "if the law is not tested and used then I don't know how much it actually means, as potential whistleblowers don't know which side of the line it is going to fall. Is what they intend to do likely to be protected by the law? I'm not sure how important it is that the law exists if they are unaware.
Stewart, who is currently employed by the non-profit Transparency International, claimed that since the time of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the civil service has become dangerously politicised. She also charged cabinet secretary Simon Case with failing to defend employees.
I noticed that senior officials were starting to see their job as protecting and carrying out the orders of ministers, she said. "Almost as if the public wasn't their first loyalty, but rather to their political leaders.
"In essence, those whose careers succeeded were those who said 'yes,' went along with it, and bought into this shift in culture and approach. Those who rebelled either ended up dead or had to look for work elsewhere.
"It jeopardises the civil service's objectivity. The civil service is meant to bring knowledge of how to carry out tasks. A bias toward emphasising things that look good rather than having an impact runs the risk of neoterizing that expertise.
Stewart also asserted that the government's handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan was significantly impacted by the politicisation of the civil service. She also emphasised the government's failure to create a plan to assist Afghan nationals who had helped the British, such as translators or contractors, but were ineligible for the current Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy because they had not worked directly for the UK.
There was no policy because we had no intention of carrying it out, according to Stewart. The government was shocked to learn that the British people did care and did feel that we owed those people something, which is the only reason it started during the crisis.
They concluded, "Well, people do care, and we had better do something about it," after which. So, politically speaking, it was a mistake. Thus, the chaos
Thousands of emails from desperate Afghans seeking assistance were sent to the crisis centre, but they went unanswered until Raab, under pressure from MPs, pledged in the House of Commons that all of them would be read by a specific date.
A decision to allow the Afghan staff of the animal charity Nowzad to be evacuated had been made as a result of instructions from Johnson himself that overruled officials, who had said the workers were not eligible and others were at higher risk. Stewart revealed this in her anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC's Newsnight programme in January 2022. Johnson had denied having any input into the choice.
The BBC unintentionally posted the unredacted emails on social media, exposing Stewart's identity. She lost her FCDO security clearance and was then fired because she was unable to perform her duties without it.
Stewart's attorneys anticipate that the government will assert that the Public Interest Disclosure Act does not apply in this instance because she was not ultimately fired for making a whistleblower complaint, and they intend to refute this.
"We are justly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight," an FCDO spokesperson said.
"The cabinet secretary is proud to lead a civil service that works day in and day out to deliver the government's priorities for the people of this country," a spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said.
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A BBC spokesperson expressed regret that the email account's name was accidentally made public when the email was posted on social media. "We take our duties as journalists very seriously," the spokesperson said.