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.
However, for those in high places, Marshall stubbornly refused to follow the unself-indulgent culture of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office during his three-year tenure as a civil service officer.
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.
The 39-page report he submitted to the Commons foreign Affairs select committee was perhaps the most damning accusation of modern civil servants ever made.
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), junior civil servant claimed that he dealt with many thousands of emails received from people trying to escape 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.
Marshall isn’t a disgruntled employee that will throw a handgrenade at former employers.
According to the 25-year old, he was looking forward for a long career at work and has high praises for his 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.
According to him, many of these individuals have been killed later by the Taliban.
Former Foreign Secretary of Britain Dominic Raab (left) with Permanent Undersecretary Philip Barton. His handling of Afghanistan’s evacuation was widely criticised by Mr Raab.
But, how come there were so few Foreign Office employees doing this job?
‘In my opinion,’ writes Marshall, ‘staffing shortages were exacerbated by some staff working from home, which hampered communication.’
He claims that even the leader of the entire exercise tried to work remotely as the crisis grew.
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’.
This self-indulgent work ethic reached the top. Sarah Healey, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said that in September she prefered working from home as she can spend more time riding her Peloton exercise bike.
Taliban fighters pose in a photo taken in Kabul (Afghanistan) on August 19, earlier this year.
The airport at Kabul was crowded with chaotic people as hundreds tried to flee.
It is clear that she was leading the way because only 20% of her employees were in the office at any given 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.
It was bizarre that, while civil servants were instructed to return home to spend quality time with their families and friends, the Foreign Office sent the Army into the picture to assist.
Yet another example of astonishing incompetence hampered their effectiveness, causing one solder to be forced to share a single computer for nearly an entire day.
Marshall even got reprimanded for calling the British Embassy in Washington and trying to get the Kabul telephone lines that they needed to perform their duties.
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.
However, it wouldn’t have taken root if our soldiers had the same attitude of work as 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.
We have seen soldiers drive ambulances, give Covid jabs, and restore power to thousands of homes that were cut off by Storm Arwen in the last few months.
Afghans are seated in an American military aircraft as they get ready to fly out of Afghanistan.
If intensive-care nurses and doctors had adopted the same approach as civil servants, imagine what might have happened in Covid lockdowns.
Oder if staff at supermarkets and workers of food manufacturers had done it? Otherwise, the country might have gone hungry. They continued to work so that we all could eat.
We have however many civil servants who refuse to leave their offices despite having received mass vaccinations. They claim that the risk is too high.
It is an indulgence for middle-class people to work from home. Pen-pushers might think that working from home is an individual right, but there are millions of manual workers who continue to work just because they need to. After all, you can’t work as a welder from your spare bedroom.
The Foreign Office was unable to save all Afghans who were entitled to evacuate.
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’.
Furthermore, terrorists may have tried to profit from the situation and settle in Britain to cause chaos among some of those protesting for their evacuation.
Each claim must be thoroughly checked. The Foreign Office owed the Afghans who helped the Allied occupation at least to take their claims seriously.
In order to save as many people as possible, staff should have been instructed to give up their August weekends. Marshall points out that some did.
Others, however, escaped duty and hid behind an indulgent work culture that puts one’s own well-being above those who are in desperate situations of fear for their lives.
One must ask: What’s the primary purpose of 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?
Raphael Marshall, brave whistleblower, has given us the solution.