‘We prioritised people over animals’: Boris Johnson denies intervening in Pen Farthing evacuation from Afghanistan

Campaigner claims Nowzad charity ‘forced the PM’s arm’ to get cats and dogs out

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 07 December 2021 20:26
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Boris Johnson denies intervening in evacuation of animals from Afghanistan

An aide to Boris Johnson wrote to animal rescuer Pen Farthing to assure him he had clearance to airlift dogs and cats out of Kabul as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, it has emerged.

The letter emerged just hours after the prime minister dismissed as “complete nonsense” claims that he intervened to assist the former Royal Marine’s Nowzad charity in evacuating animals at a time when thousands of Afghans were clamouring to get on flights.

Whistle-blower Raphael Marshall told MPs on Monday that the Foreign Office received “an instruction from the prime minister” to use “considerable capacity” to help Farthing.

And a campaigner for the Nowzad charity also said he had no doubt that Mr Johnson personally overruled defence secretary Ben Wallace after being given a “hard time” by his animal-loving wife Carrie.

But Downing Street denied that either Mr Johnson, his animal-loving wife Carrie or anyone at No 10 had intervened on Mr Farthing’s behalf.

And the prime minister himself dismissed the claims as “complete nonsense”, hailing the evacuation effort as “one of the outstanding military achievements of the last 50 years or more”.

Just hours later, the letter from Tory MP Trudy Harrison - then Mr Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary at No 10 - emerged in a hearing of the Commons foreign affairs committee.

Written to Farthing on 25 August and signed by Ms Harrison on her Commons office notepaper but using her PPS title, it said: “I have received confirmation from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence that you, your staff and their dependents are permitted to travel t Hamid Karzai International Airport.

“The Secretary of State for Defence has also confirmed that animals under the care of Nowzad can be evacuated on a separate chartered flight The Ministry of Defence will ensure that a flight slot is available.

“You are therefore authorised to proceed. I wish you well on your journey.”

Responding to the letter, a No 10 source said: “This was an operational decision. Neither the PM nor Mrs Johnson were involved. This letter was nothing to do with Ms Harrison’s role as the PM’s PPS, she was acting in her capacity as a constituency MP.”

Mr Marshall, who worked on the evacuation operation as a desk officer in the Foreign Office, said on Monday that clearance for Mr Farthing to fly out animals came “at the direct expense” of thousands of Afghans left behind when the hurried evacuation came to an end.

In a 40-page dossier of evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, he claimed that helplines were understaffed, emails from desperate Afghans went unread and junior officials with no local knowledge worked on specialist cases.

He told the committee: “There was no reason to believe the Taliban would target animal rights charities. There was therefore no justification for concluding Nowzad’s staff were at significant risk.

“By contrast many others would inevitably be left behind who were at risk of murder. Similarly the protection of domestic animals was not a UK war aim in Afghanistan.”

Nowzad campaigner Dominic Dyer told the BBC: “Yes we lobbied, and we lobbied very successfully. I forced the prime minister’s arm ... I’ve no doubt Carrie Johnson gave him a hard time.

“The prime minister did intervene – he intervened directly with the home secretary to get the people on the priority list to evacuate. They weren’t at the top of that list, but we made it very clear they were at severe risk, and he accepted that argument.

“He was right to intervene … Without the intervention by the prime minister, Mr Wallace would have continued to block the operation.”

But Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “We’ve always prioritised people over animals.

“The prime minister’s focus was on saving and evacuating as many people as possible. That was the instruction that he gave to the whole of government and that’s why we evacuated 15,000 individuals and a further 2,000 subsequently.

“UK government staff worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight. It was the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are still working to help others to leave.

Mr Farthing was given clearance by UK authorities to fly a privately chartered plane from Kabul International Airport, but this did not distract from the evacuation operation, said the spokesperson. Mr Johnson was not involved in the decision to provide clearance, he said.

“We provided clearance for the flight and they were assisted through the airport, but nothing beyond that,” he said. “I would not characterise granting clearances to distracting from the ability of us to evacuate individuals.”

Later, Mr Johnson admitted that “sometimes decisions took hours longer than we wanted” during the evacuation from Kabul. But he said officials did an “absolutely outstanding job” processing “very difficult, very complex claims incredibly quickly”.

Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time of the Operation Pitting evacuation, today dismissed Mr Marshall’s revelations about the chaotic Afghan evacuation as coming from a “junior desk officer” and insisted it was a success.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Raab should have quit the government at the time of the Afghanistan crisis.

He told the BBC that Mr Marshall’s “devastating” testimony “lays bare the shambolic incompetence of the government”.

Thousands of Afghans had been “let down and left to their fate” as a result, he said.

“It is shocking that we are all now learning that emails and letters that we sent in to the Foreign Office – including from my office – were opened but haven’t been actioned.

“It’s a total failure of political leadership with an ex-foreign secretary who was busy on the beach instead of doing his job.”

Asked whether Mr Raab should be in office, Sir Keir said: “I think Dominic Raab should have resigned at the time, that would have been the decent, honourable thing to do.”

The PM’s spokesperson confirmed that the promised resettlement scheme to bring 20,000 vulnerable Afghans to the UK has not yet begun operations.

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