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Kabul: Pen Farthing

Volume 818: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they received concerning the evacuation of Pen Farthing and his animals from Kabul.

My Lords, people, not animals, were the priority during the Kabul evacuation. As a British national, Mr Pen Farthing was offered evacuation as part of the organised airlift, which he declined. The decision to call forward the Nowzad staff was communicated by the Defence Secretary publicly, in tweets, on the morning of 25 August, and reiterated to the FCDO via the Cabinet Office later that day. The UK military, with the Defence Secretary’s authorisation, provided practical support for a private chartered plane organised by Nowzad. This flight occurred after the civilian evacuation had come to an end during Operation Pitting. It is worth just saying that 15,000 vulnerable people were evacuated from Kabul.

My Lords, that was all very interesting, but it did not answer my Question at all. Did the Minister not hear Dominic Dyer, who was the principal lobbyist for Operation Ark, on LBC last Wednesday—and indeed repeated elsewhere—saying that the Minister, who is answering this Question, and the Prime Minister were involved from the very start? Indeed, he was not at all surprised therefore that the leaked emails confirmed that the Prime Minister had authorised the evacuation of animals from Kabul. He went on to say that he was sad that the Prime Minister was not proud of his part in it. So why are the Minister and Prime Minister so reluctant to accept credit for what they did?

My Lords, the email that the noble Lord mentioned says nothing of the sort and confirms nothing of the sort. A decision to call forward the Nowzad team was communicated by the Defence Secretary on the morning of the 25th. The Prime Minister had zero role in authorising individual evacuations from Afghanistan during Operation Pitting. The PM has made this clear, the Defence Secretary has made it repeatedly clear, other Ministers have made it clear and so have I in this House and outside of this Chamber. We got more than 15,000 people out during that process; it was the biggest and fastest evacuation in our history. Animals were never prioritised over people.

My Lords, I am slightly troubled by the Question, because we run the risk of overshadowing what was an incredibly successful operation in Operation Pitting. I hope that your Lordships’ House will join me in paying tribute to those members of 16 Air Assault Brigade who risked their lives in this operation doing a tremendous job in evacuating some 15,000 people. I simply seek reassurance from my noble friend that there are no circumstances under which animals would take priority over people.

My Lords, I can absolutely provide that reassurance. I add that Pen Farthing was on one of the very last flights to leave Afghanistan; he left on his own charter plane rather than on an RAF flight. It was not part of the evacuation effort, and the flight took place after the evacuation effort had ceased. That private plane landed in Kabul on 28 August. Animals were never prioritised over people at any point during the process.

As a result of the emails that we have seen from the brave Foreign Office whistleblower, either Parliament has been misled by the Prime Minister and the Minister or life and death decisions have been made in the name of the Prime Minister or the Minister but without the authority of the Prime Minister or the Minister. Which would the Minister consider to be most serious?

I do not accept the premise of the question on any level at all. This was an extraordinarily difficult time, particularly for officials in FCDO. There were people who were working two jobs all day and almost all night, dealing with thousands upon thousands of emails with evacuation requests every single day. Their work was heroic. It has been made clear that the PM did not weigh in on the Nowzad case. I do not deny that there is some confusion. It is not uncommon in Whitehall—as anyone who has been a Minister knows—for decisions to be interpreted or portrayed as coming directly from one department or another or even the Prime Minister, even when that is not the case. In this instance, that is not relevant because the decision was made publicly and directly by the Secretary of State, as he has made clear.

My Lords, I think that the families and children who were left behind would be shocked by the Minister. If there was a plane flying out of Kabul, I know who should have been on it. The simple question is—the noble Lord has to answer it, because I asked a Question last week about the Companion to the Standing Orders—why is it that someone in his private office believed that the decision to facilitate this evacuation of animals was approved by the Prime Minister? It is his private office. Can he tell us why the official believed that? It is a simple, straightforward question that deserves an answer.

I can answer half the question. I cannot tell the noble Lord why the confusion arose, other than that it was a particularly complicated time, but I can say that at the time the email was sent, the staff member who the noble Lord mentions was seconded to that emergency evacuations unit at the FCDO and was emailing in that capacity. The email was not sent under my instruction or with my knowledge; it was part of a wider process.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether any health checks were undertaken on the animals in question before they left Kabul?

My Lords, as I said, it was an exceptional emergency situation. In normal circumstances, we do not recommend the movement of consignments of animals, particularly large consignments. We take biosecurity very seriously. On landing in this country, the cats and dogs were transferred to prearranged quarantine facilities where they will have to remain for four months or until they have completed the rabies risk management process fully. The process ensures that animals meet the highest standards and protects our rabies-free status, which of course we value greatly.

My Lords, the noble Lord has not actually answered the Question that was put, which was not about authorisation. It quite clearly asked “what representations” the Government received “concerning the evacuation of Pen Farthing and his animals from Kabul.” Will he address that issue? What representations were received by any member of Her Majesty’s Government on this issue?

I suspect that, like every MP, and probably every person in this House, I experienced an extraordinarily effective campaign mobilising people to write emails to their representatives. So, like everyone, I received hundreds, maybe thousands of emails from people on this issue, but my position—in writing, on the record—has always been that animals should never have been, and were not, prioritised over people. The noble Baroness asked about specific representation. I could spend hours, probably, relaying the torrent of emails that was received, but I will add one further thing: at no point did the Government as a whole receive any kind of authorisation on this issue, one way or the other, from the Prime Minister, who had no involvement at all. I think that was the point of the Question that was put to me and I emphasise that again.

My Lords, it is coming to something when the Prime Minister has a habit of not knowing what was going on in his department, and it sounds as though the Minister does not know what is going on in his. Can he explain why this individual was allowed to get a private jet in when there were still people we wanted to get out of there? How could he do it when the Government could not for a lot of brave people who will potentially give their lives because Ministers failed?

I think that is a completely nonsense question. The idea that the Prime Minister should be engaged in issues around the welfare of a handful of animals when we were engaging, as a Government, in one of the biggest—indeed, the biggest—evacuations this country has ever been involved in is just absurd. I would be appalled if the Prime Minister had been involved in such minutiae, frankly. As I said, we got 17,000 people out in a very short period of time. That is a record—it has never happened before. I think we can salute our Armed Forces and those officials who worked incredibly hard to pull off an extraordinary feat.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Navy evacuated one-third of a million people from Dunkirk and that that was actually the largest evacuation in our history? I do not know how many animals came, but certainly it was one-third of a million people.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has given his absolute assurance that he had nothing whatever to do with any of this. I just wonder how credible is the Prime Minister as a witness?

In these frenzied days and this feeding frenzy, small things can be perceived as very large things. In the cold light of day, in the months to come, when people look back at this question that has been occupying nearly 10 minutes of this House’s time, we may wonder whether we lost a sense of proportion.

My Lords, it is clear, I think, that the Minister is saying that the Prime Minister did not know anything about this. Did his department issue an email or not? I am not asking whether the Prime Minister did it, but did someone in his department in No. 10 issue an email relating to this incident?

I do not know what emails were sent. Millions of emails would have been sent. I can say that there was no email from the Prime Minister’s department, as the noble Lord called it, that authorised in any way this evacuation. That authorisation never came from the Prime Minister. I never said that he did not know about it; I am sure that, like everyone, he would have seen it on the news, but he was not involved in the decision and did not weigh in in any way at all.