Why civil service whistleblowers like me deserve far more protection

I was sacked for leaking information about the government’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. I’m still trying to get justice for myself—and others

April 29, 2024
Afghan refugees in Kabul. Image: US Air Force Photo / Alamy Stock Photo
Afghan refugees in Kabul. Image: US Air Force Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Two and a half years have passed since the withdrawal of Nato forces left the Taliban to sweep across Afghanistan, leading to the collapse of the Afghan government, a mad scramble by western allies to evacuate from Kabul, and untold suffering endured by the Afghan people.

Nearly a year has passed since Boris Johnson resigned from the House of Commons after being found by the Privileges Committee to have lied to parliament. 

This week the full hearing of my employment tribunal case against the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)—intrinsically connected to both these events—will finally begin. 

I worked at the British Embassy in Kabul from 2015 to 2017. As a civil servant in FCDO working back in London when, on my birthday, Kabul fell in 2021, I volunteered as part of the crisis response.

There, I found myself part of a system that cared much more about looking good than doing good. The failures of the evacuation are now well documented, so I will not dwell on them. But they were horrifying.

But I believed in our system of democracy. I knew that there was going to be a parliamentary inquiry, and I thought that government would be held to account.

Then I witnessed its denial, lies, and a complete lack of accountability. Our established systems of scrutiny were not working.

So I disclosed information to the BBC, which challenged Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s honesty. This information gave the press and parliament what they needed in order to hold the government to account. 

But the BBC accidentally revealed my identity as its confidential source, and my professional world imploded. I remember the shock of someone suggesting that I might need a lawyer. 

After a lengthy process leading to the inevitable outcome, I was sacked. My case against FCDO is for unfair dismissal under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) provisions in our employment legislation: our whistleblowing protection laws. For me though, my case is as much about how Whitehall works—or should work—as it is specifically about whistleblowing.

Civil servants operate within a complex constitutional framework, a key characteristic of which is that they serve the government of the day. A consequence of this is that it’s normal for them to feel uncomfortable with the political direction, or government incompetence. That’s part of the job. But it shouldn’t be normal for them to have to be complicit in government lies.

Do I think the rules of confidentiality in the civil service are important? Absolutely. Civil servants leaking information does real damage to trust between ministers and officials, and this matters. But I broke this important rule because other, even more important rules—like government not misleading parliament—were being broken. 

Johnson was finally held accountable for misleading parliament. But the impact of his tenure on the professional and ethical environment of the institutions of government will not be reversed overnight. 

I’m not pursuing my case because I have a messiah complex, because I’m bitter at having been sacked or because I want the attention.

I’m pursuing it because I want to help rebuild the sanctity of truth in government, and because I believe that civil servants must be able to speak truth to power. The current lack of independent avenues of redress constrains this. The civil service is packed full of passionate, brilliant, dedicated people, working for all our benefit. “Your fight is our fight,” they’ve told me, time and again. They need whistleblower protection as much as, if not more than, workers in any other sector. But, at the moment, it’s not clear that they have it. 

The government sees what I did as an existential threat: this is why they’re fighting my case all the way. 

The law says whistleblowers can be justified in making disclosures to the media if their disclosures were truthful, in the public interest, and reasonable in all the circumstances. But the legislation is complicated and open to interpretation. There’s also very little precedent. This lack of clarity allows government to operate on the basis that civil servants must never pass unauthorised information to journalists. It allows them to follow national security vetting procedures—upon which jobs depend—that are incompatible with PIDA. It allowed them to sack me for telling the truth amid so many documented lies.

My ability to argue my PIDA claim fully has also been restricted by a preliminary ruling striking out parts of my evidence because they contravene Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, which ensures that what is said in parliament cannot be used in a court of law. This application of parliamentary privilege, itself intended to protect freedom of speech on matters of public interest, makes it harder for whistleblowers to expose lies told to parliament. My case is restricted in its scope because the issues my disclosures related to were considered by parliament. There is abundant irony in this, since the Foreign Affairs Committee, then chaired by current Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, stated in the report of their inquiry into the Afghanistan evacuation that “Those who lead the Foreign Office should be ashamed that two civil servants of great integrity and clear ability felt compelled to risk their careers to bring to light the appalling mismanagement of the Afghan crisis, and the misleading statements to Parliament that followed.” 

The last couple of years have been hard. It’s been exhausting trying to figure out what I believe is right. I have doubted myself; it’s hard not to when a huge institution that I value and respect and belonged to says that you lack integrity, that you’re wrong. It will be hard hearing this in court. 

But whatever happens, I am going to hold onto the fact that no tribunal can judge me to have been wrong in my actions. All they can do is conclude that my actions were outside the protection of the current law, and there’s an important difference.

If that happens, I want my experience to make the case for legislative reform. I believe that a new statutory basis should be established for the civil service, introducing a secondary duty to uphold the public interest alongside the existing duty to the government of the day. To operationalise this, the leadership of the civil service should be made accountable to either parliament or to an independent standards body.

The patron saint of civil servants and politicians, Sir Thomas More, famously stood up to the government of the day, in the form of Henry VIII—and got his head cut off. I believe it was my responsibility to challenge the government of my day. I hope to find that it was my right, too. And to keep my head, either way.