Liam Fox Faces MPs Over Werritty And Business Trips
"Let's go and watch fox hunting," said more than one MP as they headed for the first session of the Commons since party conference season. It was happenstance of the parliamentary calendar that Liam Fox would be the first minister to face questions in the new term, and he found the chamber two-thirds full.
After supportive cheers from Tory MPs, Fox remarked at how there were "so many new and interested members in defence."
After fielding typical ministerial questions on Chinese aircraft carriers and job losses at British Aerospace, the first question of hunting season came from Labour's Emma Reynolds, who asked Fox how many times has he visited Sri Lanka since taking office last May.
The defence secretary said he'd visited Sri Lanka "twice ... I'm not sure if it was three times. One of which was official government business."
This answer, along with any others about overseas delegations was met with jeering from Labour.
But Liam Fox seemed relaxed during question time, probably buoyed on by a fairly strong endorsement from the prime minister earlier in the day. It was only when topical questions neared an end that the government front bench began to fill up with government big hitters, including Michael Gove, Eric Pickles and George Osborne.
Then Fox stood up, again, to deliver his statement, in which he clarified the extent of his involvement with Adam Werritty since taking office in May of last year. Short answer: A lot.
Fox told the Commons that he had met Werritty on overseas visits around 18 times, and that Mr Werritty had visited him at the Ministry of Defence 22 times in 16 months. Fox said the most of the meetings at the MOD had been “short social meetings”
Adam Werritty had been employed in Liam Fox's parliamentary office as a researcher before the last election, earning £5,800 during that time. He'd had a Parliamentary pass during that time but Fox insisted Werritty hadn't been paid a penny since the general election.
Fox said that he found about the dodgy business cards produced by Werrity in June of this year, whereupon he'd told Werrity to stop using them. He said senior civil servants at the MOD had raised their concerns about the business cards in August.
But Fox claimed that Werritty had never been present at departmental meetings, and that he'd never discussed commercial or defence matters with him. Significantly, Fox stressed that Adam Werrity had never been told about classified matters.
Fox repeated it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred, but already Labour MPs were jeering, prompting the Speaker to intervene and urge they show the defence secretary some respect.
Fox told the Commons that Werritty was in effect being cut loose. He'd take part in no further meetings or accompany the defence secretary on any more overseas trips.
To further jeers from Labour, Liam Fox told MPs: "I've made clear that my desire is to be as transparent as possible."
Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy wasn't impressed, asking how it could be that if Werritty hadn't been told about classified information, how could he have known Fox's diary arrangements?
Listing multiple alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code, Murphy said the defence secretary had "Driven a coach and horses through the rules", particularly because Fox hadn't declared Adam Werritty in the register of ministerial interests.
Speaking later in the debtate, Tory MP and chairman of the Defence Committee James Arbuthnot claimed that Liam Fox's problems were "pretty small scale", arguing that problems with a shortage of money in defence budget and operations in Afganistan were more important.