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20 October 2011

‘Advisors advise, but ministers decide’

With the publication of the report by Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell into Liam Fox and Adam Werrity it now seems inevitable that he had to resign. If he hadn't David Cameron would likely have had to sack him for failing to realise that using a friend as an unofficial advisor, funded by anonymous donors, who also had personal business interests blurred the line between the personal and the professional. 

Yet the report found that Liam Fox was not guilty of the two principal charges laid against him, that of undermining national security or making personal financial gain. However, he was considered guilty of stopping civil servants from attending key meetings, soliciting backers to fund Adam Werrity's travel and he failed to heed requests from officials to distance himself from Werrity.  

It is notable that despite the increased attention paid to the financial arrangements of members of parliament, and particularly government ministers, as well as to potential conflicts of interest, this situation was still able to arise. It appears that concerns were raised by Ursula Brennan, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Defence, but were never acted on by Dr Fox, or considered of sufficient gravity to be escalated and resolved.  

Following the outcry over MP's expenses since 2009 significant steps were taken to increase the scrutiny of how public money is spent. This situation did not include the misuse of public money, but instead the potential use of private donors' money to fund advice on British defence policy.  

As the story began to unfold, beginning with an investigation published in the Guardian earlier this summer, the various layers of arrangement, both formal and informal began to unravel. It became increasingly clear that Liam Fox was either culpable of extreme naivety, or wilfully flouting guidance and regulation. The publication of the Cabinet Secretary's report seems to confirm that it was the latter.  

So we now know that Liam Fox broke the rules, but what did he do wrong, and is there a difference between the two? Why shouldn't a friend accompany him on trips, provide informal advice and be funded by donors who had bankrolled the Defence Secretary's office while in opposition? Perhaps it is just that the arrangement appears wrong, even in the absence of any financial benefit, or endangering national security. The report concluded that Dr Fox was guilty of a failure of judgement and had not lived up to the standards of behaviour expected of a government minister.  

It seems that Liam Fox thought that as he was the man in charge of the Ministry of Defence he could decide what he did. This appears to have been where he is guilty of naivety. If one is being generous they could conclude that Dr Fox simply wanted to bypass some of the bureaucracy of the civil service, and be able to get some advice without every meeting recorded and attended by civil servants. But in doing so he removed the accountability that sought to ensure that he was not improperly influenced, and that information of a sensitive nature was not passed to those without the relevant clearance.  

The report recommended that Liam Fox should not have ignored his advisor's request to join his meetings with Adam Werrity. While this recommendation is eminently sensible given what we now know, it does appear to have disproved the old adage that 'advisors advise, but ministers decide'.