A former UK defence secretary seeking election to parliament’s foreign policy watchdog is facing questions over his suitability for the role after receiving payments from a PR firm that has worked for governments with poor human rights records.
Liam Fox is standing to become chair of the foreign affairs select committee, which scrutinises Foreign Office ministers and officials over key policies. According to parliamentary records, he has been paid £20,000 since August 2021 to provide advice on business and international politics to WorldPR, a firm based in the tax haven of Panama City.
Clients of the firm, according to its website, have included “multiple Kazakhstan government departments and agencies since 2004”. According to Human Rights Watch, free speech in Kazakhstan is suppressed, trade unionists are harassed and impunity for torture persists.
WorldPR has worked with government agencies in Azerbaijan, including the state-owned oil company to “communicate its successes in multiple fields”. According to Amnesty International, persecution of government critics, gender-based violence, torture and other ill-treatment remains widespread across the country.
Other WorldPR’s clients mentioned on the firm’s website include Imran Khan, the ousted prime minister of Pakistan; the family of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; Morgan Tsvangirai, the late opposition leader in Zimbabwe; and the former Libyan government, in order to campaign against the prosecution of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of 270 counts of murder in connection with the Lockerbie bombings.
A spokesperson for Fox said he had never worked for Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan or the other former clients, having only joined the firm in 2021. He also disputed whether Panama was a tax haven, saying it was closely aligned to the top-level OECD standards.
There is no suggestion that Fox has broken any rules. But Sir Alistair Graham, a former chair of the committee for standards in public life, questioned whether Fox would be a suitable new chair of the committee.
“I would have serious doubts given his current declarations as to whether he is a suitable person. If he offered to give up that particular paid employment then he can be judged on his genuine merits. But if in fact there is going to be potential conflicts of interest on the issues examined by the select committee, there are question marks about his genuine independence of approach,” Graham said.
Fox, who was defence secretary for a year until 2011 and international trade secretary for three years until 2019, put himself forward last month after the chair was vacated by Tom Tugendhat, who accepted a job as security minister in Liz Truss’s government.
He has considerable Foreign Office experience, having served as a junior minister in the department under John Major and shadowed the post under Michael Howard.
WorldPR is registered in Panama, where companies are not required to disclose the names of shareholders, nor the amounts of money they send or receive from abroad. The founder and chair, Patrick Robertson, founded the Bruges Group as an undergraduate.
Fox is standing against Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader, and Alicia Kearns, a member of the committee and one of the 2019 intake of MPs.
Last year, Duncan Smith faced questions after the Guardian disclosed that he had recommended rules that directly benefited a company paying him £25,000 a year. He chaired the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform in May 2021, when he and two other MPs were asked by Boris Johnson to find ways of cutting EU red tape.
Only Tory MPs can stand to become the foreign affairs committee’s next chair, according to standing orders. Select committee chairs receive an extra £15,000 in salary.
The exclusion of ministers from voting usually means that the opposition picks the most acceptable Tory or the one most likely to cause the incumbent leadership problems.
Stewart McDonald, the SNP MP and a member of the committee, indicated that he would not support Fox for the role. “I would not be supporting Liam Fox and I certainly wouldn’t be advising my fellow SNP colleagues to support him,” he said. “We are entering the autumn to winter period in which the war in Ukraine enters a whole new dynamic. The immediate crisis on our doorstep needs a serious steady person in the chair of a really important committee.”
A spokesperson for Fox said: “The campaigns and the election for the foreign affairs committee chair have been suspended until at least after the party conference recess period, out of respect for the late Queen, so we do believe running any stories about the election during the official mourning period is distasteful.
“There has been no complaint to the parliamentary commissioner for standards or any other authority. I am sure if there were anything untoward in the slightest then political opponents would not have hesitated to make a complaint of some sort.”