MP Tim Yeo has been reinstated as the chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change committee

Energy committee chair cleared of abusing position

An MP will take the reins of a Commons energy committee again after being cleared of allegations that he abused his position.

Tory Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo will be reinstated as chairman next week after the parliamentary sleaze watchdog dismissed claims he told undercover reporters he could lobby ministers on behalf of a fake solar technology developer.

Standards commissioner Kathryn Hudson also found he had not "coached" a business associate to give evidence to his committee – although she did urge him to "consider more carefully the impact of his comments".

She also urged a wider review into whether tighter restrictions should be placed on committee chairmen's outside interests.

Concluding that the former minister had not broken any rules, the cross-party standards committee hit out at the tactics used by the Sunday Times, saying the "only misrepresentation has been that of the journalists themselves".

"We note the severe damage which is done to public trust by journalism which rests on a basis of subterfuge, misrepresentation and selective quotation," the committee's report said.

"Media investigations can have a role to play in ensuring high standards of public conduct but we note that in this case Mr Yeo has broken no rules and the only misrepresentation has been that of the journalists themselves."

Yeo, who is expected to resume chairmanship of the ECC committee on Tuesday, said: "I welcome this report. After a full investigation, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner accepted, as I have always maintained, that I did not break the rules of the House.

"This investigation included a thorough examination of the full video-recording produced, after a six-week delay, to the commissioner by the Sunday Times. Based on what I actually said, rather than what I was reported by the newspaper to have said, the commissioner found and the committee confirms that I have not acted in breach of the code of conduct."

Two Sunday Times journalists, Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, approached Yeo posing as representatives of a strategic consultancy recruiting experts to help launch a solar technology developer.

The MP told Hudson that he saw the meeting as "an opportunity to learn about a technology" rather than "recruitment", but Ms Hudson said she "does not accept this version of events", noting that the initial email from the fake company said it wanted to discuss a possible consultancy and Yeo had "responded speedily".

The commissioner also criticised Yeo for appearing to suggest that he had "coached" the managing director of a Eurotunnel subsidiary GBRf, where he is a non-executive director.

When the managing director gave evidence to the ECC committee in May, Yeo declared his interest and did not ask any questions, but he told the undercover reporters: "I was able to tell him in advance what he was able to say."

Hudson said Yeo laughed after making the remark, and has argued that it was a joke and there is no evidence that he did coach the witness. However, she said: "In retrospect, the comment about the director's evidence, if intended as a joke, was unfortunate and Mr Yeo explains his comments about work done in private in terms of the normal day-to-day business of the House.

"The reporters were able to use these comments to strengthen the impression of a man who is able to manipulate the work of the House to suit his considerable external interests and to play into current public perceptions of some Members.

"It is very regrettable both for Mr Yeo and for the House that this situation arose but I do not consider that Mr Yeo's conduct reached the high bar of causing significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House, although of course it affects his personal reputation. As a senior Member of the House, Mr Yeo should consider more carefully the impact of his comments. I hope he will do so in future."

The newspaper stated that the MP told them "he could advocate for their company behind the scenes, introduce them to Ministers and guide them on submitting evidence to his own Committee".

According to the committee report, Yeo – an environment minister in John Major's government – said his extensive network of contacts would help the fake firm decide how to "roll out" its technology.

However, he consistently caveated his remarks by stressing his role meant he could not be a "public advocate", and urged them to use public affairs experts rather than him to engage with committee staff.

When asked if he could introduce the undercover reporters to ministers, Yeo apparently replied that "ministers will make judgements on the basis of the merits of the product" and added that “the integrity of the system here is pretty high".

After the meeting, the journalists wrote to Yeo saying they did not think they would be employing his services. He responded expressing "relief", saying: "It was increasingly apparent to me during our talk that what you were seeking was someone to advance your interests by lobbying. This is a function which is not compatible with my position as an MP and chair of a select committee."

The standards committee concluded: "It would be a breach of the rules to lobby ministers, public servants or parliamentary colleagues on behalf a company from which Mr Yeo had or expected financial reward.

"The commissioner finds that Mr Yeo had no expectation of a financial interest in the company concerned, and that he did not offer to make approaches to ministers or civil servants on its behalf."

Hudson backed an inquiry into whether there should be tougher restrictions on the outside interests held by committee chairmen, echoing concerns previously expressed by Speaker John Bercow. The standards committee will launch a probe shortly.

"While the House takes a very reasonable position that a Member's knowledge and interests may well enhance his or her ability to contribute to the work of the House and in particular to some of the specialist committees, there is equally a reasonable concern that that Member is then placed in a privileged position which he or she may be able to exploit for their own interests with few checks and balances to control this," she said.

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