Parliament’s reputation has been hit by another potential lobbying scandal as the chairman of a powerful Commons committee was filmed apparently boasting of helping a business colleague prepare for an appearance before his committee.
Tim Yeo, the Tory chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, is battling to save his reputation after being filmed by undercover reporters posing as representatives of a solar energy company seeking to employ him as an advocate.
Unlike his fellow Conservative MP Patrick Mercer – the target of a similar sting by BBC’s Panorama programme, less than a month ago – Mr Yeo did not accept any money. But he was filmed talking indiscreetly over a meal in a sushi bar.
At one point, the conversation turned to the appearance before the energy select committee last month of John Smith, managing director of GB Railfreight. Mr Yeo took no part in the questioning of Mr Smith because of a potential clash of interest – he is a paid director of the firm’s parent company, Eurotunnel. But he told the undercover reporters: “I was able to tell him in advance what he should say.”
The case has raised questions about whether the heads of parliamentary committees, who are better paid than rank and file MPs, should be allowed to hold outside business interests. Mr Yeo earns as much outside Parliament as he does through being an MP. He has declared almost £81,000 in outside earnings since March 2012, in addition to his MP’s annual salary of £66,396. Those figures are topped up with £14,728 in additional pay for his duties as a committee chairman.
The former Tory MP Paul Goodman, who now edits the Conservative Home website, said yesterday: “The lesson of the Yeo affair is that those who chair select committees should be barred from having any outside interest that can reasonably be seen to conflict with their role as chairmen. The case for banning conflicting outside interests has now become overwhelming.”
Mr Yeo had agreed to appear on Sky News and the BBC on Sunday to answer any suggestion of wrongdoing, but pulled out of both programmes at short notice.
He later issued a statement denying he had done wrong and accusing The Sunday Times, whose undercover reporters filmed him, of being selective in the extracts they published. He has asked for an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, believing that its findings will clear him.
In his statement, Mr Yeo said: “I want to make clear that I totally reject these allegations. The Sunday Times has chosen to quote very selectively from a recording obtained clandestinely during a conversation of nearly an hour and a half.
“My lawyer requested the whole recording from which these extracts were obtained but this has not been given.
“The whole recording would show the context of the conversation and demonstrate clearly that at no stage did I agree or offer to work for the fictitious company these undercover reporters claimed to be representing.”
He added that it was “totally untrue” that he had coached Mr Smith before his committee appearance, though he confirmed having met him five days before the hearing.
He said: “I spoke briefly to Mr Smith about his forthcoming appearance in front of the committee to explain that, because of the business connection between us, I would not take part in questioning him. I did not want him to think that my silence indicated a lack of interest in what he was saying,” he said.