A British businessman thought to have been murdered in China “was not an employee of the British Government in any capacity”, Foreign Secretary William Hague said today.
Mr Hague issued the letter to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee after MPs questioned him about reports that Neil Heywood may have been an MI6 agent or passed information to the UK secret services.
Mr Heywood, 41, was "only an occasional contact" of the British embassy in Beijing where he attended "some meetings in connection with his business", he said in a carefully-worded statement.
But he did not specifically rule out the possibility that Mr Heywood, a family friend of a senior Chinese politician currently under suspension, could have had some form of relationship or contact with the Secret Intelligence Service.
Mr Heywood died in the city of Chongqing last November, and Chinese authorities initially said it was down to alcohol over-consumption.
In January, however, Foreign Office officials were made aware of rumours among British expats in China that there were suspicious circumstances.
In his letter, Mr Hague defended their decision not to alert ministers, saying that they judged an "uncorroborated report" insufficient grounds to escalate the case.
He was informed on February 7 when the initial reports were "supplemented by increasing concerns" following allegations made in the US by former Chinese police chief Wang Lijun.
Following a series of high-level requests, the Chinese authorities have now opened an investigation into the suspected murder of Mr Heywood.
The businessman was a friend of the family of Bo Xilai, a former rising star in Chinese politics who was suspended from the Politburo in April amid allegations of "serious discipline violations".
Unconfirmed media reports suggest that police suspect Mr Heywood may have been poisoned after threatening to expose a plan by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, to move money abroad.
"We acted to seek an investigation as soon as we judged that concerns about the circumstances of Mr Heywood's death justified it and we are pleased that the Chinese are now investigating," Mr Hague said.
The Select Committee posed a series of questions to Mr Hague after he set out the latest developments in the case in a statement to the Commons last week.
In a letter, Tory chairman Richard Ottaway asked him to comment on media reports about Mr Heywood's "profession" and to clarify the businessman's relationship with the British Consulate-General in Chongqing and the British Embassy in Beijing.
"For instance, did he supply the British Consulate or Embassy with information, either on a formal or informal basis?", he asked.
Mr Hague said it was standard Government practice neither to confirm nor deny speculation over whether someone was a member of the intelligence services.
"However, given the intense interest in this case, it is, exceptionally, appropriate for me to confirms that Mr Heywood "was not an employee of the British Government in any capacity".
He went on: "Mr Heywood was only an occasional contact of the Embassy, attending some meetings in connection with his business. He was not known to the Consulate-General."
Mr Ottaway welcomed the letter, which he said had answered the committee's concerns "for the time being".