Tim Yeo stands aside amid probe into committee coaching claim

Conservative MP Tim Yeo has rejected claims he coached a businessman

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Conservative MP Tim Yeo has formally stood aside as chairman of a committee while claims he used the role to help a private company influence Parliament are being investigated.

The MP rejects suggestions he coached a businessman employed by a firm with which he has financial links on what to say in evidence to the committee.

But Mr Yeo said he did not want the probe to "distract" its work.

The committee unanimously accepted his offer to step down temporarily.

In a statement, it said: "The committee expressed confidence in Mr Yeo's chairmanship of the committee, but accepted the recommendation in order to ensure the continued effective and evidence-based work of the committee."

Liberal Democrat Sir Robert Smith replaced Mr Yeo in chairing a subsequent meeting on oil refining. Sir Robert declared a shareholding in Shell.

Mr Yeo, chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, was secretly filmed by Sunday Times investigators posing as representatives of a fictional energy company seeking to hire his services.

In the recording, he appears to suggest that he told a businessman what to say to his committee before the businessman appeared before MPs last month.

'Smooth running'

At the meeting, Mr Yeo publicly excused himself from questioning GB Railfreight managing director John Smith because of his acknowledged conflict of interest as a non-executive director and shareholder in its parent firm Eurotunnel.

Mr Yeo's work for the company is declared in the MPs' register of financial interests and he mentioned it at the start of the committee hearing into the bio-energy industry.

But in the secret recording, the MP claims what he did for GB Railfreight "in private was another matter altogether" and he "was able to tell him (Mr Smith) in advance what he should say".

Mr Yeo, who has referred himself to the parliamentary standards commissioner, has said he had chatted briefly with Mr Smith five days before the hearing during a visit to one of the firm's freight trains.

But he has "absolutely and unreservedly" denied the suggestion that he had told him what to say.

After Tuesday's closed meeting of the committee, he said: "They have unanimously accepted my offer to stand aside for the duration of the inquiry."

Before Mr Yeo announced he was standing aside, Labour said he was facing "serious" questions about his conduct and allegations that he had "used his position to further the interests of his clients".

"Tim Yeo has the right to defend himself but it is difficult to see how he can continue as chair of the select committee pending investigation by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner," shadow Cabinet Office minister Gareth Thomas said.

Eurotunnel is the sole owner of GB Railfreight, having bought the firm in 2010.

Mr Yeo and other select committee chairmen are elected to their posts by other MPs for the duration of Parliament.

They receive a supplementary payment of £14,728 in addition to their MP's salary of £66,396.

The allegations come amid calls for a tightening of the rules around lobbying of ministers and MPs to ensure greater transparency, with the government promising to bring forward legislation in the coming weeks.

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