A Downing Street inquiry into allegations against Theresa Villiers has cleared her of wrongdoing over an undeclared lunch with a lobbyist.
But the finding was denounced as a “complete and utter whitewash” by Conservative MP Anne Main, who had complained to Number 10 after learning the 2011 lunch included discussion of a controversial planning application by developers Helioslough for a rail freight depot on green belt land in her St Albans constituency.
In a letter to Ms Main, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said that Ms Villiers – now Northern Ireland Secretary – had assured him the lunch with Helioslough’s chief lobbyist Simon Hoare was “a personal engagement with a long-standing friend”, and that she did not take any action as a result or pass on the content of their discussion to officials or ministers in the transport or communities departments.
He said: “This is a position that has been supported by accounts from both departments and I have absolutely no reason to doubt these accounts.”
And he added: “Having considered this matter in full, I believe that both departments acted properly in respect of the planning appeal and that there is no evidence that decisions were affected by lobbying on behalf of Helioslough or other parties.”
But the St Albans MP said that Sir Jeremy had failed to address the provision in the code governing ministers’ behaviour which requires them not only to avoid conflicts of interest between their public duties and private interests, but also to ensure that no such conflict “could reasonably be perceived to arise”.
Helioslough’s application faced stiff opposition from residents of the village of Radlett, who would be affected by the development.
Following their lunch in August 2011, Mr Hoare sent an email to Ms Villiers seeking Department for Transport support in the case.
But Sir Jeremy said in his finding: “The minister and officials have both confirmed that no action was taken as a result of this email.
“Those involved in the drafting of the revised Strategic Rail Freight Terminal policy guidance... did not have sight of this email or its content ahead of the publication of that guidance.”
After receiving the findings in a letter from the Cabinet Secretary, Ms Main said: “If this is the answer then it appears to be acceptable that ministers can have private undeclared lunches with old friends to discuss sub judice planning decisions with impunity.”
She made clear she did not regard Sir Jeremy’s report as the end of the matter.