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Watchdog Says Blair's No. 2 Broke the Rules

The gift-reporting process in the deputy prime minister's office merits an inquiry, it says.

July 22, 2006|Vanora McWalters | Special to The Times

LONDON — British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott broke rules for ministers by not immediately declaring his stay last year at an American billionaire's ranch, according to a watchdog agency.

Prescott, whose portfolio includes planning and urban redevelopment, spent a weekend in July 2005 at the Colorado ranch of Philip Anschutz, who is building an entertainment center in East London and is hoping to lease space to house Britain's first super-casino. Prime Minister Tony Blair's scandal-tainted deputy, who also recently was castigated for an extramarital affair with a secretary, failed to declare the trip.

The parliamentary standards committee said "shortcomings" in Prescott's department involving the recording of ministerial gifts required "urgent attention." But the committee said no action should be taken against Prescott, who belatedly registered the visit 11 months after his return. Prescott did so after a complaint by a Conservative opposition leader, Hugo Swire, shadow culture secretary.

The committee said the rules must change so future abuses could be properly investigated.

Prescott said he would launch an urgent internal review of his department, though Conservatives said there should be a full independent inquiry.

Blair has rejected calls for such an investigation, saying he has seen no evidence that ministerial rules had been broken. On Friday, Swire said, "If Mr. Blair shies away from this then, frankly, the ministerial code will not be worth the paper it's written on."

The dispute centers on Prescott's stay with Anschutz, who wants to put the super-casino in the Millennium Dome complex, the exhibition space in East London that he bought in 2002.

Prescott has strongly denied a conflict of interest, saying he has nothing to do with the issuing of casino licenses.

The report said Prescott initially appeared to have been in breach of the ministerial code. It said he had taken the view that "accepting Mr. Anschutz's hospitality would not place him under any obligation."

"However, what Mr. Prescott failed to do at that time was also to address, as the ministerial code requires, whether the proposed hospitality was from a source which might reasonably be thought likely to influence ministerial action," the report said.

The parliamentary standards commissioner, Philip Mawer, said Prescott had been "right" to register the trip -- even if it was 11 months late.

"The key question, which is one for the ministerial code, is whether he should have accepted the hospitality in the first place," Mawer said. "That is a matter on which neither the standards and privileges committee nor I can express a point of view."

Mawer and the standards committee are allowed only to investigate adherence to the rules for Parliament members, not those for ministers.

Anschutz, who is developing the L.A. Live entertainment district around Staples Center, has met Prescott seven times since acquiring the lease for the troubled exhibition space in London four years ago. He canceled an eighth meeting this month after the scandal broke.

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