This story will be in the Independent on Sunday tomorrow. It brings yet more pressure on Tony Blair to ask Sir John Bourn to launch an investigation into whether Prescott has broken the Ministerial Code. His investigation shouldn't take him too long, if what Francis Elliott and Marie Woolf say sticks...
John Prescott broke the rules on ministerial conduct at least three times when he accepted gifts and hospitality from a US billionaire, the Independent on Sunday can reveal. The Deputy Prime Minister, already reeling after a damning report by the Parliamentary watchdog, is dealt a fresh blow today as he admits he failed to declare to Customs the gift of a cowboy outfit from Philip Anschutz.
The confession piles the pressure on Tony Blair who is refusing to investigate Mr Prescott’s conduct in secretly staying on the ranch of the Millennium Dome’s owner and receiving presents from him. The obligation to declare to Customs overseas gifts “on importation” is clearly set out in the Ministerial Code, the rule-book against government sleaze.
Mr Prescott’s office last night sought to deny the latest breach insisting that he did not want to keep the Stetson hat, belt, spurs and cowboy boots and therefore didn’t owe any tax on the items.
But his defence was mocked by Opposition MPs who are demanding that Mr Blair act before leaving his deputy in charge while taking a holiday. Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, criticised Mr Prescott for initially failing to register his stay at Mr Anschutz’s ranch and for not reporting the gifts to his senior civil servant on Friday. Both are breaches of the Ministerial Code.
Despite the unprecedented criticism from the standards watchdog Downing Street claimed that the matter was now “resolved”. But Mr Blair’s efforts to save Mr Prescott began to unravel last night as the third breach of the code came to light. Section 5.25 (d) reads: “Gifts received overseas worth more than the normal travellers’ allowances should be declared on importation to Customs and Excise who will advise on any duty and tax liability.”
A spokeswoman for Mr Prescott said the gifts had not been declared but said that the omission was because officials knew that he did not want to keep them and therefore did not owe any duty. She said: “The rules as set out by HMRC [Customs] state that no customs duty or tax is payable on gifts received by Ministers on visits overseas, where the gifts are retained by the relevant Government department. “If a Minister wishes to retain a gift, then he or she would be liable for any tax or duty and Customs would advise accordingly. In this case, the gifts had been retained by the department and thus no tax or duty was liable on them. It is a nonsense therefore to suggest that the Ministerial Code has been broken.”
But Mr Swire said: “We found out on Friday that Mr Prescott failed to tell his Permanent Secretary about these gifts, now we discover that he failed to declare them to Customs as he clearly should have done. It is not for Mr Prescott to decide which sections of the Ministerial Code he observes and which he ignores. “Sir Philip Mawer, who had to write to Mr Prescott twice to establish the truth about these gifts, said he did not find the DPM’s procedures for handling gifts “reassuring”. Today’s further revelation can only add to the doubts.
“If this Government wants to cling to any pretence to integrity Tony Blair must now ask Sir John Bourn, the independent adviser on the Code, to investigate without further delay.” Full details of Mr Prescott’s gifts from Mr Anschutz, whose AEG firm bought the Dome and has applied for a license to run a super-casino nearby, emerged in the appendix to Sir Philip’s report.
On July 14 the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to the standards watchdog saying he was “initially provided with the items” so that he could go on a horseback tour of Mr Anschutz’s Eagles Nest ranch in Denver. “Some time after my departure from the ranch they were sent on by Mr Anschutz to my departmental office,” he added. The Stetson was worth about £97, the cowboy boots £120, the belt and buckle £207 and some spurs £185, he said. A pair of jeans he had also been given for the tour had not been sent on, he said.
Meanwhile it emerged that Mr Prescott’s office, reeling from revelations that he had affairs with his private secretary, has hired actors to train staff. Aka Productions is using role play to increase productivity. A Government spokesman said. “It is widely agreed that in some situations role play and the use of actors makes the training effective.” But Eric Pickles, Shadow Minister for Local Government, said: “I'd have thought that the department might have had enough drama after John Prescott's antics of recent months."