Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Thirteenth Report

Conduct of Mr John Prescott

1. We have considered a memorandum from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards regarding the complaint by Mr Hugo Swire, Member for East Devon, against the Rt Hon John Prescott, Member for Hull East. Mr Swire raised the question of whether a stay from 22-24 July 2005 by Mr Prescott on a ranch owned by Mr Philip Anschutz, owner of a company which is part of the consortium responsible for the redevelopment of the North Greenwich Peninsula, including the Millennium Dome, should have been recorded by him in the Register of Members' Interests. Mr Swire also wrote in similar terms direct to Mr Prescott, and also to the Secretary to the Cabinet. Mr Swire subsequently also raised the question of whether certain gifts alleged to have been received by Mr Prescott in the course of the visit should have been registered. The Commissioner's memorandum is reproduced at Appendix 1.

2. Following receipt of Mr Swire's letter, Mr Prescott took further advice from the Cabinet Secretary in relation to the visit. This advice, Mr Prescott maintains,[1] was different from that given by his then Permanent Secretary before the visit. The Cabinet Secretary indicated that he would not have authorised a charitable donation in relation to the visit, and that it could potentially be deemed 'hospitality'. In the light of this advice, Mr Prescott had decided "for the absolute avoidance of any doubt" to record the stay in the Register of Members' Interests. An appropriate entry was therefore made by him in the Register of Members' Interests the day after Mr Swire had written to him.[2]

3. In his correspondence with the Commissioner, Mr Swire also raised a number of wider issues, including the extent to which Mr Prescott had complied with the requirements of the Ministerial Code in relation to the visit. These are matters for the Prime Minister, under whose authority the Ministerial Code is issued, rather than for us.

4. The Commissioner has come to three principal conclusions:

  • Mr Prescott acted correctly in registering his visit to Mr Anschutz's ranch, albeit some eleven months late and after a complaint had been made;
  • As the gifts were treated by the Department as received by Mr Prescott in his Ministerial capacity, and thus retained by the Department, no question of their inclusion in the Register of Members' Interests arises; and
  • There are shortcomings, which require urgent attention, in the arrangements within Mr Prescott's office for recording the receipt of Ministerial gifts.

5. In accordance with our normal practice, we have made available to Mr Prescott a copy of the Commissioner's memorandum. His comments are reproduced at Appendix 2. In these, he indicates that he "fully accepts" the Commissioner's report, and that he and his department also accept the concern expressed about the procedures operated in the department for reporting gifts to the Accounting Officer.[3] We welcome this.

6. Turning first to the question of the gifts received by Mr Prescott in the course of the visit, we agree with the Commissioner that, as these have been treated as Ministerial gifts, no question arises of their inclusion in the Register of Members' Interests.

7. We also share the Commissioner's concern about the arrangements within Mr Prescott's department for informing the Permanent Secretary of Ministerial gifts. We are therefore pleased to note that Mr Prescott has asked his department to undertake an urgent review of its procedures, and that it has already begun to implement new procedures.[4]

8. We trust that any new procedures will result in the timely reporting of all future gifts: given that Members are required to notify changes in their Register entries within one month of the relevant event, there is in our view no reason why a similar time limit should not apply in Government to the notification to the Permanent Secretary of Ministerial gifts.

9. In our view, there should be transparent, standardised, and timely procedures across Government for reporting Ministerial gifts to the Permanent Secretary. We recommend that the newly appointed independent adviser on Ministers' interests, Sir John Bourn, should take steps to ensure that such procedures are introduced as soon as possible.

10. We now turn to the question of the belated registration of the hospitality. We agree with the Commissioner that Mr Prescott ultimately made the right decision in deciding to register his stay at Mr Anschutz's ranch in July 2005. As the Ministerial Code states:[5]

    "It is a well established and recognised rule that no Minister……should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation."

It continues:[6]

    "In the event of a Minister accepting hospitality on a scale or from a source which might reasonably be thought likely to influence Ministerial action, it should be declared in the Register of Members' or Peers' Interests…"

11. As the Ministerial Code points out, decisions on whether to accept gifts or hospitality are primarily a matter which must be left to the good sense of the Minister concerned. It is clear from subsequent events that the concerns which led to the Permanent Secretary being consulted before the invitation was accepted were real. She told the Commissioner that "her primary concern had been that there should be no impropriety or perceived conflict of interest in [Mr Prescott] accepting the invitation. She had established that there were no outstanding issues relating to either the Dome or the Greenwich Peninsula which were awaiting Departmental decision. She had therefore felt that, from this point of view, the invitation could be accepted….She had been satisfied that, in accepting the offer of a visit to the ranch, there was no conflict of interest in relation to the deal for the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula and the Dome…It then became a matter of judgement whether or not to accept the offer."[7]

12. We do not know whether the Permanent Secretary offered any advice on the appropriateness of the visit in the light of Mr Prescott's wider role as Deputy Prime Minister, although the final judgement as to the wisdom of accepting the hospitality was a matter for Mr Prescott himself. He took the view, in the light of the advice he received, that accepting Mr Anschutz's hospitality would not place him under any obligation.

13. However what Mr Prescott failed to do at that time was also to address, as the Ministerial Code requires, whether the proposed hospitality was on a scale or from a source which might reasonably be thought likely to influence Ministerial action. Therein lay the root cause of his failure to recognise the need to record this visit in a timely fashion in the Register of Members' Interests. We share the Commissioner's view, which Mr Prescott came to accept in the light of further advice following Mr Swire's approach to him, that the nature of his relationship with Mr Anschutz meant that he was accepting hospitality from a source that might reasonably have been thought likely to influence Ministerial action, the key test for recording hospitality received in a Ministerial capacity in the Register of Members' Interests.

14. Our predecessors have dealt with a number of cases where failure to register one or more interests has been at issue, and some of these have involved acceptance of hospitality.[8] In this case, as the Commissioner points out, Mr Prescott took further advice, and immediately acted on it, as soon as the matter had been raised with him by Mr Swire. On the other hand, he is a very senior Minister, and also a very senior Member of the House. He should therefore be fully conversant with the requirements of both the House and the Ministerial Code.

15. Having regard to the specific circumstances of this case, including Mr Prescott's eventual initiative in registering the stay, and his full acceptance of the conclusions reached by the Commissioner, we are not recommending any further action to the House.

16. This case is nonetheless a cautionary tale to Ministers, and highlights the need for them to think very carefully about the implications of accepting hospitality from those with whom they have an ongoing relationship in their Ministerial capacity. In this context, we urge upon all Ministers the considerations which the Commissioner suggests may be relevant to any decision to record hospitality in the Register of Members' Interests,[9] and the availability of advice from the Registrar of Members' Interests. The Prime Minister should consider incorporating an appropriate reference in future editions of the Ministerial Code.

17. Finally, it is in our view difficult for the public to understand the distinctions between the Parliamentary and Ministerial Codes, and who is responsible for the enforcement of each. Whereas the House has well-established arrangements for independent investigation of complaints against Members, there are as yet no corresponding arrangements in relation to complaints of breaches of the Ministerial Code. This makes for difficulties in investigating complaints, like this one, which raise issues under both jurisdictions. We recommend that the Prime Minister consider introducing an independent element into the investigation of complaints of breaches of the Ministerial Code.

1   WE15, p.36. Back

2   Appendix 1, para 25. Back

3   In most Government Departments, the head of the department, usually the Permanent Secretary, is the Accounting Officer. Back

4   Appendix 2, p. 38. Back

5   Para. 5.24. Back

6   Para. 5.28. Back

7   WE 9. p. 31. Back

8   See Third Report, Session 1997-98 (HC 180); Fourteenth Report, Session 1997-98 (HC 634); and Fourth Report, Session 1999-2000 (HC 111). Back

9   Appendix 1, paras. 68-9. Back

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