A stew of hatred stirred by hacks

Old grudges and amateurish journalism combined to annoy John Prescott last week, report Steve Boggan and Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent Online
THEY had to watch out for bloodstained syringes when they began tearing out the sodden, foul-smelling interior of 75 Eighth Avenue, Hull. "You have to wear good boots or the needles will go through the soles of your shoes," said Fred the plumber. "These houses have been empty for years, so the kids break in and take their drugs here. But don't worry - we'll have people back in them in no time."

The houses in question are the 25 at the centre of last week's media frenzy, the ones bought at suspiciously low prices by a company linked to JohnathanPrescott, son of the Deputy Prime Minister. These were the subject of a "dodgy deal", according to some. They were sold off at an average price of pounds 5,400 - surely too low, argued others.

The streets round here might be grandly named but this is a million miles from Manhattan. Standing outside 75 Eighth Avenue or numbers 233, 243 and 273 Orchard Park Road on the depressed North Hull Estate, talk of dodgy backroom deals seems embarrassingly inappropriate. It is easier to see why it took government auditors just three days to conclude that the deal was completely above board and in no way improper.

But to see how these houses thrust the Deputy Prime Minister into the spotlight of alleged sleaze, you have to go back almost 30 years. Mr Prescott may believe there is an orchestrated campaign against him but any enemies he has are more likely to be people he - perhaps unavoidably - upset in a political career that began then.

Among those whom Mr Prescott suspects of wishing him ill are a small band led by Terry Geraghty, a councillor for some 28 years who has never forgiven him for the way he landed the nomination for the seat of Hull East in 1970.

"I don't like the man," Mr Geraghty told one newspaper last week. "He treats everyone like dirt."

Mr Geraghty, a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, remembers 1970 as the year when his union was in talks about a takeover of the National Union of Seamen, for which Mr Prescott was a full-time official. One of the terms of the takeover involved the TGWU members nominating Mr Prescott for the seat. They did, but the NUS pulled out, leaving Mr Prescott in place in a manoeuvre still seen by many as a double-cross.

Another factor counting against Mr Prescott is the sense of betrayal that many people in this city feel towards the once avowed socialist who now prospers in a Blairite government.

"This city is the epicentre of traditional socialism and many people feel Prescott has sold out just to get on," one man said last week. "It is amazing the depth of hatred some people feel towards him."

Given such animosity, it is easy to understand why Mr Prescott sounded paranoid last week when details began emerging of the theft of confidential documents from an office, of his bins being searched, and of two mysterious figures - Ian Newton and Matthew Parkes - touting information about him around Fleet Street.

The atmosphere became even more poisoned yesterday when it was revealed that a journalist from the Sunday Times had joined the East Hull Labour Party to try to dig up information about Mr Prescott. While some may well consider Simon Trump's endeavours to be nothing more than good investigative reporting, Mr Prescott believed it was more evidence of a smear.

The Deputy Prime Minister believes that because his opponents found out nothing untoward about him, they focused instead on the housing deal involving his son.

It is believed that much of the information offered to newspapers investigating the deal came from Mr Newton, 42, and 31-year-old Mr Parkes. Theycame under the full glare of media attention when, pursued by reporters, they sought sanctuary in a police station in central Hull rather than face questions about their activities.

Little is known about Mr Parkes other than that he is Hull-born and still lives there. It is clear, however, that he played second fiddle to Mr Newton, whose original name was Ian Achmed. His father was Mohamed Achmed, a marine fireman from the Yemen.

Mr Newton changed his name by deed poll in the 1980s to save his children, Andrew, 16, and Katie, 18, from the kind of racism he had encountered as a child growing up in Hull.

"We were very conscious of our background and would sit around the table discussing Middle Eastern politics," said his older brother, Graham. "As he has grown older, he seems to have taken more of an interest in politics, but not to this extent. I mean, not so he would get involved in anything odd."

Rumours circulating last week suggested that something odd was indeed happening. Local politicians feared that one faction in the party was funding Mr Newton's inquiries into Mr Prescott - he has admitted to some newspapers using underhand methods to try to get information on the Deputy Prime Minister.

But the truth is simpler. Mr Newton has dabbled in journalism, mainly for the Asian Times, and saw the presence of the newly-elevated Mr Prescott on his doorstep as a way to make money.

Mr Newton and Mr Parkes focused on the activities of a company called Wyke Developments Ltd, which employed Johnathan Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister's 34-year-old son. Wyke had been buying up run-down properties in Hull - in some cases repossessed homes - and renovating them.

The deal that has led to the controversy centred on the purchase of homes from the North Hull Housing Action Trust. When it was revealed that Wyke had bought the homes for an average of pounds 5,400, that Mr Prescott's son was a shareholder in the holding company, and finally that the regional office of the Department of the Environment - of which Mr Prescott is head - had approved the deal, some people called foul. Some newspapers provided graphs for their readers showing how the Deputy Prime Minister was linked to the deal from which his son was to benefit.

What some failed to point out, however, was that the sale of the houses had been advertised twice in the local newspaper and that four companies had expressed an interest but only two - one of which was Wyke - put in a bid. Wyke offered an average of more than pounds 5,000 per house while the other firm offered just pounds 1 in the hope that the trust, coming to the end of its limited lifespan, needed to offload the properties.

Infuriated by the continuing attacks on him in spite of the evidence, Mr Prescott ordered Department of the Environment auditors to conduct an inquiry. Reporting back after just three days, they concluded that "...the sale was handled with full regard to the requirements of regularity and propriety".

Publication of the report has exonerated Mr Prescott, his son, and Simon Cutting, the managing director of Wyke.

"The past week has been pure hell," Mr Cutting said, "but I'm convinced none of it would have happened if I didn't have an employee on my staff by the name of Prescott."

He added: "I'm sure the people who want to finish off John Prescott will keep trying to prove that he or his family have done something wrong."

Meanwhile, back on the North Hull Estate, Fred, the Wyke Developments plumber, expresses anger when talk turns to "dodgy deals".

"Look," he says, "if this was left up to the council, these houses would still be derelict in two years' time. As it is, we'll have people in them within a few months, and you won't have to worry then about bairns stepping on needles."