Mr Prescott, already in hot water over his handling of the transport portfolio, is now under fire for refusing to intervene over alleged racial prejudice within his department.
White staff at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are receiving substantially higher job performance ratings than colleagues from ethnic minorities, according to the department's own statistics. The marks awarded are used to determine pay, and also affect job applications and promotion.
The Deputy Prime Minister has been warned by unions that the system of rating employees could be unlawful and that it would therefore be "unwise" to continue to use it.
Under the marking system five white secretaries in London - 10 per cent of the total of white staff in the grade - were said to be "excellent", giving them a 4.7 per cent pay rise, but not one of the 35 non-white staff was so graded. Eleven white administrative officers in the capital, 6 per cent of the total, achieved "excellence", but not one of the 122 non-white staff at that grade did so. Eleven white executive officers (4 per cent) got an excellent rating and just one from an ethnic minority (2 per cent). There were also substantial disparities in the number of staff being graded "very good".
Employees' representatives say that, despite months of negotiations, the department has insisted on retaining the system. "We sought a meeting with John Prescott, but it was refused," said Geoff Lewtas, a national officer at the civil service union PCS.
"Effectively the Deputy Prime Minister has washed his hands of the problem, allowing his officials to deal with it. The accountability however is at his door," said Mr Lewtas. On Wednesday the union met the CRE, which has agreed to look into the allegations.
An investigation into alleged race discrimination in performance appraisal throughout the civil service is being conducted by the Cabinet Office and the civil service unions. However the report is not due for more than a year.
In a statement the DETR said: "The department reviewed its systems when similar effects were seen last year and the system was considered by independent consultants to be fair." It added that any study of appraisal systems should be conducted across Whitehall.Reuse content