Prescott fixer under fire over council junkets

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Indy Politics

He was John Prescott's eyes and ears in Hull, a political ally so close he was viewed as a family friend. When the Deputy Prime Minister accepted the freedom of the city, it was John Black who got his public vote of thanks. But now this former right-hand man and constituency fixer has piled more embarrassment on a government already shaken by scandals in Labour-run towns and cities.

Mr Black, a councillor and former mayor, splashed out thousands of pounds of public money to entertain friends and associates in Hull, a city that ranks as one of Britain's most deprived. He failed to account for nearly £1,000 he spent on foreign visits and even used the mayor's chauffeur-driven car for trips to the races.

These facts emerge from a scathing district auditor's report which severely criticises Mr Prescott's one-time associate for "inappropriate use of public funds".

There will be no prosecutions following the damning report, which stops short of ordering Mr Black to pay back money, but the timing of this latest "sleaze" episode could scarcely be much worse for Labour coming just weeks before May's local elections.

Mr Black, who has now been barred by the Labour Party from holding office, spent £35,547 of public money on hospitality and entertainment while he was mayor of Hull - at least £10,000 more than would be customary.

The auditor's report, which follows a three-year inquiry, is the latest in a run of Labour local-government scandals ranging from mass expenses fiddling in Doncaster, Wakefield and Rotherham to junketing and nepotism by councillors in Glasgow.

Mr Black, a former union convener at a timber yard, has embarrassed Mr Prescott before: while he was housing committee chairman and took a £16,000 job as deputy chairman of the North Hull Housing Action trust, a government-funded organisation refurbishing 2,000 homes in the city. It turned out that this was a joint venture with Doncaster-based Keepmoat Holdings, a company which itself has been the subject of a critical report by the Doncaster district auditor.

Then Mr Prescott's son, John Jr, was drawn into the controversy when it was revealed that his property firm, Wyke Developments, had done a potentially lucrative deal with Mr Black's housing trust.

Now the Hull auditor, Paul Lundy, has served to deepen the Government's distrust of its traditional northern strongholds with a report which officially "calls into question the standard of Cllr Black's conduct".

Mr Black is found to have used the civic car and chauffeur to attend race meetings at Pontefract, York and Doncaster as a guest of commercial organisations.

"I have not received satisfactory explanations as to how these events related to Cllr Black's role of Lord Mayor or to his official duties as a serving councillor and committee chairman," says the report.

It adds: "I have concluded that these trips, which cost the city council about £300, were essentially for his personal benefit and an inappropriate use of public funds."

Mr Lundy found that social events for family friends and business colleagues, paid for by Mr Black's mayoral fund, "could have given the appearance of undue patronage to associates". They included:

A £325 reception for members of Hull Resettlement Project, of which Mr Black was chairman.

A £403 dinner for 25 staff from the Circle Club where he used to work, plus one of his family.

A £217 dinner for 16 ex-colleagues from Humberside County Council, family members and friends.

A £250 champagne reception for Belway Homes when Mr Black was director of a joint venture involving Belway.

A £1,465 dinner for West Hull Rugby League Football Club - Mr Black was formerly a steward at the club.

A £227 dinner for Longhill Ward Labour Party.

The total cost of all Mr Black's receptions was £3,593, but this excludes drinks which were served from the Lord Mayor's rooms and not accounted for. Six of the dinners were for people in the ward that he represented at the time.

Mr Black also drew close to £1,000 for trips abroad and never accounted for how the money was spent, and charged the council for an overnight stay in London for himself and his wife.

Despite the questionable use of public funds, Mr Lundy was unable to prove wilful misconduct on Mr Black's part, while finding that his conduct "fell short of that expected".

His report concluded: "While Cllr Black believed he was entitled to hold these events, he appears to have given little consideration as to whether they were a justifiable use of public funds."

The auditor added that he did not accept Mr Black's claims that he never knowingly broke any rules.

But Mr Black, who now works for a housing organisation in Hull helping the homeless, said he was unrepentant.

He said: "I am naturally very upset by the criticism in the report because I maintain I have done nothing wrong. I deeply regret what has happened and I believe that I should be judged by my year in office in its entirety."