John Prescott has disclosed that he has had seven meetings with Philip Anschutz, the reclusive US billionaire who is involved in bidding to open Britain's first super-casino.
The meetings included a visit by Mr Prescott and several members of his staff to Mr Anschutz's ranch in Colorado last July. But Mr Prescott denied that they had discussed the sale of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, which was bought by the Anschutz Entertainment Group in 2002, or the award of casino licences.
"I can categorically confirm that no discussion took place about the sale of the Dome (indeed contracts had been signed three years earlier), nor about the awarding of regional casino licences," he said in a letter to the Tory MP Hugo Swire, who has called for a full statement in Parliament about the Colorado visit.
Parliament's ombudsman, Sir Philip Mawer, has opened "preliminary inquiries" into why the Deputy Prime Minister did not declare his stay at Mr Anschutz's ranch. Sir Philip said yesterday that once he has spoken to Mr Prescott's office, he will decide whether to start a formal investigation into a Conservative claim that Mr Prescott should have declared the visit in the Register of Members' Interests.
Mr Prescott's office has denied that the Deputy Prime Minister has any say over where the first casino will be located, a decision that will be made by a panel reporting to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) headed by Tessa Jowell.
But yesterday the Tories released information which, they claim, shows he has been involved in forming government policy on casinos. Information obtained by Mr Swire, the shadow Culture Secretary, under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that the Deputy Prime Minister visited the huge Sydney Star City Casino complex in November 2004 on "official business". His purpose was "to get a feel for what an establishment of that size was like". The Government is going to allow one casino the size of Sydney's to be opened on a trial basis somewhere in the UK. More super-casinos may be licensed if the pilot is thought to have gone well. The Millennium Dome is one of the sites still in the running.
But a spokeswoman for Mr Prescott strongly denied any conflict of interest. "The Deputy Prime Minister has no responsibility for casinos. Any licences for casinos will be made by an independently appointed DCMS panel," she said.
Mr Swire claimed: "It is clear that Prescott has a direct and personal involvement, but despite his stay at the 32,000-acre home of an American billionaire, he did not declare his interests to the Commons."Reuse content