Andreas Whittam Smith: The newest way to hold politicians to account

It turns out that we citizens can employ the law against ministers
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Suddenly a new method of holding government ministers to account has emerged: call the police. Following the successful employment of this technique to get the cash-for-peerages scandal examined by Scotland Yard, I had been wondering whether somebody would make a complaint about John Prescott's behaviour.

Now we learn that action has been taken by a retired Glasgow police officer, Alistair Watson. He evidently knows how to frame a charge. For he has alleged that the Deputy Prime Minister has been guilty of the offence of misconduct in a public office by carrying on an affair during working hours. He has written to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to this effect.

Mr Watson had remembered that earlier this year a former constable with the Manchester Police had been convicted of four counts of misconduct in public office, of which three counts related to occasions when the constable had had sexual intercourse with a woman at her home while he was on duty. He was sentenced to 200 hours community service. In the interests of equality of justice, Mr Watson wrote, there is no reason why Mr Prescott cannot be prosecuted "as this police officer was".

No, indeed not. The Crown Prosecution Service provides a definition of the offence. The elements of misconduct in public office are as follows: that the person concerned is a public officer acting as such. Mr Prescott, as a minister of the Crown, is clearly a public officer.

That he or she wilfully neglects to perform his or her duty and/or wilfully misconducts him or herself to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder without reasonable excuse or justification. Assuming that the account by Mr Prescott's diary secretary of her affair with him is accurate, Mr Prescott is caught by both the "and" and the "or".

As far as I can see, Mr Prescott was wilfully neglecting to perform his duty even though Ms Temple's published diary suggests that the trysts were short and that, once Mr Prescott had been sexually gratified, perfunctory. At the same time his behaviour has clearly amounted to an abuse of the public's trust. The torrent of criticism of Mr Prescott is ample proof of that.

I hope that the Commissioner will find that there is sufficient reason to open an enquiry. I am heartened by the vigour with which Scotland Yard has been pursuing the cash-for-peerages allegations. Sir Cameron Mackintosh is due to be interviewed next week. He has stated that he turned down a peerage in return for a loan to the Labour Party.

So just at a time when the Government is harrying the public with legislation designed to regulate anything that moves, it turns out that we citizens can employ the law against ministers. Often the precedents will go back a long way. The cash for-peerages enquiry is being conducted under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, 1925. The offence of misconduct in public office originates in the Common Law.

Now the possibility exists that Scotland Yard will be simultaneously interviewing the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, about alleged abuses of the honours system and the Deputy Prime Minister for alleged misconduct in public office. The broader context is Parliament's inability to hold the government of the day to account, exacerbated by the ineffectiveness of the Tories as the main party of opposition. This new weakness in our constitutional arrangements has led to an expansion in the unofficial ways of making good the deficiency, of which complaining to the police is the newest example. Civil servants leaking confidential information to newspapers is done for the same purpose.

Most of all, however, it is the press which does the job. It doesn't do it perfectly. Newspapers in pursuit of ministers can be inaccurate, unfair, bullying, salacious, even vicious, but thank goodness they sweep the Augean stables every day. Well-mannered, thoughtful people often remark that we have a problem with the press. That is wrong. If Parliament regularly and effectively examined and checked the executive, newspapers would turn to other subjects and I wouldn't have to wonder whether to write to the Police Commissioner about ministers' conduct.

As it happens there is one matter into which I would like the police to enquire. That is the curious case of the cannabis recently found at the home of John Reid, the new Home Secretary. It was discovered after a regular check done by a Ministry of Defence team for routine security reasons. The amount found was small but could have been the remains of a larger store. Mr Reid said he has no idea where it had come from and no action was taken. But the police wouldn't normally be satisfied by such a profession of ignorance. Nor should they be in this case.