Leading Article: Prescott is bigger than this farce

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THE PRESCOTT saga teeters between broad farce and high drama. This chapter of allegations and investigations is more reminiscent of the dark days of the French Fourth Republic than late Nineties, post-Nolan Britain. Give or take a Spycatcher we simply are not used to this kind of thing. Confusion abounds, as the bemused Humberside Constabulary interview and inquire. It is important to get two things clear.

The first is that John Prescott, in his capacities as Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions has other, much more important fish to fry. Not every newspaper allegation is worth reading, especially if it is printed in a Sunday with an axe to grind. Meanwhile anyone who travels on the London Underground, together with motorists, lorry drivers and rail users has more pressing concerns. New Labour has some critical decisions to take on the transport infrastructure. The Treasury is signalling hard that Gordon "hair shirt" Brown wants to keep a tight lid on spending. Even if the so-called Golden Rule is applied under which government borrowing should total no more than the government invests, getting capital out of the Treasury is going to be a hard task. Mr Prescott, who is shaping up as one of the Cabinet's most serious players, is the man to put the arguments with force and clarity. Any distraction is unwelcome. The same point applies in force to all those concerned either to get into social housing - accommodation for lower income people provided by councils or housing associations - or ensure that the existing stock of public housing is maintained. There is a strong case for investment, at least from the financial year commencing 1999; without it housing will fall into disrepair and require costlier attention later. Mr Prescott needs to be fighting fit to make the case.

The second point relates to Kingston upon Hull. It was never, it's true, as depressed as some other coastal cities, despite the decline of deep- sea fishing. But the indices of social deprivation, educational under- attainment and urban decline register strongly for the city. In recent years a concerted effort at reinvention has been made; the city has started to look better; useful local partnerships between public and private sector have been forged. A one-class town (the middle classes traditionally decamped to the countryside around) is even beginning to attract a more socially diverse population. For Hull's efforts to be side-tracked by the miasma of allegation and investigation would be more than regrettable - it would delay regeneration and potentially blight further generations of Hull young people.

A certain degree of worldliness is required. Large-scale housing renewal has been taking place in Hull. If during the course of the process of property acquisition and development not every penny was fully accounted for, receipted and annotated, if not every deal was entirely above board - would that really be worth this kind of attention? What other stories emanating from a provincial city get this kind of noise ... again, listen closely and the sound of grinding axes is audible. Meanwhile, in another neck of the woods... Yesterday we reported, on the basis of a National Audit Office report, on the "loss" to the public purse of some pounds 300m in the course of water privatisation and consequent pension arrangements. Nobody, however, is being held responsible. No one is facing court charges. No one is being investigated by police or auditors. Meanwhile in Hull petty sums are in play; huge investigative effort is chasing allegations of mayoral over-indulgence. A sense of proportion is needed.

Someone somewhere appears to be desperately anxious to implicate Mr Prescott and, presumably, discredit him. The early signs are that the effort - if that is what it is - is endearingly English, bumbling and amateur. The very suspicion that the Deputy Prime Minister might be the target of politicking ne'er-do-wells immediately engenders sympathy for him. He has important work to do on the nation's behalf. The sooner he is able to get on with it, free of distraction, the better.