The perils of living in the public eye

The affair deputy prime minister John Prescott had with his diary secretary – plus other allegations about his past – demonstrate the difficulties facing employers when a ‘private life’ hits the headlines and brings unwanted publicity.

A great deal of criticism was caused by the fact that Prescott did not resign, and that while he has been stripped of many of his functions, he has kept his full salary and grace-and-favour accommodation. Comparisons are made with corporate executives, whom it is said would have been sacked for similar behaviour.

Public standards

Prescott holds a public office and is subject to the ministerial code issued by the Cabinet Office. This document sets out ethical and procedural guidance for ministers, and the prime minister has said that he expects all ministers to work within both the letter and the spirit of the code. Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has suggested Prescott may be in breach of the regulations.

Unsurprisingly, the code says nothing about ministers distributing their sexual favours. However, it does say that ministers are expected to behave according to the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct in the performance of their duties.
So was Prescott ‘off duty’ on all of the occasions luridly described by Tracey Temple? It is hard to think this is right, but the arbiter is Tony Blair, and he presumably considers that removal of most of the work content from Prescott’s job was the appropriate punishment. In addition, no sanction for a breach is specified in the code.

Neglect of duty?

It has also been suggested that Prescott has committed a criminal offence. The offence of misfeasance in a public office is committed by a public officer acting as such who wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder, without reasonable excuse or justification.

It carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, and the charging practice of the Crown Prosecution Service is to prosecute only very serious cases. It is not limited to cases of financial dishonesty but the conduct has “to injure the public interest”.

It is a matter of judgement whether the ridicule and contempt that Prescott has attracted crosses the line sufficiently to warrant prosecution, but it would take a bold prosecutor to bring charges.

So what would happen to an executive in a private organisation who behaved similarly? It is standard for executive contracts to stipulate that they may be dismissed for gross misconduct for behaviour that, in the reasonable opinion of the board, brings the company into disrepute. There are undoubtedly many boards that would so conclude and dismiss.

Provided that all the appropriate procedures were followed, it is probable that most courts and tribunals would decide that a board was entitled to reach such a conclusion. Dismissal without pay – and maximum ignominy – might follow, but many cases would be settled quietly and an agreed cover story prepared.

But before drawing any quick conclusions, consider the many cases of alleged harassment defended by City institutions anxious to hold on to their high earners, irrespective of their behaviour. It is plain that Blair is not alone in deciding to hang on to his errant colleague.
In a well-publicised case, a building society threatened litigation against one of its members who dared to question its chief executive about his alleged relationship with an employee half his age.

Politics is not the only area where unedifying deals are done to gloss over stupidity.

Rules of conduct

  • The ministerial code does not expressly regulate sexual misconduct.
  • The prime minister decides if “the highest standards” of personal conduct have been observed.
  • There is an offence of misfeasance in public office.
  • It is unlikely any prosecution will take place.
  • Many executives could be dismissed fairly for similar misconduct.
  • Bosses of many organisations act as leniently as Tony Blair in similar circumstances.

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