The Government was accused of trying to "wash its hands" of responsibility for public services last night after David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, suggested that ministers were not to blame for individual failures in the NHS and rising crime.
Mr Blunkett was heavily criticised by the Tories for a speech in which he said frontline workers and community leaders must share the burden of modernising services.
At Labour's local government and women's conference in Cardiff, the Home Secretary said the Government had "responsibility without power" over local improvements in crime-fighting, hospitals, schools and transport.
Mr Blunkett vehemently denied that he was abrogating ministers' responsibility for their policies, but stressed that a new debate was needed on just how much Whitehall could achieve.
In a reference to the controversy over 94-year-old Rose Addis, he said that although Labour had devolved power to hospitals, Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, was blamed for such incidents. Mr Blunkett complained that he was attacked for rising violent crime even though operational responsibility lay with individual police forces.
Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, was blamed for what went on in the classroom despite devolution to schools, and Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, was blamed for the poor service that was really the fault of South West Trains, he added.
Tony Blair, who will address the conference over the weekend, has admitted that if the NHS is not "fixed" by the time of the next general election, Labour would deserve to suffer the consequences. But Mr Blunkett sought to shift the focus on to the role of those who deliver services, saying ministers had to make clear what they actually controlled and were responsible for.
"At the moment we have the worst of all worlds. Ministers are felt, believed and presented as having responsibility for aspects of our life, our well-being and our public services over which they do not have direct control," he said. "Unless we have a debate about where responsibility lies we will delude people into believing that we run old-style government where you simply issue diktats from the centre and suddenly change takes place."
He said that it was time to "be straight" with the public over where responsibility lay for service delivery and not "delude people" that old-style centralised control ran everything. But he stressed that ministers would remain accountable at elections.
"This is emphatically not about washing our hands of our responsibility to reform public services," he said.
Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said Mr Blunkett was clearly trying to soften public opinion for the prospect of worsening public services. "The Government wants to have its cake and eat it. It clearly wants to take the credit for everything that goes right and take no blame when things go wrong," he said.
"Yes, there are limits to what government can achieve, but they cannot escape responsibility for the way in which public services are run."
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, warned the conference that Labour faced a "spiral of decline and defeat" similar to that of the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s in coming local elections unless it promoted its message of improved public services.
In the first reference by any minister to the next election, Mr Prescott said it was essential the party won a third historic victory.Reuse content