At last, the Not-Me-Government is taking responsibility for the trains

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The Independent Online

Last week I attempted to travel a few miles from north London to the centre of the capital. Knowing that the Northern Line on the Underground was closed because of the derailment at Camden, I opted for an overground train for the first part of the journey. Although it was the morning rush hour, two trains were cancelled. A virtually inaudible loudspeaker announced that one cancellation was due to "shortage of staff" and the other to a "defective train".

Last week I attempted to travel a few miles from north London to the centre of the capital. Knowing that the Northern Line on the Underground was closed because of the derailment at Camden, I opted for an overground train for the first part of the journey. Although it was the morning rush hour, two trains were cancelled. A virtually inaudible loudspeaker announced that one cancellation was due to "shortage of staff" and the other to a "defective train".

After a wait of 30 minutes I squeezed on to a train - it must have been built 30 years ago - that took me to the Victoria Line on the Underground. But there was no service because a decaying Tube train somewhere further along the line had broken down. At this point I gave up and turned round. Picking up my car at the station where the nightmare had begun, I heard a BBC presenter on the radio explain that his interviewee had failed to turn up because of the transport chaos. On the same day the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, arrived late at a meeting to discuss the crisis on the London Underground. He was delayed because there were no Tube trains. Everyone seemed to be late that day - sweatily, neurotically late.

Who should get the blame for the chaos? This seemingly simple question can be applied to a range of public services. Who is to blame for the failure of the police to track down more criminals? How was it that some schools found themselves in the middle of a funding crisis when spending on education has increased substantially? The problem is that the answer is often so complicated and multi-layered that it is almost impossible to finger anyone. Everyone is to blame, so no one is to blame.

Take the transport chaos in London. Livingstone called in the private companies responsible for maintaining the track for a crisis meeting. But, although he is now responsible for the Underground, he has virtually no power over it. He inherited an impossibly complex public-private structure devised by the Government. So is the Government taking responsibility? Oh no, the mayor is in charge now. As for the tottering railway network, who is to blame for the current shambles? Is it the regulator, Network Rail? Is it the private companies that run the trains and maintain the track? Is it the Health and Safety Executive which intervenes fearfully as if it was responsible for astronauts taking a hazardous journey to Mars rather than for passengers trying to get to Ipswich?

The funding crisis on the railways - the product of decades of underinvestment and mismanagement - illustrates the blurred lines of responsi- bility. The rail regulator is seeking another £8bn from the Treasury to make up the shortfall, less than Network Rail wanted, but more than ministers are likely to hand over. The Government has already spent vast sums on the railways and wants to make sure it gets value for money. So is it the Government that's responsible for the level of cash and how it is spent? Oh no, it is the regulator, liaising with Network Rail and the private companies. We go around in circles again.

But, as we do so, we almost always end up blaming the Government. This is partly because we live in a culture that holds to account ministers and virtually no one else. Each day four or five TV and radio programmes seek interviews with ministers. On Sundays there are probably double that number. I should know. I present one of them. "Which minister can we get on?" tends to be our opening question as we plan the programme. Nobody in Parliament or the media challenges the owners of Jarvis or the other major private companies four or five times a day, and 10 times on a Sunday.

What is interesting about this second term is the degree to which senior ministers have recognised that they get the blame when services go wrong, so they might as well take more of the responsibility. One of the many transport ministers who struggled in Labour's first term used to say privately that the railways were a complete shambles, but that the Government would make a mistake if it intervened directly. Echoing the mood of extreme caution in Downing Street, he was scared that any intervention would remind voters - and, more importantly, some newspapers - of Labour's vote-losing past. He was also worried that Labour would get the blame when trains were late. These two reasons highlight the fearful timidity of its first term.

There is a widespread view - even held by some ministers - that Labour has lost its way in its second term after showing a clear sense of direction in the first. The opposite is the case. Some ministers have become a little braver. On the railways, Railtrack has been swept away. Last Friday its successor, Network Rail, announced that it was scrapping more than a billion pounds' worth of private contracts. The Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, pointed out defensively that this was not a return to British Rail, but a measure to save some money. This was a revealing explanation in itself, with the implication that handing out responsibilities to a range of private companies was more expensive and inefficient than managing affairs from a single centralised company accountable to the Government. Mr Darling has been getting the blame for the state of railways. Now he is taking a little more of the responsibility.

In different ways, other Cabinet ministers dare to make decisions to match the level of their accountability. This week the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, will simplify the ways in which schools are funded. Currently there are more than 100 ways in which they can receive money. Instead, Clarke will divert more of the cash directly to them. With a simpler system we will know who is to blame if schools face a cash crisis. It will be either the Education Secretary or the school. Recently the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, acquired highly controversial powers to intervene if a police authority is not up to the job. He got the blame when there was a rise in crime. Now he has the power to do something about it. Instead of being too scared to take on superficial arguments about "political interference" he has the power to interfere if police forces are hopelessly inefficient.

A new and significant political divide is opening up. As I pointed out last week, the Conservatives propose to hand over a range of powers to newly devised local institutions and private companies. If there were a sudden outbreak of crime in one part of the country a Conservative home secretary would declare: "This is nothing to do with me. Thank you and good night." If the trains failed to arrive, a transport secretary under the Conservatives would declare that this was a matter for the private sector. Belatedly, New Labour ministers are learning that failures and inefficiencies in public services are very much a matter for them.

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