Friday. Rush-hour. On the Tube. Now tell me public services are improving

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The Independent Online

The Government is in danger of believing its own propaganda.

The Government is in danger of believing its own propaganda. With a new zeal ministers are proclaiming improvements in public services and, more ominously, are reluctant to hear about examples of failure. Let's talk about the good times they protest. Don't mention a dodgy hospital, let alone a crumbling train.

This new form of self-censorship, or what one minister describes euphemistically as "anecdotal selectiveness", arises from a fear that soon nobody will have any faith in public services and will look to the privatising Tories for salvation. The argument would have more validity if there were much evidence that voters were crying out for the likes of Richard Branson to save them from the chaos of their lives. As nobody seems to be calling for the introduction of Virgin Schools or Virgin Tubes ministers should relax a little. But without exposure to the bad news they will become cocooned, unaware of quite how grim it is out there.

This is how grim it is. Last Friday the northern part of the Piccadilly Underground line in London was suddenly closed down at the height of the rush hour. Passengers were heading for work, meetings and the airport (the line goes to Heathrow). I was one of them. Here is reportage from the front line.

For 10 minutes there was no information at all about the delay. Finally a packed Tube headed off for two stops. Then there was another delay. After several more minutes there was not one explanation but three. That is how it goes with explanations: you wait and then three come along at the same time. One announcement blamed a defective train down the line, another suggested smoke in a tunnel, and from another crackly loudspeaker came news of a station closure. What none of the conflicting announcements could convey was the likely length of the delay.

Another 15 minutes later we were all turned out beneath the grey, wet skies of Wood Green. The queues for the buses stretched for hundreds of yards. People were desperate. Planes were being missed and working days ruined. Windswept passengers were banging on the rain-splattered windows of buses pleading to be squeezed on, although those who were already on board looked as if they were about to expire. None of the buses was moving because of gridlock on the high road. Perhaps people had heard there were no Tubes and had taken to their cars. More likely, a growing number of people can no longer trust public transport, and therefore have no choice but to drive.

No doubt the extraction of a single anecdote will bring forth the Government response that this is what Iain Duncan Smith did with the NHS. He used one misleadingly emotive example to make a wider point. But there is no doubt that this example does make a wider point. The state of the Underground, and indeed the overground trains, is not a trivial matter. The unreliability, high fares and overcrowding together amount to a national emergency and should be treated with the same urgency as the outbreak of foot and mouth. After all, three-and-a-half million people use the Underground every day.

As the Government will not devolve power to the elected Mayor, it should set up an emergency Cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister to invest in the Underground, monitor the investment, import expertise and equipment from abroad, and hold regular press conferences to explain action and progress. In the same way that Mr Blair put on his wellington boots and headed for the fields of Cumbria during the foot and mouth crisis he should regularly visit the Underground to console passengers and inform them of the urgent actions that are being taken and the progress being made.

Instead, this Thursday the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, is to announce that he is going full-steam-ahead with the public-private partnership scheme. This means that the fools on the Underground who do not give adequate information in the midst of chaos will still be running the Tubes, while different private companies will take over responsibility for the infrastructure. The companies will be close to being privatised monopolies. They can hardly believe their luck.

As for the overground trains, ministers point to the investment that they plan to put in and smile knowingly when asked about last week's report by the Transport Select Committee that insists the additional cash is nowhere near enough. The chair of the committee, Gwyneth Dunwoody, is an old publicity seeker, they say. But it does not take a publicity seeker to realise that massive investment is required – and that is not on the cards. Even the current financial plans are dependent on the private sector in ways that are so far unspecified.

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, speaking at Labour's conference in Cardiff on Friday, called for a more mature debate about the public services, in which others apart from the ministers accepted responsibility. Rightly Mr Blunkett pointed out that in many areas the elected ministers no longer have direct control over what happens on the frontline. He gave the example of the police insisting on operational independence, even though he alone gets the blame for rising crime. He also came to the defence of Mr Byers who is being pilloried for the state of the railways, although the Transport Secretary has limited control over them. The private companies, the regulator and civil servants must accept some of the responsibility, Mr Blunkett suggested.

Slowly the Government is realising that giving power away to non-elected bodies and private companies does not absolve it from getting all the blame when it goes badly wrong. As Mr Blunkett observed in an epoch-defining phrase, "increasingly ministers have responsibility without power". The choice, though, is theirs. This week Mr Byers is going to give away lots of power to private companies to run the Underground. He will get the blame if it goes wrong.

Before we were all ejected from our stationary Tube the woman next to me said she had arrived from West Africa 25 years ago and had been amazed how well services in England worked. "Nothing works any more ... Now we have the same services as my country without the good weather," she observed calmly as we headed up the escalators for what looked like a war zone.

Mr Blair is heading for her country of origin this week. I am not one of those who believes a prime minister should be more or less banned from leaving this island, but I hope he does not offer his hosts any advice about how to run a transport system.

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