Editorial: A fiasco, but there is light at the end of the tunnel

The debacle over the West Coast Main Line raises questions of accountability in Whitehall

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The Transport Secretary's admission that his department catastrophically bungled the competition to run one of Britain's busiest train lines will, rightly, provoke another round of debate about the Byzantine rail sector. But the debacle raises sharper questions still about the accountability of the Civil Service.

One of the more disquieting aspects of the affair is that it came to light only by chance. What if Sir Richard Branson had felt less aggrieved that the West Coast Main Line was going to his rival, FirstGroup? Or if his Virgin Trains had other rail interests, inclining him to a less confrontational approach to the Department for Transport? Then the "mistakes" in the tender might, in all likelihood, have led to yet another franchise under water, and the operation of yet another line handed back to the Government.

As it is, the damage is devastating enough. It will cost the taxpayer an estimated £40m to compensate the companies involved for their wasted time, effort and investment; and even that might not be enough, given that FirstGroup's shares sank by a fifth yesterday. Meanwhile, the entire franchise system – three tenders already under way (now paused) and many more due to be let before 2015 – is now plunged into uncertainty. More worrying still: might similar, undiscovered errors be hidden throughout the contractual underpinning of Britain's rail system?

That the fiasco came to light just one day after the Labour leader laid into the Government as an incompetent, hopeless shower just adds to the embarrassment. But Patrick McLoughlin – who only took over the brief with last month's cabinet reshuffle – has other ideas. The Secretary of State was quick to stress both that the businesses involved were beyond reproach, and also that the repeated rebuttals of Sir Richard's complaints by both he and his predecessor were only based on the information available to them. The finger points – "fairly and squarely" – at DfT officials.

Mr McLoughlin's recent arrival must surely protect him personally from the fallout. It is up to Justine Greening (now at International Development) to prove that her policy was not the problem that made the sums wrong, that her lack of awareness does not constitute negligence, and that she should not take ultimate responsibility for the calamity that ensued.

Either way, Whitehall must bear a share of the considerable blame. Yet, so far at least, only three civil servants have been suspended. Nor is there any information available as to who they are, what jobs they were doing, or why they might be culpable. Not good enough. For too long, the principle that all responsibility lies with elected politicians has shielded officials from the degree of scrutiny their jobs demand. There are, of course, dedicated and able mandarins aplenty. But the lack of personal responsibility allows many of the slipshod or incompetent to escape the consequences.

This is no call for open season on Whitehall. Were the pendulum to swing excessively far, politicians would be dangerously off the hook and civil servants unsustainably exposed. There is, however, a middle ground. That means greater accountability, tougher performance monitoring and a shake-up of the torpor that too often tolerates free-loading. It also means a new culture of transparency and public scrutiny.

There are reforms on the table, backed by no less a figure than Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the Civil Service. But between organisational inertia and outright obstructiveness, progress is far from certain. If the foul-up over the West Coast Main Line tips the balance, perhaps the £40m might not be entirely wasted, after all.

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