The latest fiasco to engulf the Department for Transport (DfT) is more than just another trying time for Chris Grayling. It also illustrates a structural problem with how we organise certain departments.
Obviously the publication of.internal emails joking about how to mislead the public over, or alleging that various northern lines were “valueless”, would be embarrassing at any point.
But the whole saga does raise an interesting question: to what extent can a Secretary of State to be held accountable for decisions they didn’t make?
Unlike some other departments, such as the Home Office, much of the work overseen by the DfT is undertaken by arms-length bodies. In this instance the most important is Network Rail, whom train operators are blaming for the chaos which has attended the move over to a new timetable.
The Government seems to share this view. According to the above-linked Rail magazine article, Grayling has “informed Network Rail that this must not happen again”.
Only days ago, the Transport Secretary faced a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons over ‘his handling’ of the timetable fiasco. This fits with the traditional understanding of ministerial accountability in our system – part of Labour’s justification for setting up the NHS was that having a Cabinet minister directly accountable for every dropped bedpan would improve care.
Since 1945 we have moved a long way from that model. Today there is a tendency to make a virtue of decisions being made independently of politicians. Where political decisions do have a decisive influence they were often made by a previous minister or even decades previously – for example, the decision to privatise the railways in such a way as to create few clear lines of accountability and minimal vertical integration.
The chaos afflicting northern railway lines is a political problem, as so many of the issues farmed out to independent bodies (including, at one point, press regulation!) so often are. It speaks to a perception that the Government is neglecting vital infrastructure in the North in favour of exciting new transport projects for the capital.
If the only thing that the Secretary of State for Transport can do about it is issue a sternly-worded warning to a quango, even as he himself faces a crunch vote on keeping his job, then we have somehow managed to create the inverse of Baldwin’s famous ‘harlot’s prerogative’: responsibility without power.