The government's Citizen's Charter, unveiled on Monday, is based on two contentious underlying assumptions. The first is that "citizenship" is all about being a consumer: there is nothing in the Charter's 50-plus glossy pages to suggest that citizenship has anything whatsoever to do with political rights or active participation in the democratic political process. The grand themes with which the idea of citizenship has always been associated – freedom of speech, conscience and assembly, the right to vote and so on – are entirely absent. John Major's idea of an active citizen is someone who wants to complain about the lateness of the 7.55 train from Surbiton.
The second assumption is that the problem with Britain's public services is their lack of efficiency. If only the chaps who run our hospitals, schools, trains, buses and council housing pulled their socks up, its reasoning goes, everything would be fine and dandy. The Charter is essentially a list of measures designed to secure "value for money": improved complaints and compensation procedures, consumer rights to information, performance-related pay for public service workers and the opening up of yet more of the public service sector to competition through privatisation.
Some of the Charter's proposals, such as those on consumer rights and complaints procedures, are perfectly sensible if unexciting. Others are simply banal. Controls on coned-off lanes on motorways and the introduction of name-tags for public service workers who deal with the public are not urgent priorities.
In many areas, the Charter does not go far enough. It contains no commitment to a Freedom of Information Act and there is nothing at all on extending consumer rights in the private sector. Its proposals for strengthening the power of regulatory bodies are tame and its ideas about tenant control of council housing stop far short of advocating democratic self-management of socially owned housing.
Worse, several of its proposals are the sort of baloney that only dogmatic free-marketeers could advance with a straight face. The service provided by the Post Office would be severely harmed if a private rival were allowed to cream off its most profitable business, and the privatisation of British Rail and London Buses would only worsen the crisis in Britain's creaking public transport system.
The main problem with the Charter, however, is that its identification of what is wrong with Britain's public services is extraordinarily wide of the mark. The reason that British Rail, London Underground or London Buses run such lousy services is not that they are particularly inefficient but that they have been starved of investment since the Tories came to power in 1979. Streamlining the complaints procedure will not make the trains run on time. Similarly, the main reason that hospital waiting-list times are too long is not that the National Health Service is inefficient (although it is) but that the NHS does not have enough money. Tougher standards for schools and publication of exam results and truancy rates are all very well but, without more cash, the education system will continue to fail. Much the same goes for the social security system.
The Citizen's Charter is an attempt to get quality public services on the cheap. For all the hyperbole in the Tory press, Mr Major's "big idea" is really rather threadbare. It is certainly not an election-winner.