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We must lead by example
Date of Issue: Friday, 20 May, 2016
Sovereign immunity, or Crown immunity, is a legal doctrine by which the Sovereign or State is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution. While there are situations outside the health and safety arena where the status quo should remain, there are compelling reasons why Crown immunity should be abandoned in health and safety cases.
The Institute of Directors’ Vision of Leadership was a convincing document that focused on felt, visible leadership. It has become abundantly clear that no organisation can fully manage health and safety without commitment from the top.
Leaders need tools to compel: training, incentives, rewards, praise and, ultimately, sanctions. Arguably under the current system those employed by Crown departments cannot fully ensure health and safety, nor can they demonstrate true commitment to their colleagues or those affected by their actions.
A lack of visible leadership can impact morale, and makes it more difficult to learn from past health and safety failures. We only need to look at the public and private sectors to see how Crown departments might use sanctions to encourage safer systems. It is clear that boards often listen, learn, and implement change in the aftermath of a fatality or serious injury. It should not only be because of fines or fear of prison but often that is the case.
Clearly, sanctions are not the only way to encourage commitment to health and safety. However, one cannot deny that economic impact influences businesses, and we cannot deny that sanctions have a role to play in helping to change unsafe behaviour. With ever-tightening budgets and no mechanism for sanctions, what exactly is the incentive for Crown departments to improve?
Unions gave evidence of six deaths of soldiers attributed to defence cuts, and we recently read of the soldier who died from excessive heat while training. There is, of course, a clear distinction between injury in the line of duty and injuries sustained during training. Even in the absence of sanctions, health and safety in training and working environments should not be neglected.
If Crown immunity in health and safety matters were to be abolished, one could argue that sanctions would simply be a redistribution of funds from the Crown to the government. However, the advantage of losing funds from departmental budgets is that savings are less likely to be made at the expense of colleagues’ health, safety and welfare.
The UK is undeniably a global example of good practice in health and safety. In abolishing Crown immunity, we send the message that we are not immune from prosecution at any level. In essence, the Crown will prosecute itself. This sends a clear message about the importance of respecting the rule of law and criminal liability.
Liability should rest at the top, and those in roles of leadership should lead by example. It is our duty as health and safety practitioners to voluntarily accept the law of the land which applies to all sectors. If we take this opportunity to further protect workers, we could leave a legacy of greater transparency, conviction and a safer working environment.