Justice Minister Phil Goff and Conservation Minister Sandra Lee have announced that the law is about to be changed to make it possible for Government departments to be prosecuted under health and safety and building codes for mishaps such as the Cave Creek platform collapse in 1995.

One of the parents of the young people killed in that tragedy says, "This amendment will ensure the officers of the Crown will be fully aware of their responsibilities in the future. They'll know that if you take a shortcut, it's your risk. You'll catch it."

If only that is what it would mean. In all likelihood the power to prosecute a department will have very minimal impact at the levels where negligence occurred in the construction of the Cave Creek platform.

If a department is prosecuted and fined, who pays? Nobody in the department, probably. Somebody may be reprimanded, denied further promotion or moved to another desk in the department, but it is unlikely that any negligent persons will suffer in the pocket as they probably would if they were in the private sector.

If they were contractors they would probably be sued in turn, and their business reputation put in jeopardy. If they were employees whose carelessness or incompetence cost the company damages and lost business, they would be fired.

Accountability in the private sector percolates down with delegated responsibility to the level of management that is closest to the job.

Accountability in the public sector percolates to the top. The public holds ministers, and ministers hold chief executives, immediately responsible for failures at the lower levels of their organisation.

There is no way that the Minister of Conservation at the time, or the Director-General, could have been expected to know that a bag of bolts delivered to the platform construction site was not used.

Yet they both resigned once they had ensured that all similar constructions in the conservation estate had been checked to see that they were bolted.

So the next calamity in public administration probably will not be a construction collapsing for want of somebody remembering to bolt it together. But what will it be?

Nothing in resolutions that have come from the Cave Creek tragedy has made a difference to the way the public sector works. And legislating to make departments liable for penalties under the Health and Safety Act and the building codes is mere window dressing.

Of course, they should be covered by those statutes. The Crown should routinely bind itself to the standards it imposes on everybody else. But to imagine that the Health and Safety Act or building codes are enough in themselves to minimise the risk of careless work is a fantasy.

Ultimately, people take care when they have reason to fear the consequences. A private contractor was much less likely to have forgotten to bolt the Cave Creek platform because he would have feared the consequences for his business and his income.

That is not a fact this Government wants to acknowledge. It has set its face against any future private sector encroachment on public services and, far from contracting out further services, it is inclined to bring them back into the departments.

Instead of setting up a system that will make people fear for their jobs when they are negligent, it trumpets a decision to make departments liable under safety legislation as though that will really make a difference.

It would be a comfort for the parents of those killed at Cave Creek to believe that something has changed for the better.

But it would be false comfort for the rest of us.