Tuesday, 29 October 2013
Sharon Shoesmith was unfairly dismissed – so she deserves a payout
The precipitous sacking of Haringey's former children's services chief over Baby P silenced debate over what went wrong. £600k is the price for that silence
Describe a successful outcome for a social services department trying to protect a child. I cannot. Every possible solution can legitimately be criticised. Only last month a senior family court judge criticised adoption and social services reforms as encouraging a propensity to remove children too quickly. On the other hand, if a child is not removed soon enough, the risk is a repeat of a tragic case like the death of Peter Connelly.
That is the tightrope that social services work walks on a daily basis, in the field of child protection and most other work. It is work which is de facto defined by its failure, as it can only be judged against totally unquantifiable alternatives. The death of any child in the hands of abusive adults is nothing short of a catastrophe. How many deaths are avoided each year by the removal of children from such situations cannot be quantified. The former is highly publicised, because – let's face it – dead children sell newspapers. The latter can never be reported.
A rise in the number of children removed from their families is also seen as a measure of failure to support. All this means that the relative "success" of such work is necessarily judged by the number of human lives it sought to make better, and did not. It is against this backdrop that I find the hysteria with which the Sharon Shoesmith settlement has been met deeply unhelpful and counterproductive. Tim Loughton, the former children's minister says it "stinks". Former children's secretary Ed Balls says it "sticks in the craw".
The underlying conclusion, explicitly stated by some newspapers, is that Shoesmith was ultimately rewarded for her failure. The court of appeal, however, decided that there is a process of natural justice for arriving at such a conclusion and that the process was circumvented. She was scapegoated for the sake of political expediency. For politicians to persist with trotting out that she had failed at her job, is to continue with precisely the same sort of conduct. Shoesmith was never afforded the chance of responding to the criticism in the report. Instead, she found out that she had been fired by watching a hastily convened press conference on television.
You may agree with that way of doing things or not. You may find it swift and decisive rather than precipitous. But the undeniable legal fact is that it was unlawful. And the penalty for the state acting unlawfully as an employer is compensation. It reflects the fact that, not only was Shoesmith's life destroyed without due process, but also that a proper conclusion about what happened around the case of that poor child's death cannot, and will never, be properly reached.
That compensation, the precise level of which we don't actually know but which is reported to be about £600,000, will include significant legal costs accrued during a lengthy battle and roughly £300,000 in salary, since this was a judicial review decision in which she was adjudged not to have been properly dismissed for the two years while the fight went on. Both those elements, which make up the bulk of her settlement, could have been avoided by the state acting properly.
The easy conclusion is to say that a woman directly responsible for a child's death has been rewarded with what Newsnight described as "a small fortune". The more difficult discussion is that perhaps, just perhaps, the death of children in the hands of cruel and evil parents can never be absolutely prevented within the current framework. This is the discussion that was denied a public forum by the government's actions. What is more, tragically, the way this case has been handled makes future tragedies more, not less, likely. It makes social work even more risk averse and focused on covering one's own back with paperwork, rather than helping people. It makes bright candidates, well suited to the field, less likely to choose it as a career.
The buck must stop with Shoesmith, pronounced assorted pundits. Why is that? That line is convenient, but rather arbitrary. Why must the buck stop with the head of a particular social services and not, for instance, the head of the local authority who allocated the budget and had oversight, or Ofsted which gave the services in question a good rating just before the circumstances of this case came to light, or the minister responsible at the time? It may well have been that through the proper process Shoesmith would be judged to have failed and to be the person ultimately responsible. We will never know. The debate has been silenced and £600k is the price for that silence.
There is another, perhaps more fundamental, tension that receives no attention. Many of the same commentators, who rightly tear their garments over every tragic incident, are precisely the same ones who want government to shrink, rail against the interventionist "nanny state", condemn local authorities for what they pay to senior staff and feel taxation – at whatever level – is too high. The positions are mutually exclusive. Well-funded, well-trained social workers and their managers cost money, which many are not willing to pay. A shrunken, non-interventionist, poorly funded state lacks the capacity to stand in the corner of every living room in the country, observe what people get up to and always intervene at precisely the right moment. So, which is it?
Written by Alex Andreou and first published at The Guardian