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


Richard Lawson said...

"Describe a successful outcome for a social services department trying to protect a child. I cannot".

A successful outcome for a social services department trying to protect a child happens when the child survives to be an optimally happy adult.

An unsuccessful outcome occurs when the child dies.

Am I right or wrong?

Mike Shaughnessy said...

A bit too simplistic.

99.99% survive, how many 'optimally' happy, who knows?

But none of that is a good story is it? No, the discourse has to be overpaid incompetent public officials, and do-gooder social workers.

The truth is, as Diane Abbott said at the time, government targets encouraged a box ticking approach, so little time did the social workers have to do a proper job.

Ed Balls just deflected attention away from his own failings.

Anonymous said...

Agree, very simplistic. Ed Balls behaviour and comments are disgusting and yes, just trying to deflect from his own mistakes. At the time he was trying to make political gains from the public wave of anger and had no care who he damaged on the way. The public generally have no idea of the tasks and pressures facing social workers and actually mainly don't want to know. The just want the difficult stuff dealt with so they don't have to think about it. And someone convenient to blame when things go wrong. The politicians like to encourage that so any negative attention is drawn away from their contributions to the difficulties such as box ticking/targets/underfunding ect ect.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't the head of the BBC who failed after a few months paid rather more than this? He was able to move smoothly on to other prestigious work.

Sharon Shoesmith has been through two years of hell to get natural justice and will almost certainly never work in this kind of role again. Is there a touch of misogyny in the unjust treatment of one of the minority of women working at this level?

Pete McAskie said...

If I remember correctly the average child protection officer has roughly 4 times their reccomended case load making doing their job properly impossible. Several children a year die tragically due to the lack of care and /or abuse from their parents. Mostly they do not make the news. One which did make the news was the tragic case of Victoria Climbie a few years ago. The next one was Baby P. Both in Haringey. One important question is why has the national press focussed on Haringey when many similar cases have occured in many other authorities. I suspect it's a hang over from their "loony left" reporting of some time back, which climaxed with the passing of the homophobic clause 28.

After Victoria Climbie's death Haringey doubled its recruitment budget for child protection officers in an attempt to solve its under staffing crisis. After all the hysterically negative press about child protection in Haringey it received, as a result of its doubled effort, zero applicants. They have since managed to recruit from abroad, presumably attracting candidates who didn't know what a poisoned chalice they were applying for.
I believe that when Sharon Shoesmith was first appointed it was as head of education. She became responsible for child protection when services were reorganised to make her head of younger peoples services. When Baby P first hit the headlines and before Ed Balls stepped in there was a letter to the local papers signed by, if I remember correctly, 49 Haringey head teachers (I think that might be all the council schools) pleading with the council not to fire her. One thing I am confident of-an excellent educationalist has been rendered unemployable.
Of course she is entitled to compensation for unfair dismissal.
The level of compensation should correctly be in line with her salary. That salaries for staff at this level have become absurd is another issue.
What would have been a good outcome would have been to adress the chronic staff shortages and the dreadful scapegoating image problem politicians and the media have given this area of work. Workers responsible for child protection in the health and police services are as overloaded as their social service colleagues.
Instead the situation has been rendered more dangerous, the newspapers had some fabulous headlines and Ed Balls successfully played to the drooling pack.