Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Was the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith a balls up?

Whilst the abuse of children is an appalling tragedy, for which the culprit should be severely punished, whenever it occurs, we are all in danger of making decisions based on emotion rather than reason. The recent Court of Appeal decision condemning the way in which Haringey Council sacked Sharon Shoesmith is a prime example.

Unsurprisingly, the public were appalled at the death of Baby Peter. As it was the second tragedy that had taken place under the noses of the same Council, the first being Victoria Climbie, the public were baying for blood. The papers were outraged and demanded action. Ed Balls was the Minister for Education under a “caring” Labour Government, and the pressure was on. There was a lot of angry rhetoric in Parliament, demanding that heads must roll. And roll, one of them certainly did. Sadly, no one stopped to ask and think, before acting in haste.

Who were Sharon Shoesmith’s employers? One would have hoped that in an ideal world, Haringey Council would go through the tried and tested dismissal procedures for such a high profile case, to make sure it didn’t go wrong, and back fire on them. But no, Ed Balls took over by announcing her dismissal in the House of Commons before it had even taken place. This is a yet another example of the separation of powers going badly wrong. Balls is part of the Legislative (Parliament), not the Exectutive (Administration), and was usurping his powers by interfering in Council business. Rather than admitting he was wrong, he has stuck to his guns, and said he would do the same thing again. To be fair the Court of Appeal condemned the Council for their maladministration of the dismissal procedure, but said that the Government had scapegoated Ms. Shoesmith in a wholly unfair way.

Sadly, in the course of this story and the public outrage, somehow, the real culprits were overlooked. It was those closest to Baby P that committed the real crime, for which they have been punished, namely mother Tracey Connolly, the boyfriend Steven Barker, and his brother Jason Owen. Social Services can be blamed but only in a secondary capacity. Social Workers in some London Boroughs have a high case load, staff shortages, and a multi-racial population with all the complications that are brought with it. The cost of living in London makes it difficult to find staff. Ms. Shoesmith points to failings by, not only Social Services, but also Police and Medical agencies.

More and more these days politicians bow to media pressure, which is stronger and more pervasive than ever before with 24/7 digital channels, the internet, and print journals of all shapes and sizes. When the Daily Mail, the Sun, and other outlets shouted “Jump”, Brown and Balls (sounds like a firm of butchers?) used to respond “How High”. Next thing you know, Sharon Shoesmith’s head is on the chopping block, and the crowd are wailing, “Off with her head”. It is nearly a scene from “Alice in Wonderland”. Who played “the Mad Hatter”, you might think?

So what do we conclude from this nightmare scenario? What occurs to me most strongly is that no one wins. It is a lose, lose situation.
  •  Baby P is dead
  • His closest relatives have spent periods in prison at public expense
  • Harringey Council have been heavily criticised
  • No doubt the staff are demoralised. God knows how difficult it must be now to find social care staff to work there, making the existing staff even more stressed, and the workloads, no doubt, even more onerous. 
  • Sharon Shoesmith, the intended scapegoat, has come out smelling of roses. She has had much more publicity than she no doubt likes and deserves, and has been given a ticket to large amounts of compensation at the expense of the cash strapped taxpayer of Haringey.
  • Ed Balls and the previous Labour Government come out looking like numpties.
  • Police and Medical Services have been heavily criticised, and are no doubt “learning lessons” as they always do after such tragedies.     
Who are the winners from such a tragedy?

The media have made lots of money out of the tragedy as they always do. This story really has legs. It has been running since 2008, and no doubt will continue as Sharon Shoesmith fights her way through yet more Courts of Appeal (Balls and the Department of Education are apparently going to appeal).

Lawyers of course will be well paid for the many cases that have arisen from this tragedy
  • The criminal trials of Connelly, Barker, and Owen
  • The unfair dismissal case which Shoesmith lost but has now been reversed impliedly by the most recent judgement of the Court of Appeal.
  • The judicial review case against the Department of Education at both first instance and now on Appeal.
  • The further appeal to the Supreme Court.
  • The compensation case for loss of office by Sharon Shoesmith
I have to take my hat off to her lawyer for pushing this case as far as he has. No doubt he had an anxious, intelligent, and determined client by all accounts. The case must have been very stressful with all the media attention, and he did his best for a pilloried client, who was the victim, at the end of the day, of a Balls balls up. We must wait and see how the case develops henceforth.

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