Saturday, May 28, 2011

Baby Peter boss Sharon Shoesmith 'motivated by justice'

Baby P, Peter Connolly, was on Haringey’s child protection register when he was killed by his mother and two male friends.
Sharon Shoesmith has said it was "justice, not money" that motivated her during a two-year legal challenge over her controversial sacking in the wake of the Baby Peter tragedy.

The former Haringey director of children's services is potentially in line for compensation of more than £500,000 after the appeal court ruled on Friday that her dismissal by the former children's secretary Ed Balls was "intrinsically unfair and unlawful".

In an interview with the Guardian, she said she was still angry at her treatment at the hands of Balls and the tabloid media, and blamed him for triggering a crisis in child protection. "I'm still staggered by how irresponsible the secretary of state was. He almost demonstrated his lack of knowledge and understanding of children's social care, loud and clear."
Although much attention will be paid to the compensation awarded to her, Shoesmith said this was never what drove her on. "I was never in it for the money. People will want to put noughts on it and all the rest of it but I was never in it for the money. I never discussed money. I wanted to win the case, I wanted the truth to be told."

The court was severely critical of Balls's handling of the case, and sent out a clear message that politicians could not ignore "elementary fairness" when dealing with public servants at the centre of controversy, even when they felt they were acting legitimately in the public interest.

Balls, now shadow chancellor, said he disagreed with the ruling and believed he had followed the "right and responsible course of action" in removing Shoesmith. The current government also said it would appeal against the ruling in a case which has become a battle between those who argue for greater public accountability and those who feel that making officials scapegoats is counter-productive and unfair.

David Cameron said the government would take the Shoesmith case to the supreme court because ministers want to uphold the principle that they – and not the courts, through judicial review – should be responsible for their decisions. "It does seem to me important that governments are able to manage their organisations and provide accountability when things go wrong," the prime minister said at the G8 summit in Deauville.

The Labour MP Diane Abbott also joined the criticism in a piece for "Shoesmith appears to believe that feeling sorry is enough. And, in her triumphalism, she has overlooked the fact the court has upheld the damning Ofsted report that formed the basis of her sacking.

"I believe that it is no coincidence that the Victoria Climbié tragedy was followed within a very few years by the Baby P tragedy and in the very same local authority. As long as six-figure-salary social services bosses feel that they will suffer no penalty when these tragedies happen on their watch, these tragedies will continue to recur."

Speaking at the court after the judgment, Shoesmith said: "I am relieved to have won my appeal and for the recognition that I was treated unfairly and unlawfully. Having spent a lifetime protecting, caring and educating children, my sorrow about the death of Peter Connelly in Haringey when I was director is something which will stay with me for the rest of my life. But as the judges have said, making a 'public sacrifice' of an individual will not prevent further tragedies."

The ruling, by the master of the rolls, Lord Neuburger, Lord Justice Kay and Lord Justice Stanley Burton, said the issue of compensation should be referred back to the high court. But in effect it reinstates Shoesmith, who earned £133,000 a year, as an employee of Haringey council, liable for back pay and pension contributions dating back to her dismissal in December 2008.

Compensation and legal costs in the two-year case could cost the council and the government more than £1m, although ministers have said they will seek approval from the supreme court to appeal. Although the ruling said compensation was a matter for Shoesmith and the council, it added that "it would be entirely appropriate for Haringey to seek a voluntary contribution from the secretary for state whose unlawful directions gave rise to the problems".

Kay said he felt Shoesmith had been made a "public sacrifice" by politicians to divert public and press attention, and noted that social workers and health workers were "particularly vulnerable to such treatment".

He added: "This is not to say that I consider Ms Shoesmith to be blameless or that I have a view as to the extent of her or anyone else's blameworthiness. That is not the business of this court. However, it is our task to adjudicate upon the application and fairness of procedures adopted by public authorities when legitimate causes for concern arise, as they plainly did in this case. … Whatever her shortcomings may have been (and, I repeat, I cannot say), she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply and summarily scapegoated."

Cameron said he supported an appeal against the ruling: "We all remember the absolutely appalling case of Baby P and how, as a country, we've got to do right and make sure we are accountable for the terrible mistakes and errors that were made. Obviously, we can't bring Baby P back and we have to make sure justice is done."

Haringey also came in for criticism over its sacking of Shoesmith less than three weeks after her removal by Balls. The judges said that although Balls's action had put the council "in a very difficult position" there was no urgent reason to have rushed to a decision to terminate her employment, a process the judges said was "tainted by unfairness".

Balls said: "My actions on receiving that report were, at all times, guided by detailed advice from department experts and lawyers on the proper and fair way to proceed. It was my responsibility, as secretary of state, and on the basis of that independent report, to do what was necessary to protect the interests of children in Haringey and protect wider public confidence in child protection. That is why I acted as I did."

He added: "Having thought long and hard about this decision over the last two years – and having read the appeal court judgement today – I know that faced with the same circumstances I would make the same decisions again."

Shoesmith failed in her attempt to quash the findings of an Ofsted report commissioned by Balls into safeguarding in Haringey, which was critical of her department. Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert welcomed the ruling, saying: "I am pleased that Ofsted has comprehensively won this case and that the original judicial review judgement in our favour has been upheld in every aspect on appeal."

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: "This ruling will give a much-needed boost to social workers up and down the country who protect daily thousands of vulnerable children and adults. It should serve as a lesson that whipping up a campaign of vilification and hatred will never save a single child's life."

Peter Connelly, known as Baby P during initial investigations into his death, was on Haringey's child protection register when he died violently at the hands of his mother, Tracey Connelly, her lover Steven Barker, and Barker's brother Jason Owen in August 2007.

After his killers were convicted in November 2008, a media and political furore broke out over why safeguarding agencies had failed to spot that Peter was in danger. Balls announced at a live televised press conference on 1 December 2008 that he had used special powers to remove Shoesmith after studying the findings of an Ofsted report which reported management failings in her department. Balls declared that Shoesmith was "not fit for office".

But it turned out Shoesmith had not been given a chance to discuss or respond to the report before it was published, in contravention of procedures. She was unaware of Balls's plans to remove her, and learned of her dismissal while watching the press conference live on TV.

During a judicial review hearing brought by Shoesmith last year, Balls defended his actions on the grounds that the political circumstances meant he had to act quickly and decisively, and that Shoesmith as the accountable officer in Haringey should bear the responsibility for the failures. Even had Shoesmith been given a chance to respond it would not have changed his decision that she should go.

But the appeal court said that simply because Shoesmith, as director of children's services (DCS), was ultimately accountable for child protection matters in her borough, it did not mean that either the secretary of state or Haringey could ignore due process, regardless of the public and media outcry.

In his ruling, Kay writes: "The fact that the 2004 act, in creating the singular post of DCS, identified as a matter of policy one individual with ultimate responsibility and accountability in relation to children's services does not mean that that person is to be denied the protections that have long been accorded to responsible and accountable office-holders. Nor does the fact that the secretary of state is not the employer of a DCS relieve him of the obligation to be fair."

He adds: "I find it a deeply unattractive proposition that the mere juxtaposition of a state of affairs and a person who is 'accountable' should mean that there is nothing that that person might say which could conceivably explain, excuse or mitigate her predicament. 'Accountability' is not synonymous with 'Heads must roll'."

Philip Henson, head of employment at City law firm Bargate Murray, said: "Ms Shoesmith's case has a wider lesson for all employers of the need to ensure that they carry out a fair investigation and procedure, affording staff the opportunity to put their case forward, rather than pandering to public and media pressure and making a kneejerk decision to fire members of staff.

"Although the court of appeal judges did not make a ruling on compensation, instead referring the case back to the high court for 'further consideration', Ms Shoesmith is likely to receive compensation approaching, or hitting, the £1m mark, taking into consideration reinstatement of her pension rights."

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