Shoesmith case – “Accountability” does not mean “Heads must roll” says judge

News just in that Sharon Shoesmith has won her Court of Appeal case against her dismissal following the death of Baby P. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember that I had doubts about the legality of Ms Shoesmith’s dismissal at the time. The judges at the Court of Appeal agreed.

Their judgement makes some pointed comments.

I have little to say about the Secretary of State’s regard to The Sun’s petition. For my part, I do not consider that it was necessarily unlawful for the Secretary of State to have taken it into account. He was legitimately concerned about public confidence and the petition may have had some modest value in that respect. However, it is unlikely that many of its signatories were aware of the complexities of employment law when they demanded dismissal without compensation.

In other words, it’s not illegal to consider the views expressed in a tabloid newspaper’s petition but it is really silly to give in to its demands, especially when it demands that you do something illegal. As I’ve said before, basing policy on media-led hysteria is very expensive.

This bit is just priceless:

We rejected a submission on behalf of the Secretary of State to the effect that the situation was too urgent to permit the adoption of a fairer procedure.

Would any employer try to pull that one? “It was really urgent and my job was on the line, guv, so I decided it was OK to break the law.”

From the summing up: 

I cannot leave this case without commenting on the way in which Ms Shoesmith was treated. In another case, Sedley LJ was moved to say:

“It seems that the making of a public sacrifice to deflect press and public obloquy, which is what happened to the appellant, remains an accepted expedient of public administration in this country. (Gibb v Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust [2010] EWCA Civ 678, (at paragraph 42)”

In my view, it is also what happened in the present case. Those involved in areas such as social work and healthcare are particularly vulnerable to such treatment. 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.

And my favourite soundbite, which says it all:

 “Accountability” is not synonymous with “Heads must roll”.

The judges found that, “Haringey’s decision to dismiss Ms Shoesmith was itself unlawful and void.”

So far, the court has not ruled on compensation but said that it should be at least equivalent to paying Ms Shoesmith’s notice period and possibly “her salary and other benefits from that day [the day of her dismissal] to this.” That’s about two and a half years salary, adding up to something like £340k plus pension and benefits. I can hear the tabloid outcry already.

None of this means that Sharon Shoesmith has won yet. The Secretary of State and Haringey council plan to appeal to the Supreme Court. But, whatever happens, it serves as a warning to ministers who base their decisions on media-led hysteria. Politicians may bend to the will of tabloid editors but judges don’t and, whatever the PR considerations might have been at the time, they will punish you for breaking the law.

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8 Responses to Shoesmith case – “Accountability” does not mean “Heads must roll” says judge

  1. Pingback: Shoesmith case – “Accountability” does not mean “Heads must roll” says judge - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Jess says:

    At last an appropriate view of the situation. I thank you for resuming my faith in my internet using peers.

    Research shows that despite increased interventions child murders remain at a constant i.e. there is very little anyone can do to stop someone wanting to kill another person.
    The only option I can think of is to go around removing children from parents that society suspects may possibly one day harm them. I wonder how people would feel about that as if memory serves me correctly the dailyfail and the sun hate social workers for removing children. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Who’d want to be a social worker??

  3. Strategist says:

    >>”That’s about two and a half years salary, adding up to something like £340k plus pension and benefits. I can hear the tabloid outcry already.”

    The Standard has already translated that figure as “up to £1million”

  4. Kevin Ball says:

    See, I’m not so sure.

    I’m sure the sacking was illegal. Hell, yeah. Self-evidently so. But would due process have resulted in a different outcome? I’d reckon not, probably. The Ofsted report was damning. It found :

    “… insufficient strategic leadership and management oversight
    of safeguarding of children … by elected members, senior
    officers and others within the strategic partnership;

    … managerial failure to ensure full compliance with some
    requirements of the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié,
    such as the lack of written feedback to those making referrals to
    social care services …

    The quality of front-line practice across all agencies is
    inconsistent and not effectively monitored by line managers.

    Too often assessments of children … , in all agencies, fail to
    identify those who are at immediate risk of harm and to address
    their needs.

    The quality of front-line practice across all agencies is
    inconsistent and not effectively monitored by line managers.
    Child protection plans are generally poor.

    Arrangements for scrutinising performance across the council
    and the partnership are insufficiently developed and fail to
    provide systematic support and challenge to both managers and
    practitioners.

    The standard of record keeping on case files across all agencies
    is inconsistent and often poor.

    There is too much reliance on quantitative data to measure
    social care, health and police performance, without sufficiently
    robust analysis of the underlying quality of service provision
    and practice.”

    In the application for judicial review that Shoesmith made, asking the Master of the Rolls to review the Ofsted report, her legal team made no attempt to challenge these findings; more, they accepted them as rational and agreed that Ofsted had followed reasonable process in the circumstances.

    I don’t think that sacking a boss who presided over such a regime is so terrible. Giving her a chance to explain (as she did in her appeal against her sacking, by the way) is not the same as agreeing that she can have any defence to the charges of gross incompetence which were (are) laid at her door.

    • Rick says:

      Kevin, the OFSTED report findings, as the court said, applied to all the agencies involved (to the entire system, in other words) not just Haringey children’s services. The child protection system is messy and chaotic everywhere. I reckon these criticisms could be applied to a number of authorities across the country.

      Of course, Sharon Shoesmith was, in part, responsible for that. However, social services is a relatively small part of a DCS’s brief. Education is the major part and Sharon Shoesmith spent her first couple of years turning Haringey’s education service around. Apparently she did this very well and got good performance ratings. Indeed, OFSTED gave her department 3 stars out of 4, a few months after Baby P’s death.

      Against that background, it is unlikely that a charge of gross misconduct would stick, even with due process. There are too many mitigating factors. To fire her, the council would have had to pay her off through a compromise agreement.

      From what I have seen in the public domain, there is no smoking gun to show that Sharon Shoesmith was incompetent. Perhaps she was but there is nothing to prove that and quite a lot to suggest that, in some areas, she had performed quite well.

      Given the media outcry, she would probably have had to go sooner or later but, as far as I can see, there is no way that could have been done without giving her a substantial compensatory payoff. That would have aroused even more tabloid anger, which is why the government took the kangeroo court option and broke the law.

  5. Patrick says:

    I was really annoyed by the knee-jerk sacking at the time, and pleased to see the judges favour due process.

    The media hounding of Shoesmith was shocking – hitting an easy target rather than the real villains (the guilt murderers) or the complex issues (including public services funding andsocietal factors) that last behind the death of Baby P.

    I was also surprised that a minister could demand her sacking – I had assumed she was a council employee.

    I don’t doubt that Shoesmith oversaw a department in crisis and may be partly responsible for that, and that may contributed to the inability of social services (and medical and education services) to detect abuse. But sacking her without due process at the whim of the tabloid pack was wrong.

  6. briansj says:

    Good post, but we still need responsibility, authority and accountability lined up in public service (and indeed in the private sector). If you can’t be held to account, then you should be on minimum wage.

  7. It is a simple fact that there is now a culture of blame throughout society. At one time investigations were part of a learning and improving process. Now they are about blame and revenge. Fear of ‘making the wrong call’ must inevitably inhibit good practice as well as bad!

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