Saturday, 28 May 2011

Baby P - Children deserve better

The decision by the Court of Appeal to reinstate Sharon Shoesmith, former head of children's services at Haringey Council, has been predictably met by a hail of criticism by Government Ministers, MPs and the press. But, unpopular as it may be to say, there is no doubt that she has been denied the natural justice that we would all expect if our jobs, and livelihoods, were at risk - and especially if the tragic circumstances of something as awful as the Baby Peter case were central to the situation.

The Justices did not overrule the findings of the Ofsted Report into the circumstances surrounding the death of Peter Connelly, who was abused and murdered at the age of just two by his mother, her partner and her partner's brother. Social services and other health care workers had placed Peter on the child protection register and  saw him on a number of occasions but failed to challenge his mother about the evident injuries he had suffered.

Following the conviction of Peter's murderers, an enquiry was launched by Ofsted into the failure of Haringey Social Services to intervene in time to save the child. When it was published, it was highly critical of institutional and communication failings in the service headed by Shoesmith and, after then Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, taunted Prime Minister Gordon Brown about the case, she was relieved of her duties by the direct instruction of Education Secretary Ed Balls and sacked by the Council.

What yesterday's ruling says is that Shoesmith was denied any opportunity to respond to the Ofstead report or defend the criticisms made of her own handling of the situation. It does not comment on whether or not she should have been sacked - rather, it simply states she should have been given a proper opportunity to defend herself rather than simply being summarily sacrificed by a Government that was feeling the heat of public outcry.

It may be difficult to feel sympathy for Shoesmith given just how damning the Ofsted report is - but at the heart of her situation is the need for anyone in employment, no matter how senior their role or how tragic or negligent the case in hand, to be given the same rights as anyone would expect in defending themselves. David Cameron has announced the Government will appeal the outcome as it challenges the right of Ministers to be "responsible for their own decisions" - a rather surreal argument as what it actually means is that he wants them to be unaccountable when their actions break the laws on employment protection and natural justice.

Ed Balls - hasty
The rush by Ed Balls to sack Shoesmith without due process was a dereliction of his own duties - one to follow the laws which as a member of the Government he was bound to uphold; secondly, to reduce the cost to the public purse of facing a successful legal challenge on the grounds of failing to follow due process (to date, the case will have cost around £1.5 million to the taxpayer); and thirdly, to provide a more thoughtful approach than the one adopted in tackling the difficult environment social workers operate in. So often they are automatically castigated where something goes wrong in the care of vulnerable people - as with previous cases of child abuse, suspected and proven, they are frequently damned if they do and damned if they don't remove a child from their parents.

Governments have to be bound by the same laws and conventions as anyone else. The Shoesmith case is a striking example of how, increasingly, politicians are completely paranoid about responding to the shifting mood, not of the public, but of the tabloid press as it claims magically to represent "middle England". They end up making unsound decisions with serious consequences for the individuals affected and the public purse. Shoesmith may well have been dreadfully negligent of her responsibilities, but, as with anyone else accused of even the most heinous crimes (including even Peter's killers), she had a right to be treated as innocent until found guilty.

As a result, we are left with a situation where the focus is now on Government process, Ministers' decisions and the status of a very well paid senior manager rather than on ensuring that real lessons are learned from the awful death of little Peter. Instead of swifly but calmly reviewing how to improve child protection, the headlines are a circus of arguments about adults, money and the constitution.

Vulnerable children deserve better than this.

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