Haringey Council has defended its decision to sack the two social workers responsible for safeguarding Peter Connelly even after the national regulator ruled they should be allowed to continue practising later this year.
At a hearing this week, a General Social Care Council conduct committee handed out suspensions to Maria Ward and Gillie Christou for two and four months respectively after they admitted their failure to protect Peter Connelly amounted to professional misconduct.
The social workers admitted a total of 10 allegations including not completing enough visits to the child’s home, failing to keep proper records and not replacing a childminder when she left her post.
The committee said removing Ward and Christou from the register would have been “disproportionate” because of systemic failings within Haringey Council’s children’s services at the time of the 17-month-old’s death in August 2007.
Responding to the committee’s decision, a spokesperson for the London borough of Haringey said: “Registration is a matter for the GSCC.”
But she added: “The facts accepted by Mrs Christou and Mrs Ward at the hearing confirm the serious failings in their conduct and support the stance taken by the council to dismiss them.”
The council sacked Ward and Christou for gross misconduct in April 2009. The two women are claiming unfair dismissal and the cases are due to be heard at Watford Employment Tribunal in September.
However, the conduct committee’s decision will have no bearing on the unfair dismissal claim. “At the employment tribunal the test will be whether Haringey Council acted reasonably at the time of the dismissal, taking into account all the circumstances and the information available at that time, including the fact that there was an ongoing GSCC investigation” said John Read, employment law editor at Xpert HR.
“The GSCC found [Ward and Christou] are ok to practise again, but that doesn’t mean it was necessarily unfair for Haringey to dismiss them, provided it had a genuine belief that they were guilty of misconduct.”
Unison, which represents 40,000 social workers, said the GSCC was right to recognise the challenging working environment in Haringey at the time of Peter’s death.
“Serious staff shortages, excessive caseloads, lack of managerial support and supervision have all played their part in making it difficult for social workers in the department to do their jobs,” said a spokesperson for the union.
“We should examine what went wrong, and learn the lessons from this tragedy.”
Claude Knights, director of charity Kidscape, said: “We know [Ward and Christou] were under huge amounts of pressure. That doesn’t actually excuse anything, but it shows us the problems were systemic.
“It would not be right for them to be used as scapegoats.”
When asked about the difficult working conditions in its children’s services, as noted by the committee, a Haringey Council spokesperson said: “This council has apologised for our mistakes and has set out a clear improvement plan to ensure that our safeguarding service is one of the best in the country.
“Ofsted confirmed in January this year that we are making those improvements and we will continue to implement our plans in order to ensure that the lessons we have learned from the Peter Connelly case are never forgotten.”
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