Sharon Shoesmith was “summarily scapegoated” during the media frenzy following the Baby P case judges in the court of appeal have said.
Upholding her appeal in relation to her unfair dismissal following the Baby P case in relation to Ed Balls, the Secretary of State, and Haringey Council, the court of appeal stated: “Whatever her shortcomings may have been (and on those I cannot say), she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply and summarily scapegoated.”
The judgement also points out that “those involved in areas such as social work and healthcare are particularly vulnerable to such treatment”.
Speaking after the judgement Sharon Shoesmith said she was relieved to have won her appeal and the recognition she was treated unfairly and unlawfully.
“People up and down the country are doing their best to protect children and their families, especially social workers who do an often thankless task in very difficult circumstances. We all need to understand their task a little more.”
The court of appeal judges, presided over by Lord Neuberger, Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Kay, vice president of the court of appeal, and Lord Justice Burnton, also said there was no need for either Balls or Haringey to have moved with such haste to sack Shoesmith following the court case.
Lord Justice Kay said that while he accepted there was a degree of urgency around public confidence in child protection he did not accept that allowing Shoesmith a chance to defend herself would have added unreasonable delay.
“This is not a case of a front-line social worker who may cause damage to individual children. It is of a DCS, more than a year after the death of Peter Connelly, in circumstances where, one way or another, the position could have been safeguarded for sufficient time for fairness to be observed.”
Lord Justice Kay also said that the accountability of the position held by a DCS “does not mean that person is to be denied the protections that have long been accorded to responsible and accountable office holders.”
However, the judges refused to uphold the appeal over Ofsted’s role in carrying out an emergency joint area review commissioned by Ed Balls at the time, stating that it had been undertaken within the rules and fairly.
Chief inspector, Christine Gilbert said the fairness and rigour of Ofsted’s inspection “has now been confirmed through the scrutiny of not just one, but two court hearings”.
“Ofsted carried out a robust inspection and came to a sound conclusion based on evidence. On any view, our inspection report was extremely critical and there has been no challenge to the finding that services for children in Haringey were inadequate. The most important thing, of course, is that Haringey’s children’s services are now much improved as a result and that children are better protected.”
The judges found that Ed Balls had been influenced by a meeting with Ofsted officials following the submission of the report where Ms Gilbert gave it as her opinion that the DCS “has got no grip and relied on a number two who couldn’t hack it”.
Following the case Matt Dunkley, President of Association of Directors of Children’s Services said the case highlighted the importance of “clarity about the role of Ofsted and of the Secretary of State in reassuring the public that the system is sound, the role of the local authority as employer and provider of children’s social care, and that of the Director of Children’s Services as the statutory post holder”
“It is important that, when the public require reassurance, the key players within the system offer a considered and mature view of the complexities of child protection work and the implications of that complexity for personal accountability.”
He also pointed out that the judgement came at a time when a recent survey had shown that a third of local authorities had or were considering merging the DCS role with other responsibilities.
“The judgment underlines the importance of clarity in responsibilities for the most vulnerable. What is vitally important is that local authorities ask themselves serious questions about these arrangements, does this strengthen or dilute accountability for the outcomes achieved by children and young people locally and is this clear to local residents? Is the ‘spine of accountability’ for child protection clear and transparent? Does it provide directors and lead members with the levers they need to build excellent services for families?”
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