Shoesmith, Balls and Appeals

Ed Balls, Member of Parliament of the United K...

Image via Wikipedia

I was trying to steer away from discussion of the Shoesmith’s appeal against her dismissal by Haringey Council (via Ed Balls, the responsible Cabinet minister at the time) and her victory in the Court of Appeal – but having followed the case from the outset, I can’t quite resist coming back to it.

There are a few issues that have caught my attention in the press and blogs that I  have read over the past few days.

Firstly there is a confusion between the outcome (namely Shoesmith losing her job) and the process (being sacked via the Minister in a press conference on the basis – according to him, at least – of an OFSTED report, the findings of which she was not able to respond to).

I am biased although I have no time for Shoesmith. Like almost every Director of Services (Adults and Children) she is happy to take the pay without having an idea of how the services are, or aren’t being run ‘under her watch’. She doesn’t come across as a particularly sympathetic character and I think her lack of knowledge of social work  – as she comes from an education background – has come back to bite hard.

But, and this is the big but – that doesn’t mean she is suddenly an exception to employment law – and of course, that’s what the Court of Appeal found.

Secondly, Balls hung Shoesmith, and by extension the social work profession and professionals out to dry. It’s all very well saying responsibility should lie at the top  but if that is the case, why not the Children’s Minister himself? You see, the problem with the uproar following the tragic death of Peter Connolly, which led to the highly charged press conferences and shamefully manipulative exchanges in the Houses of Commons is that it was a manufactured outrage. Yes, of course it is beyond awful when a child dies following abuse and it is a failing when the systems that should protect that child break down but Peter Conn0lly isn’t the only child, unfortunately, to die under those circumstances and in the face of Ed Balls’ posturing and much as we would like it to be different, nor will he be the last one.

There was the awful tales of Alex Sutherland, Khyra Ishtaq, Baby B – and many others – so why was Peter Connolly thrust into the public consciousness such that the memories of a boy whose life was cut short are remembered by the details of his death and the photos released to the newspapers?

Well, that would probably be an interesting research project all in itself about media and the human psyche – but Balls admits that he succumbed to pressure regarding Shoesmith and the pressure was put on by the tabloid press. He even added insult to injury by throwing Deirdre Sanders, the agony aunt of the Sun newspaper onto the Social Work Taskforce which was to look at ways of improving social work practice. If anything demonstrates how he threw the profession to the baying wolves, it is that.

As for Shoesmith, however she may or may not have done her job, hers was not the hand that beat Connolly. She deserved better from her employers regarding advice although who knows if they gave her that media management advice and whether she chose not to take it or whether she was just thrown to the wolves by her employers.

The OFSTED report by which Balls condemned Shoesmith is faulty in the extreme and was altered. I wonder who might have put pressure on OFSTED to change this.

There is a lot of poor practice and poor knowledge of processes knocking around in this case. It wasn’t all to be laid at the feet of Shoesmith. It looks like the ex-minister had more to gain through his pandering to the press than anyone else and the shame is that it is on the back of a tragedy.

Shoesmith isn’t a social worker and never has been (although the Evening Standard headline seems to state it) but it’s easy for the press to make the leap because they have no idea about the actual facts nor do they check them. They want a hate figure. I am uncomfortable defending Shoesmith to a point because I am not sure exactly where the blame lies but the blame for processes should lie between the police service, the health service and children’s services.  Another Serious Case Review and more about the failings in communication between agencies. The profession really needs far more radical proposals than those set out in the Munro Report but it’s a start.

What Shoesmith was entitled to was the same process of natural justice that everyone else is- I don’t say she shouldn’t have been dismissed, that’s another argument entirely and to be honest, I think she should have been – but Balls was looking to the headlines rather than the law book when he acted to dismiss her.

For that, he should apologise rather than taking refuge in the baying crowds of populism – oh, but he’s a politician. However much I may hate the current government, and however much Osborne makes my skin crawl, I will never forget the shameless pandering to the tabloid press that Balls engaged in on the back of the death of a child.


It’s been a year since the ‘Baby P’ story broke about Peter Connolly and his tragic death following a litany of appalling abuse by his carers. As he was on the child protection register and known to Haringey Social Services and had contact with primary and secondary health care services, the fallout concentrated on what went wrong with ‘the system’ that is supposed to protect children and how the support could have got things so badly wrong. This, combined with the whipping up of a media frenzy which put social workers in the line of fire, is reflected on in a number of news sources today which look at the impact of that case on the profession today.

The BBC reports on a Local Government Association findings six out of 10 councils in England have reported problems retaining staff – a 50% rise on the year before.

While the six out of ten part doesn’t surprise me, the 50% year on year rise is very significant. Social Work as a profession has felt the pressure of being highlighted as the responsible agency and the government has happily allowed individuals to be hung out to dry and has just responded with wonderful new initiatives for shoring up graduate recruitment and making wild and vague gestures that seem to wish to pander to the tabloid crowd like the appointment of an agony aunt to the Social Work Task Force.

The Guardian takes a more thorough approach looking at some of the causes of the initial difficulties in the first place. Ray Jones, I think, hits on some significant points during his look through the pattern and history of legislation which has affected Childrens Services over the last couple of decades.

I was at school in 1989 so the implications of the Children Act of that year would have floated above my head as I concentrated other matters, I remember the implications of the 2004 legislation and the split of adult and children services in local authorities. I remain to be convinced about the wisdom of that decision however there is no going back. Children’s social services joined with Education and Adults, in our local area anyway, joined with Housing in one of those awkward convenience marriages in which there is little love lost. Jones explains the problems that these liaisons created

At a stroke, the top management competence in child protection and care services was largely lost, with 80% of councils appointing former teachers and education managers as children’s directors. So, whereas the 1989 act led to greater specialisation and competence in the care and protection of children, the 2004 act has undermined the experience and expertise that has been developed. As a result, in too many areas child protection and care services are now in chaos.

Jones sees possibilities and makes his own suggestions for change. Personally, I see it as evidence of a lack of knowledge and understanding of social care on a broader scale in the government both local and national. There is little will to change a social care system to make a significant positive difference as firstly it will be costly and secondly in this ‘blame culture’ era where the poor are targeted by those in government as scapegoats for various policies over the decades, I can’t see a way out without it being fought for.

Patrick Butler, also in the Guardian, pulls together some of the positive aspects of the tumultuous year in social care and the movements towards change and improvement in part due to the spotlight that has been placed on the systems in child protection but he asks the crucial question of why it took one child dying in  one London borough to draw attention to facts that could have been picked up way earlier. As he says

The emails uncovered in the Shoesmith judicial review reveal arse-covering on a grand scale. They suggest an establishment anxious to defend policy at all costs and deflect blame, not one particularly keen to learn – let alone admit it had taken its eye off the ball. The other part of the answer is that no one was really kicking up a fuss.

Anyone who has spent more than a little time in the public sector can probably recognise the self-preservation instinct. I have two stories of two different managers though and for me, it was the difference between staying in a position and leaving it.

In my first post-qualifying job, I got on quite well. It was a pleasant team with helpful colleagues and a good and varied workload – it was hard work though. I got on well with my manager and did what I was told. I saw colleagues though, being targeted by her and I’d verge on the word ‘bullying’. That was a part of the culture of the workplace. I escaped it – I was the most junior member of staff in a large team. I was also an agency member of staff and I did what I was told but I saw some of the more experienced staff suffer – people that I had an enormous amount of respect for. I was worried. I went to a meeting once with one of the more senior managers to try and thrash out a case I was working on. He asked me and my immediate manager to do various tasks and the moment he was out the door, my manager turned to me and asked me to do all the tasks she had been asked to do. Some of which were enormously inappropriate for me – with my level of seniority (i.e. none) and experience (very little).

I left within months.

When I went back to social work a few years later, I took a job another team – again as an agency worker. A couple of weeks in, I made an error. It related purely to agreeing a cost which was far higher than should have been allowed by our service so it wasn’t something that led to significant harm or risk just more cost to the local authority. I realised my error (which had been genuine) and spoke to my manager. She immediately called her manager and took responsibility for it explaining that it was her fault and nothing to do with me as she had not told me what to do.

And 6 years later, I am still in the same authority.

There needs to be support in place and rather than adjustments at the most senior levels – which might well be needed, there also needs to be a much more robust supervision structure from the outset. I know there are attempts to shore this up through the relatively recent supports for newly qualified workers – and quite right they are too – but it is not just a year out of qualifying that additional support is required. This is a profession which constantly teaches the importance of reflection, power and discrimination and yet we see in our own services that the power imbalances can be enormous and discrimination and victimisation can occur.

Hopefully the focus on social work will lead to positive outcomes but it is clear the government cannot be trusted to take the lead on it. I’ve been heartened by the more obvious role that BASW is taking in campaigning and fighting for the profession but it also comes down to each and every social worker remembering that there is a wider picture than the individual and the purpose of social work is much wider than the day to day. We could be a good position to advocate on general social issues but sometimes the work levels are so high that there is no time left to speak up.

My hope is that the last year has created a stronger impetus to create a movement for change in social work that has a wider remit than just social workers  but also shifts across into wider social justice.