Shoesmith, Balls and Appeals

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

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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.