Lynne Featherstone

MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

my blog
Lynne's Parliament and Haringey Diary, established 2003

Sharon Shoesmith’s day in court

So Sharon Shoesmith is having her day in court. That’s her right. But none of the furore in the media, in my view, is responsible for her sacking. The media fire storm was undoubtedly a dreadful thing to go through – but my understanding is that it was her attitude in the press conference Haringey Council held after the trial verdict that brought the media down on her like a ton of bricks. She did that to herself.

The apparent arrogance of saying that Haringey was wonderful, and showing the media charts to point out how brilliant her department was, said everything you need to know about Labour Haringey. In fact, Clare Kober the new Labour Leader, is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying “I have the utmost respect for you (Sharon Shoesmith) as a public servant … I have every confidence that you are the individual to get us where we need to be” demonstrates the sort of poor judgement she and Labour have.

And it is a judgement based on a long history of blag it out, say the moon is the sun, and get out of trouble that way. It is precisely that sort of attitude that leads to the situation where a baby can die even with sixty visits from Social Services because Haringey always rejects criticism, is arrogant and refuses to listen when people try to warn them of problems or trouble. That is the part that worries me the most – because the culture at Haringey is one of cover-up, rank-closing and refusal to accept or deal with problems.

No wonder Haringey supported Sharon Shoesmith at first – regardless of the facts. They had paid a fortune to media trainers to prepare her and others to face the post-trial storm (money they should ask for back). It was all about protecting Haringey’s reputation regardless of the real underlying situation.

That is why Victoria Climbie died and that is why Baby Peter died.

At least this time, unlike with Victoria Climbie, there has been a clear out of those in charge of Children’s Services and I hope that the new Director and new managers will ring the changes and turn the department around – no easy task.

So – back to Sharon and why Ed Balls was 100% right to sack her – regardless of the media and regardless of David Cameron and my contributions at the now famous Prime Minister’s Questions.

After Victoria Climbie died and Lord Laming’s public inquiry made its recommendations – one of the key problems Laming identified was that the leadership was weak and at fault – but took no blame in the consequences. Only Lisa Arthurworry, the social worker at the end of the food chain took the blame. George Meehan (Labour Leader at that time), Gina Adamou (Chair of Social Services at that time) and Mary Richardson (Director of Social Services) all suffered not one bit as a result. The two Labour politicians stayed in post and Mary Richardson subsequently moved to Hackney to be Director there.

The Director of Children’s Services this time with Baby Peter was Sharon Shoesmith. In law, she is accountable and responsible for the litany of failures that went on under her stewardship. She should without doubt have instantly resigned. That – not only would have been the right thing to do – but would also have spared her some of the media fire that followed her dreadful performance at the press conference and beyond.

The investigations that followed Baby Peter’s death all show a litany of casualness and failures by individuals and agencies. The substance of the failures and being the person in the accountable and responsible position in law is why she went.

As Ms Shoesmith refused to do the honourable thing, Ed Balls, therefore, had no choice but to sack her. He understood what had happened – and that if she remained in post despite the law that placed her in the accountable position and despite the terrible things that had occurred under her supervision – then Victoria, Peter, all Lord Laming’s work and the safety of children at risk in future would all be for nought.

Thu 8 October 2009
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Comments

  1. Nonconformistradical says:

    “She should without doubt have instantly resigned. That – not only would have been the right thing to do – but would also have spared her some of the media fire that followed her dreadful performance at the press conference and beyond.”

    Exactly.

    Senior managers should keep on their desks a copy of the Harry Truman ‘The bick stops here’ plaque – and act on it when such a disaster happens on their watch.

  2. Marc B says:

    While I am extremely disappointed by the failure in Children’s Services to protect Baby Peter and others from serious harm I am concerned at this case and comments such as these in the press.

    I believe MPs should not become embroiled in the local employment dispute’s of their council. Even ones such as high-profile as this. It serves no positive purpose.

    The fact of whether Sharon Shoesmith is responsible and therefore culpable is a legal matter and not one for MPs to use their influence to try and swing the court of public opinion one way or another.

    I struggle to see how we can say that Ms Shoesmith is culpable as she is the head of the Children’s Services Dept. There is also someone who line manages her and a Chief Executive of the council who is ultimately responsible for all of the council’s work.

    There is also the government watchdog the ‘care quality commission’ which replaced the ‘commission for social care inspection’, which in turn replaced the ‘national care standards commission’. To have so many organisations resposible for the oversight of Children’s Services and the upheaval and discontinuity this will undoubtedly have caused is regrettable. These organisations, nevertheless, also bear responsibility for the failings if responsibility and blame is to be apportioned.

    Perhaps, what is most revealing is that Ms Shoesmith was not ordered to go before the Baby Peter case became commonly known. Perhaps the oversight agancy at the time was happy with her approach in tackling the problems within Harringey. Perhaps they were not and this we cannot know.

    What is also clear is that Ms Shoesmith had managers working for her who also failed. Did they fail because of her, or in spite of her best efforts?

    Clearly she is the visible head of a failing organisation. Retribution was needed by the public and MPs. They got their scalp. Should she have been so savagely sacked? Should she have resigned? Should she have stayed and brought in the changes neccessary then moved on quietly?

    We should also consider the challenges she faced. In my own work, I have taken over running a department that was in chaos before I arrived. I had to ensure procedures and training was implemented, and the mistakes of the past were rectified and we moved forward. When I change roles some eighteen months later, I know there were still things I hadn’t got around to doing/changing/rectifying. The difference is my job was business not the welfare of Children.

    I hope I have shown that this is not such a cut and dried issue. if it were, Ms Shoesmith would have been dispensed with long since the Baby Peter ordeal became public. Sharon Shoesmith deserves some public support. It is unfortunate that her face had come to symbolise all that was wrong with child abuse and the failure of the authorities to detect and prevent it.

  3. Marc B says:

    So then by the same logic do you accept all people involved in the case from the case workers up to the Chief Exec and councillors should all have had the good sense to go?

    If you do not agree with that, but you do feel she should go then aren’t you being overly emotional and illogical about it?

    For the record, I too feel emotional about the baby Peter case, but can separate the two issues in my mind.

  4. rupert says:

    It was very good to read Marc B’s comments on this situation – at last somebody is saying something both fair and reasonable. If a manager of a department is in office when something goes terriby wrong, he/she has , of course, to conduct a full and fair investigation, and make sure that those who have done wrong are reprimanded disciplined or, in extreme cases, sacked; but they also have to maintain the morale of the organisation, at a time when all its members will be in deep grief, and make sure that all their people are out there, tomorrow morning, doing their job, and in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances- far beyong the experience or imaginings of all their critics –protecting the chidren under their supervision – and doing so with high morale and enthusiasm, notwithstanding that deep grief . It will really not be in the interests of the children in danger for there to be a collapse of morale, because becaase the managers have just accepted vicious and ignorant cricitism from a lynch mob organised by the editor of the Sun, and the MP for Harringay. People-even the leader of the conservative party, and the MP for Harringay and the editor of the Sun- should subject their actions to the same constraints and obligations as social workers are subject to- everything everything everything must be for the best intersts of the children at risk –and fairness, accuracy, and some sympathetic generosity of spirit would be a good starting point for that.

  5. AM says:

    She fell on the sword of arrogance she forged from her own haughtiness. The way she was treated after it by the red top press was disgraceful but she set herself up for it. MPs should take a stand. It is important that they become opinion formers and not mere vote chasers

  6. dreamingspire says:

    Agree with AM, but SS appears not to have had a proper review of the process by which she was sacked (which must include the part played by Ed Balls). Therefore I support the sacking, because she should have taken action to remedy the incompetence in the Children’s section of her dept (probably by getting central govt to draft in new managers and practitioners). She probably merits recompense for the abuse of process (not just the sacking, but, as Lynne points out, also for the incompetence of those above her for not themselves ensuring that improvement was made, and particularly so if they heard pleas from her and ignored them), plus a clear statement of her competence in education management. However, her later arrogance will count against her (probably by way of reduction in the damages award).
    But this sorry episode is, I fear, just one more illustration of the way in which central govt has given tasks to LAs that the Councillors (and particularly the Executive Councillors) are far too often not capable of properly handling. It is one more nail in the coffin of democratic accountability at the local govt level, and it also, quite simply, increasingly delivers power into the hands of those civil servants (in Whitehall and regionally) who play divide and rule in order to gather more power to themselves – civil servants who mostly do not have the expertise that equivalent ranks have in nearby European countries.

  7. Elizabeth Gromyko says:

    6.

    I applaud Lynne’s comment – Haringey rejects criticism, brushes complaints aside, covers up the truth, closes ranks and attempts “to blag it out” .. believing that the problems will simply go away and that those who admonish, warn, complain or ask awkward questions will become frustrated and mute, unable to breach the stone wall of procrastination, prevarication and obfuscation that has been erected.

    These two tragic cases have shocked us all and made national headline news. Complacency, arrogance and the refusal to shoulder responsibility – passing the buck – are imbedded in the LA’s culture. As “Dreaming Spires” points out Central Government has spawned this web that spreads so pervasively throughout our democratic institutions. LAs have, increasingly, been delegated responsibilities that they are simply not capable of handling. “Cabinet Government” is the name of just one more of the nails that have been hammered into the coffin of local accountability. Most of those whose taxes fund LA services, – including investments, salaries, bonuses, pensions and consultancy fees and so on – have little or no influence on “local government by dictat” – nor, in effect, does the Official Opposition. Yet, increasingly the failure of LAs to cope with the remit and responsibilities devolved to them means that, increasingly, power is shuffled off to quangos, civil servants in Whitehall or regionally. These, in turn, grab the reins of power unto themselves, issuing guidelines, statutes, regulations and “advice” – strangling the voice of the electorate which, understandably, becomes less and less motivate to speak out.

  8. Miss Shoesmith says:

    Dear Ms Featherstone

    This is the problem with politics. It’s all about saving face, back stabbing and towing the party line. I sincerely hope that you understand that this case is far more complex than your party political mutterings would have us believe.

    I would invite you to come and sit with my sister and me in the court tomorrow and hear for yourself the reality of this case. My mother is NOT a politician and therefore showed integrity and loyalty to her colleagues and the council, to whom she had promised her support and commitment – they asked her not to quit, she told them she would not and she stood by it – simple. This is not passing the buck. She did say sorry (gosh how many times does this have to be reported before people will accept it???) but the Sun et al chose to report otherwise.

    She is strong, decisive and sometimes tough. She needed to be. This was conveniently portrayed as arrogant, it made a juicy story, got tabloid readers buying papers and in the end, gave our esteemed secretary of state the excuse to send for her head.

    I deplore you jumping on any aspect of this case as a way to win political points – this is what is wrong with politics today – where is your integrity? There are readers and commentors of this blog who have a greater understanding of the complexities of her role at the time and a deeper sense of justice and fairness that it seems you manage to express. I sincerely hope you will not win further support by twisting this tragic episode to your political benefit.

    Yours sincerely,
    Miss Shoesmith

  9. Dear Miss Shoesmith,

    It is right that you defend and support your mother. I have always supported her right to take her case forward. However, the rest of your comments we will not agree upon and clearly your experience of your mother and mine are simply different. My priority and my focus has always and only been to ensure that vulnerable children are better served in future in Haringey than they have been in the past.

  10. [...] Tall on Lib Dem Voice. Nick gains his best ever approval rating from LDV-reading party members. 5. Sharon Shoesmith’s day in court on Lynne Featherstone’s Parliament & Haringey Diary blog. Lynne’s no-holds-barred [...]

  11. AM says:

    It seems natural that children will rally to the defence of their parents but it does not mean that the points they raise are right. Nor does it mean they will do so without due regard to the wider context. In this case, however, the criticism of Lynn Featherstone seems tenuous. Following party lines works both ways. There was a particular party in Haringey who were silent about the behaviour of the council in relation to the institutionalised neglect of Baby Peter. Lynn Featherstone raised the issues throughout and did a great job in bringing Haringey to some sort of account.
    To suggest that Sharon Shoesmith acted out of loyalty rather than a sense of self-preservation may be true but it is hardy something that can be cited in her defence. It would have been better had she have opened up about the case rather than covered up out of a misguided sense of loyalty for colleagues who had a case to answer. And the arrogance was breathtaking. How many people admit to being arrogant? They mask it in something else.

    This case should not be about political points and it seems to me that Lynn Featherstone did not seek to make any. How else was the terrible truth about this case to be extracted from those unwilling to yield it? And with considerable integrity she held their feet to the fire. How are unelected bureaucrats to be removed from office if somebody des not step into the breach?

    The Sun was disgraceful, hounding Sharon Shoesmith when she was with friends or going out for a meal. It was as if she was condemned to a puritanically created hell. But none of that obviates the need for a radical shake up at Haringey. Nor does it negate her role in the systemic problem that existed there.

  12. Rupert says:

    If you want to know the truth about this matter, I suggest you just look for a moment at the comments which , even right now -even when, on any view, a fair point has been made that she was not given the opportunity to respond to criticism — are still emerging from the Sun- ferociously vicious attempts to denigrate and humiliate, and to use any material that can be distorted and misdescribed for this purpose. To me this is just one further area in which the Murdoch media interests are seeking to disfigure, degrade, and debase our national life, using the tecniques of the witch hunt and lynch mob to do so so.What is at stake is a very major issue; and everybody should on this be rooting for Ms Shoesmith. Are our institutions of goverment and law capable of withstanding a lynch mob origanised by the editor of the Sun, in unholy alliance with party leaders, and the MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, seeking use the death of a child to gain a few extre votes; or are, at least the judges, capable of saying “no –accuracy, due process, fairness – these transcendant, and, tradtionally at any rate, English things, cannot and must not be abandoned because everybody is frightened of a vengeful mob , and if politicains and public servants do abandon them, they will must pay a price, and they need, in all our interests, to be fully aware of this, the next time the editor of the Sun supported by the leader of the Conservative party, is oganising a lynch mob “

  13. AM says:

    If only the world was so simple. Concerns about this case cannot be reduced to a one size fits all explanation – the Sun. The paper has been disgraceful in its hounding of Sharon Shoesmith. That is not in dispute here. The values outlined – ‘accuracy, due process, fairness’ are all things that should not be abandoned in the face of ‘the mob’ although why accountability should not figure there begs a question. Much of the defence of Sharon Shoesmith seems to amount to a desire to avoid accountability. People will root for the values suggested and should defend Sharon Shoesmith’s right to avail of them but they could also root for the right of citizens to be protected from the behaviour of Haringey and any council or public body which lets its most vulnerable down so catastrophically.

  14. Son of watchful says:

    Fundamentally this case in a forthcoming employment tribunal will come down to whether Sharon Shoesmith was properly treated by her employer in accordance with employment law and rightly so. The tribunal is unlikely to be swayed by the lynch mob instincts encouraged by that odious rag the Sun. While the judge in the judicial review indicates that there is not enough evidence to prove that Ofsted was leant on by Ed Ball’s department, it might be reasonable to conclude that a government body is likely to toe the line of its political masters even if the order was not explicitly given to do so. From the very start it is clear that Ed Balls statement about the need to sack her without notice was clearly prejudicial as it preceded any disciplinary hearing and this would have automatically made her dismissal unfair. He wanted a specific outcome and Haringay Council provided it. Ed Balls struck me as much more arrogant than Mrs Shoesmith but then he always strikes me like that. She should win her case on the grounds that she was unfairly treated under the law and as such she deserves to.
    Social workers in child protection have a very difficult job to do as devious and malevolent parents who appear to cooperate can be very plausible and make it difficult for staff to judge when or if a child should be taken into care. They do not have crystal ball and simply cannot always know what is going on behind closed doors. I personally think that in certain instances social work methods, which rely on trying to engage clients and helping them improve, are outdated and ineffective. What is really required is that social workers should have a quasi police role with legal powers including power of entry, arrest and search as well as the right to ensure that children about whom there are serious concerns of potential harm ,can be freely checked and medically examined if necessary. This would send an unequivocal message to potential child abusers. The feckless may gain from social work support but more dangerous parents require a much more vigorous approach so that they understand that child abuse will not be tolerated and whatever needs to be done to protect them will be done.

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