Last week the well-publicised and drawn out litigation between Sharon Shoesmith and London’s Haringey Council was resolved by settlement.
For those unaware of the case, Shoesmith was the Director of Children’s Services at Haringey at the time that a 17 month old toddler, Peter Connelly (known at the time as Baby P) was beaten to death by his mother and her partner. The boy’s death appeared to follow a catalogue of errors by those whose role it was to protect him, including workers from Haringey’s Children’s Services team.
Public outcry naturally followed. Something had to be done. The then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Family, Ed Balls, intervened and ordered a one month review of Haringey’s Children’s Services (compared with the normal five month review period). Although the review was not commissioned to (and did not) make any findings against individuals, Balls nonetheless publically instructed Haringey Council to fire Shoesmith, which it did 8 days later without further process (putting it mildly – Shoesmith learnt of her fate while watching the news).
Roll forward nearly five years, including both a High Court hearing (Shoesmith lost) and a re-match at the Court of Appeal (Shoesmith won). We were waiting for a further High Court hearing to determine compensation when the parties settled for a reported £600,000 (the settlement agreement was confidential, so the exact terms are unknown).
News of the settlement (a multiple of her annual salary) has rekindled the public outcry which resulted in Shoesmith’s dismissal. The general flavour: how can someone “responsible” for such a tragic failure receive so much compensation? Balls is reported to have said that it “leaves a bad taste in the mouth”.
That is as may be but let us step back from the emotive circumstances to ask whether this is actually unjust and, indeed, whether Balls and Shoesmith’s other detractors can sensibly be surprised/offended by the settlement? Shoesmith was not given the opportunity to provide any input on the Ofsted report, nor to respond to its findings. The report, which made no personal criticism of Shoesmith, was effectively the only basis for Balls’ and consequently Haringey’s decision to dismiss her (there was also a petition presented to Balls by The Sun newspaper, High Priestess of the pitchforks-and-torches brigade, but not strictly legal experts).
Balls claims to have acted on legal advice, though that has never been disclosed and it is difficult to imagine anyone with even the most elementary understanding of UK employment law advising that the process followed was in any way fair (political expedience not generally being recognised as a valid excuse for neglecting due process), or lawful.
Of course, political and legal pressures are different. Balls was no doubt caught in the heat of the moment with the need to show firm leadership and public accountability. Heads had to roll, and quickly, and the head in these circumstances was Shoesmith’s. However, if you are going to end a career to gain political points and are unwilling first to follow any form of process or even establish the personal culpability of the individual in question, you should expect (and it seems beyond credulity that Balls did not expect) to pay something for the privilege.
If the settlement was indeed £600,000 then a sight of its calculation would be interesting – notice pay plus unfair dismissal award, no doubt, and presumably all or most of Shoesmith’s costs too, but you can’t help wondering how much was paid out simply to prevent Balls’ role being legally disembowelled in a public hearing about compensation. How much quicker, cheaper and more professional it would have been had he and Haringey just paid what they had to at the outset, ignored the vengeful bleatings of The Sun and moved on, all the rest of the money perhaps put into strengthening depleted social services budgets instead .