The Sacking of Sharon Shoesmith – ‘Accountability’ is Not ‘Heads Must Roll'

Posted: 1st June 2011

The victory in the Court of Appeal of Ms Sharon Shoesmith, who was the Director of Children’s Services for Haringey Council at the time of the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly, has been widely reported. Peter Connelly, who was on the Council’s child protection register, was killed by his mother, her boyfriend and his brother. The case contains a lesson for all employers that even when things go badly wrong, an employee is entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply made a ‘scapegoat’ for any failures.

Peter Connelly died in August 2007. Following the convictions in November 2008 of those responsible for his death, there was a media and public outcry as to how this could have been allowed to happen to a child who was known to Haringey Council’s social services department. Ed Balls, who was the Education Secretary at the time, ordered an immediate review of the Council’s children’s welfare services. The resulting Ofsted report was extremely critical and reported management failings in Ms Shoesmith’s department. At a press conference on December 2008, Mr Balls announced that Ms Shoesmith was ‘not fit for office’ and that he had taken the decision to remove her from her £133,000-a-year post. Haringey Council duly sacked Ms Shoesmith, without compensation, and took away her pension rights.
The Court of Appeal dismissed Ms Shoesmith’s attempt to quash the findings contained in the Ofsted report but upheld her appeal against the High Court’s decision that she had not been unlawfully dismissed. Whilst many politicians and others have expressed their anger at the latter decision, this is surely to miss the point somewhat. The Court of Appeal made it clear that in finding that the decision to dismiss Ms Shoesmith without notice was unlawful, it was not giving a view on whether or not she was to blame for what happened. The business of the Court was to ‘adjudicate upon the application and fairness of procedures adopted’ in the case. In doing so, it found that Haringey Council, although put in ‘a very difficult position’ following Mr Balls’ announcement, had rushed to a decision to dismiss Ms Shoesmith in a process that was ‘tainted by unfairness’. Whatever Ms Shoesmith’s shortcomings may have been, ‘she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply and summarily scapegoated’. As it was, she had been given no chance to respond to the criticisms contained in the Ofsted report before it was published, in contravention of procedures, and had been sacked by the Council in a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction without being given the opportunity to explain or excuse her actions or mitigate her predicament. Neither the Secretary of State nor the Council was entitled to ignore due process, despite the intense media and public reaction to the events: ‘accountability’ is not synonymous with ‘heads must roll’.