Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Diane Abbot, Sharon Shoesmith and the ongoing point missing competition

Dianne Abbot recently published an opinion piece in the Guardian looking at the recent court victory by Sharon Shoesmith following on from her sacking over the Baby P scandal. It's not necessary to rehash the content of the article, except to say that Ms Abbott believes that the court decision meant that Ms Shoesmith has avoided responsibility for the failure of Haringey Children's Services to prevent the tragic death of Baby P. While she accepts that "It may be that there were procedural problems with her sacking" she finishes by implying that this decision means that senior social workers are less likely to pay for such failure with their jobs. Ms Shoesmith also attempted to paint this as a vindication of her performance in her job. Regrettably both seem to miss the point of what is an important, and yet entirely expected, decision. This case did not revolve around whether Ms Shoesmith should have been sacked. It revolved around the way that she was sacked. 

Ms Shoesmith was removed from her position live on television by the Children's Secretary, Ed Ball's, without being given any opportunity to defend herself or to respond to the allegations against her. She had, so I understand, not even seen the Ofsted report that had been so damning. The courts decided that this course of action had resulted in her being denied "the elementary fairness which the law requires". I do not doubt that Ms Shoesmith was a poor manager. Given that she had no social work experience prior to her appointment, questions should be asked about whether she was a suitable person for the role. It may have been the case that there was no defence or response that she could have given that would have prevented her from losing her job. But equally, I do not doubt that she was sacked in the way that she was because it was politically expedient for Mr Ball's to do so.

The issue of whether a government minister can intervene to require that a civil servant can have all the protection afforded by both her contract and employment law removed purely because it is politically expedient is a fundamental issue. It is fundamental because the requirement of the government to act within the Rule of Law is what separates us from a dictatorship. What if Mr Ball's had decided that Ms Shoesmith should have been imprisoned for her failings? Or deported? Would these have been acceptable outcomes?

It is entirely right that the courts have rejected Ed Ball's arbitrary decision. An individual is entitled to these protections because Parliament has decided that they should have them. If Mr Ball's believed that individuals should not have these protections then, as a Member of Parliament, it is open to him to try and change the law to reflect his belief. It is not open to him to simply ignore the law.

I made a comment on the Guardian article supporting a comment made along these lines. I also stated that I believed that Ms Abbot was an intelligent person and that I felt she was being hypocritical and playing to a crowd. I felt this because as an intelligent person, a Cambridge graduate no less, I am sure that she is as capable as anyone of understanding what this judgement means. However she has clearly made a decision to write this article to, in effect, jump on what she sees as a popular bandwagon.

I was very surprised that Ms Abbot actually took the time to respond to my comment. She stated that she believed that accountability was lacking in social services and that it is a huge problem. I don't disagree with this. However, by referring to accountability, she simultaneously hits and misses the point. This issue decided by the court was not whether Ms Shoesmith was accountable for the failing in her department, but it was whether Mr Ball's was accountable for his arbitrary decision to sack her without following the "elementary fairness" that the law requires. Fortunately the court decided that he was.

As a consequence of Mr Ball's hasty and unlawful attempt to deflect public and media attention away from the real issues of underfunding, overwork and poor reorganisation that impact social services department across the country, the real root causes of the Baby P Scandal, by dismissing Ms Shoesmith, he has placed a reported one million pounds in the pocket of someone who probably doesn't deserve it. Had he behaved lawfully and fairly Ms Shoesmith would not be receiving this money. Mr Ball's response to this is that "he would do the same again" betrays an inability to accept fault and an inability to recognise that he should behave lawfully that does him no credit. 

Likewise, Ms Abbots attempt to join him in missing the point leaves her open to the charges that either she genuinely doesn't understand the meaning of this judgement or that she does and is attempting to make political hay out of a tragic situation for all involved. Whichever one of these positions is true, it does not reflect well on the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

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