Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ed Balls and Sharon Shoesmith: demonstrating the value of silence

With Sharon Shoesmith winning her industrial tribunal case against her sacking as Director of Children's Services for the London Borough of Haringey, the 'decent, honest, taxpaying reasonable people' are up in arms. It is, after all, generally accepted that she deserved to be sacked, and the idea that she will pick up a fat cheque, courtesy of the council taxpayers of Haringey, is unlikely to be welcomed in the streets of Wood Green.

However, she has provided us all with an invaluable lesson, in that her successful claim reminds us all that workers have some basic rights, a key one amongst them being the right not to be arbitrarily sacked without proven cause.

When Ed Balls announced to the world that she would be sacked, he trampled all over her rights to a fair hearing. Ironic really, because Labour had claimed to be the party for workers' rights and, in fairness, had done much to redress the balance following some of the more egregious anti-union legislation of the Thatcher era.

By doing what he did, he pandered to the lynch-mob mentality that undermines so much of our public servants. Apply the law, and people will complain that you are over-bureaucratic. Apply it badly, and you have failed and must be punished. Wait for the result of a proper inquiry? You have to be kidding, the Daily Mail and its fellow travellers would never allow such a thing.

As I wrote at the time, the essential thing to do is to find out what actually happened, and why a particular course of events unfolded, rather than shoot first and ask questions later. Perhaps that's why I disagree with Richard Morris, who wonders why she didn't resign. He suggests that what we need are a few more resignations, and perhaps I ought to explain why I think that they don't, and won't happen.

It is true that her Department came out of the inquiry in pretty poor shape, with reports of insufficient staff training, too many agency staff, and poor direction of inexperienced staff. But it wasn't Sharon Shoesmith's choice to employ less staff than she needed, it was a decision forced upon her by budgetary issues, by the inability of inner London authorities to recruit and retain social workers, by internal processes that were designed to wallpaper over the cracks. How many of those were her fault?

That is not to say that she made the right choices, or even the best ones at the time. It isn't to say that she was good at her job. The inquiry didn't exactly hold back in terms of its criticism. But there were a lot of people whose decisions contributed to the failure to protect a small, defenceless child, and most of them are still untouched by the retributive process.

The idea of a resignation as a point of principle is dead. I know, I did it once, to be greeted by a sea of bewildered incomprehension amongst my colleagues. Unless an individual directed committed an action which led to a tragedy, or a failure, it is hard to see why they should take the fall. If, for example, a Government Department loses the data of twenty-five million people, because a junior officer in a provincial office fails to follow published guidance, does the Minister resign? And if he or she did, why would they be doing it and what would it change?

If Sharon Shoesmith had known that she had acted in such a way as to cause a tragedy, or had halted an action that might have prevented it, then I suspect she would have resigned. Don't think for one moment that someone who works in that field doesn't wonder every day about the impact of their decisions, and the idea that you might be responsible for the death of an infant would come as a terrible blow.

However, I do think that she would be well-advised to give the media a wide berth. Regardless of her perceived justness of her case, there is no desire out there to be seen to defend paying over a large some of money to someone who is seen to have failed, and failed badly. And the media can be so unkind, sometimes...


coldcomfort said...

What do you mean "there is no desire out there to be seen to defend paying over a sum of money to someone who is seen to have failed". There might not be any desire amongst ordinary folk but by golly it's there alright amongst the political, financial & influence peddling classes. Right now in Britain nothing succeeds like failure

Mark Valladares said...


That's why I said 'out there'. For most of us, if we screw up, we get sacked. And if people succeed, there should be scope to reward them, but the sense that some people get rewarded whatever happens in somehow repulsive.

It would be nice to change that.