The media and the twitterati have had their weekly fix of synthetic anger over the award of compensation to Sharon Shoesmith, the former Head of Haringey Children's Services, for unfair dismissal. Some of the tone of this comment is only one step up the evolutionary scale from the behaviour of the mindless thugs who murdered and then set fire to the body of a hapless individual they suspected of paedophilia.
Get this in perspective. Ms Shoesmith may have her faults but she did not kill poor Baby P. The responsibility for that awful crime lies squarely with his mother (just recommended for release from jail by a parole board, I see) and her partner and his brother. By all accounts Ms Shoesmith had never heard of the child and his ‘family’ – one of the hundreds of feckless and dysfunctional households on Haringey’s books – until it was too late.
It is debatable how far the head of a large organisation should be penalised for the failings of her staff (and the police, who were outside her control). Perhaps there should have been some system which flagged up the Baby P case for her attention. Or maybe she should have organised better training of her staff in making decisions about how and when to intervene in these cases. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Whatever your judgment on this, Ms Shoesmith might well have considered resigning, as chiefs of organisations seen to be failing often do. Such a reaction would have been seen as honourable, and not necessarily a blot on her career. If she wasn't so inclined and her employers thought she should go, they might have gone down the disciplinary route.
But what really should not have happened is that Ed Balls, in his first big solo job, interfere and effectively sack her in public. When I saw his press conference on TV, I turned to my partner and said ‘that is unfair dismissal and she will win at an employment tribunal’.
I have blogged about unfair dismissal several times. There are very limited grounds on which you can fairly sack someone after they have been employed satisfactorily for two years. And you have to follow proper procedure. In this case, if her employers felt Ms Shoesmith was to blame in some way then she should have been suspended on full pay and put through a proper disciplinary process where she would have the opportunity to defend herself.
Instead Haringey cobbled together a kangaroo court to do a minister’s bidding, a very dangerous precedent for a country which purports to believe in the rule of law.
The outcome was entirely predictable, with the taxpayer now having to shell out hundreds of thousands of pounds to Ms Shoesmith, a hitherto blameless individual whose career and personal life have been ruined to satisfy political bloodlust. And no doubt the legal fees will have been pretty steep too. Mr Balls might consider making a contribution, since it was his folly which has led to this result.
Leaving aside this case, there are many occasions when, for good reasons or bad, employers wish to dispense with the services of an individual. If they are to do this promptly and with least damage to themselves and their employees, they need a no-blame way of ending employment which has become problematic.
This was Adrian Beecroft’s proposal, which the LibDems scuppered. If his scheme for no-fault dismissal had been implemented, Ms Shoesmith could have been removed and paid a predetermined level of compensation without the need for courts. She could have then got on with her life and probably would have been back in work somewhere else by now, instead of living on benefits (and no doubt a pharmacy-full of anti-depressants) until her compensation cheque arrives.
The Beecroft proposal as it stood was not perfect, and would have needed some work on it to produce a robust system. But the Coalition – or perhaps the Labour Party, with the benefit of Ed Balls’ advice – should pick it out of the waste paper basket and give it more thought if it wants to avoid cases like this in the future.