Juliet Dunlop: Counting cost of playing blame game

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The size of the pay-out awarded to Sharon Shoesmith, the former head of Haringey children’s services who was sacked in the aftermath of the Baby P affair, “leaves a bad taste in the mouth” according to Ed Balls.

He should know. The shadow chancellor was the Children’s Secretary at the time and the one who fired her – largely to satisfy the court of public opinion – and crucially, without giving her the right of reply.

It was a knee-jerk response; an example of unhelpful ministerial intervention. But back in 2008 Shoesmith had become the villain of the piece; the face of a seemingly incompetent, uncaring system which had presided over a case of unspeakable child cruelty.

A report which claimed that Haringey Council had failed 17-month-old Peter Connelly, who died after months of abuse at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and their lodger, was apparently all the evidence Ed Balls needed. Only, the report was flawed and even the most vilified public figures have employment rights. This week Shoesmith was awarded £600,000 in back pay and compensation.

It should not have come as a surprise. The Court of Appeal had already ruled she had been “unfairly scapegoated”; that her removal was “intrinsically unfair and unlawful.” Yet politicians, the Press and the public have been quick to condemn Shoesmith all over again. The former Conservative children’s minister Tim Loughton, described the settlement as a “reward for failure”. The care minister, Norman Lamb, said the figure was “shocking” and “extraordinary”. And Shoesmith herself has been called shameless, greedy and callous.

Certainly, she has never apologised or broken down publicly – both essential in any modern rehabilitation. She remains a hurt, angry figure and yes, a child died on her watch, but she wasn’t cruel or evil or incompetent. Still, she was punished. A Sun petition demanded action and Ed Balls obliged – live on TV.

Consequently, Shoesmith hasn’t been able to find a job or rebuild her reputation – hence the six-figure sum – but that has never been something we have concerned ourselves with. It does not fit the convenient narrative of managerial failure.

But then, when a child is found dead in his cot with a broken back, anger is the easy option. Meaningful discussion takes time, the implementation of recommendations and safeguards, costs money.

It is cheaper simply to blame someone, except in this case, the costs keep mounting. How many more social workers could Haringey Council have employed with the money it now has to stump up with taxpayers help? And what about the wider damage to the thousands of dedicated people who work in child protection, who do difficult jobs in difficult circumstances? Who would be a social worker now? That is the real reason this pay-out should stick in the throat and why we should now pay-up and shut-up.

We would also do well to remember that Sharon Shoesmith wasn’t the only professional in a complex, understaffed, bureaucracy-heavy chain to fail Peter Connelly.

He was on the at-risk register and had received 60 visits from social workers, police and health professionals over an eight-month period. Doctors at the London hospital where he was treated didn’t fully examine him; the authorities were duped by his highly manipulative mother and her paedophile boyfriend; his wider family did not intervene.

The swift, unceremonious sacking of Shoesmith may actually have shielded others from blame and stopped a more thorough investigation of failures elsewhere. That is certainly the view of one doctor who highlighted her concerns about care at the hospital where Baby P was seen months before his death. The phrase “missed chances” is the one that it trotted out in such cases.

And that should be the focus of our anger and outrage, not the amount of money awarded to a wronged manager. Not after the other invisible children who have been abused, tortured and killed by the very people who should have cared for and loved them the most. There have been too many failures and too many mistakes. If we are serious about “learning lessons” it’s time to stop blaming Sharon Shoesmith. Scapegoating people who do jobs we aren’t brave enough to do is a waste of time and money. It certainly won’t save other young lives.