Baby P social workers lose tribunal appeal


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The Independent Online

Two of Baby P's social workers have lost an appeal against an employment tribunal ruling that they were fairly sacked.

Speaking after the short hearing, solicitor Riz Majid, representing the women, said they plan to appeal.

"Maria Ward and Gillie Christou are disappointed by the result.

"We will be studying the judgment carefully with a view to going to the Court of Appeal."

The women's lawyers previously argued that their case had been bolstered by a landmark Court of Appeal ruling in May last year that Haringey's children's services director Sharon Shoesmith was unfairly sacked over the Baby P tragedy.

Senior judges found the council and former children's secretary Ed Balls acted in a way that was "procedurally unfair" when Ms Shoesmith was first removed from her post and then fired without compensation in December 2008.

Mrs Christou and Ms Ward's legal teams claim they suffered "double jeopardy" because they faced two Haringey misconduct panels looking at the same allegations against them.

The first disciplinary proceedings, overseen by Ms Shoesmith, concluded that they only needed to receive written warnings, but the second resulted in them being fired.

Their lawyers also argued that the original employment tribunal should have taken into account the fact that Haringey social services were "under-resourced and under-supported" at the time.

Baby P, now named as Peter Connelly, was just 17 months old when he died in Tottenham, north London, on August 3 2007.

He had suffered more than 50 injuries despite being on the at-risk register and receiving 60 visits from social workers, police and health professionals over eight months.

Ms Ward was Peter's nominated social worker at Haringey Council from February 2007 until his death, and Mrs Christou was her team manager.

The pair were sacked after an investigation which discovered there was a period in mid-2007 when they did not know where the child was.

Peter's mother claimed she had taken the little boy to visit her sick uncle in Cricklewood, north west London, despite being told to return home.

A lawyer for Haringey Council told the employment appeal tribunal that the episode represented a "serious error of judgment" on the part of the social workers.

Ms Ward was also found to have failed to meet a requirement to see Peter at least once a fortnight.

In May 2010, a General Social Care Council (GSCC) disciplinary committee suspended Ms Ward for two months and Mrs Christou for four months - on top of a 16-month interim suspension ahead of the hearing - for their misconduct in the Baby P case.

The pair admitted failing to ensure Peter was visited regularly enough, not keeping adequate records and losing contact with him for a time.

Peter's mother Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker, and his brother Jason Owen were jailed in May 2009 for causing or allowing the boy's death.

Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said today: "This is a case that should strike fear into the heart of every social worker.

"Social workers are trained professionals attempting to do their best for children under very stressful circumstances, but when things go wrong their mistakes are magnified and the results more tragic than in most areas of work.

"When social workers make serious mistakes, they should face the appropriate sanctions, but no-one should lose sight of the fact they are working in an extremely pressurised system, expected to predict every harmful situation, while meeting the ever-growing demands of a target-led profession."

He said that, at the time of Peter's death, Haringey Council's systems and management were "under-resourced, and staff were overburdened and not supported as they should be".

"Sadly, social workers in Haringey knew that the environment they were working in was inappropriate but they did not raise the alarm in the way the public would have hoped," he said.

"The ability of social workers to blow the whistle on bad practice remains stymied by a culture of fear and where openness and transparency is frowned upon as a risk to the image of a local authority."

He said in a recent survey of more than 1,000 social workers, half said they were afraid to speak out for fear of repercussions and 88% said they felt lives could be put at risk as a consequence of cuts to social work services.

He added: "Social workers should be supported and applauded for the job they do, not be personally exposed and thrown to the lions when mistakes are inevitably made."

The written judgment from Mrs Justice Slade, handed down on her behalf by Mr Justice Wilkie today, said: "The appellants, the social worker responsible for the care of Baby P and her team manager, were held not to have been unfairly dismissed by Haringey for their respective failures in dealing with this case."

The judgment said the Employment Tribunal (ET) did not "err" in finding that Haringey Council was allowed to conduct second formal disciplinary proceedings against the pair.

"It was thought that the previous record-keeping and procedural charges against them which were dealt with using a simplified procedure, under which the maximum penalty was a written warning which they received, did not adequately reflect the seriousness of their failings," it said.

"The previous proceedings were rightly taken into account in determining the fairness of the dismissals.

"The ET did not misdirect themselves or come to a perverse conclusion in deciding that the delay between the events which formed the basis of the complaints against the appellants and the second disciplinary proceedings did not cause them prejudice or render the dismissals unfair.

"The ET did not err in law or come to perverse conclusions in dismissing the appellants' claims for unfair dismissal."

The judgment said the women had failed to surmount the "high hurdle" of proving the original tribunal decision was "perverse".

"The ET heard the cases of Mrs Christou and Ms Ward over eight days," it said.

"The appellants were represented by counsel. In concluding that the dismissals were within the range of reasonable responses of a reasonable employer in the circumstances the ET addressed the right questions of law and reached a conclusion open to them on the evidence."

It said taking all relevant matters into account, the employment tribunal "did not err in law or come to perverse conclusions" and added: "These appeals are dismissed."