Shoesmith's sacking was lawful, rules High Court

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The Independent Online

A council leader accused of presiding over a culture of "dangerous incompetence" which contributed to the death of Baby Peter was fairly removed from her post by the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, the High Court ruled yesterday.

Sharon Shoesmith was sacked in December 2008 following the publication of a devastating Ofsted report into her department's failure to protect the 17-month-old boy from abuse while he was on an "at risk" register.

Ms Shoesmith is now expected to take her case to the employment tribunal, where she is pursuing compensation estimated at £1m. She is also considering challenging yesterday's ruling at the Court of Appeal.

Mr Justice Foskett said that although the 57-year-old had not been treated with as much fairness as would normally be expected, this was outweighed by the need for the public to be reassured that Haringey Council's children's services department was being reformed.

Baby Peter had 50 injuries after months of torture, despite being seen by officials around 60 times. An eventual review found that Haringey Social Services was in chaos and had made basic errors.

The judge concluded that Mr Balls's decision to remove Ms Shoesmith "cannot be impugned on the grounds of unfairness". He said he could find "no sustainable basis" for her claim that the Children's Secretary or his officials interfered in a crucial inspection report used to justify her removal.

He rejected as "too simplistic" the suggestion that Mr Balls's decision to commission the inspection was driven by party politics, and dismissed the allegation that he was improperly influenced by The Sun newspaper's petition in removing Ms Shoesmith from her post. Mr Balls said the ruling vindicated his actions.

But the judge levelled criticism at the Children's Secretary's conduct, saying he was concerned that he had told a press conference convened to announce her removal in December 2008 that Ms Shoesmith should be dismissed without compensation. "It was wrong to give support to that position, no matter how strongly some people might have felt about it," he said.

He also expressed "misgivings" that Mr Balls had made comments about Ms Shoesmith at the press conference, when she had had no opportunity to refute them. He said he dismissed her challenge with a "lurking sense of unease", saying his ruling would have been very different if there had been stronger evidence to suggest Ms Shoesmith had been made a scapegoat.

"I cannot think that any party will truly look back at how matters were handled in this case with complete satisfaction," he said.

Ms Shoesmith had accused Ofsted of breaching natural justice by failing to give her a chance to respond to the report before it was published. The judge found, however, that Ofsted had met its obligation of fairness.

But he added: "There are strong grounds for thinking that the claimant [Ms Shoesmith] and others whose roles might be questioned did not have a full, fair and measured opportunity to put over their position about their own personal responsibility for what was found, but that did not invalidate what Ofsted did."

Mr Balls said in a statement after the judgment: "The death of Baby Peter was a terrible and heinous crime.... The urgent Ofsted inspection, which I commissioned following the end of the trial, found very serious failings in children's services in Haringey.

"The fact that children were at risk meant it was right for me to take swift, decisive action.... Faced with the same situation – and on the basis of the information put before me – I would arrive at the same decision."

Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, said she was pleased the regulator's actions in the case had been "vindicated" by the High Court. She said: "Ofsted takes its role in inspecting the protection arrangements for vulnerable children very seriously. We carried out a robust inspection, came to a sound conclusion based on the evidence and acted fairly."