'Whistleblower' Sharon Shoesmith calls for greater public accountability in today's culture of risk management
A central figure in the Baby P scandal decries scapegoating
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Monday 04 November 2013
Sharon Shoesmith, the former head of Haringey children’s services during the Baby P scandal, said on Monday that risk management is having “devastating consequences” for social care.
It is the first time Ms Shoesmith has spoken in public since it emerged last week that she received a six-figure payout for wrongful dismissal following the death of Peter Connelly, known as Baby P. She became a national hate figure after he died five years ago in Haringey at the hands of three people, including his mother.
Speaking on a whistleblowing panel at a central London conference organised by the Institute of Risk Management, Ms Shoesmith described herself as a whistleblower on “so-called public accountability”.
A ruling in 2011 found that she had been unfairly dismissed after the then children’s minister Ed Balls announced she was sacked before she had the chance to respond to a report on the toddler’s death.
Ms Shoesmith said: “The world of risk management has been applied to social care with devastating consequences in some cases. The notion that we can banish risk is at the heart of some of the issues we’ve seen around my case. The idea that you can banish risk, especially when it’s applied to social phenomena like child homicide, leads directly to blame and to scapegoating and we mistake that for something called public accountability.
“The public sector, especially social services, is a world of ill-defined risk and high stakes when things go wrong. I know there are high stakes in banks, but I think you could argue the stakes are even higher when you have the murder and homicide of babies.
“It’s this process of so-called public accountability that I actually blew the whistle on. It’s a different way of viewing the case. My simple plea is for honest accountability… It would involve all of us facing up to some very unpalatable truths, the worst being the serious social problem of child homicide at the hands of a parent and known adult. Home Office statistics show that 600 children died at the hands of their parent or known adult during New Labour’s three terms in office.”
Instead of politicians such as Mr Balls choosing to raise the wider problem of child deaths, “it had to be a rogue local authority, a rogue director and the problem of child homicide went unnoticed”, she said.
Paul Moore, who blew the whistle on risk-taking at HBOS bank, was also on the panel and said that the scapegoating of Ms Shoesmith could “cause more deaths” like Peter’s. “Hanging someone out to dry like [Ms Shoesmith] does exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to do, which is to create a culture in which people can actually get on and do their jobs properly,” he said. “I don’t know the rights and wrongs of it but I do know that the way this lady has been vilified is unhelpful to the future cause because it will actually make people cover up more things... and actually have the exact opposite effect – probably cause more deaths – and that’s something we should learn in the public sector.”
Speaking about Mr Balls’ role in her dismissal, Ms Shoesmith said: “I’m not angry towards Ed Balls. I see what he did as being part of this whole culture that we were in. Could he have gone on the television and said: ‘Well actually, Peter was just another one?’ Course he couldn’t. He had only one option to do in the end.”
A spokesman for Mr Balls said he stood by his statements last week, when he said Ms Shoesmith’s payout left “a bad taste in the mouth”.
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