Ed Balls & Sharon Shoesmith: Accountability is vital in public office – but it has to work both ways

Luckily for the Shadow Chancellor, Shoesmith is an easy target

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Shortly after receiving the Ofsted report into Haringey Council’s handling of the Baby P affair, Ed Balls held a press conference to talk about Sharon Shoesmith. Balls, at the time Secretary of State for Children, said that the report had blamed her for failing in her duties to oversee her department. He didn’t actually have the power to sack her, he explained; that was for Haringey Council. But what he could do was ensure that she that she was removed from her post as director of children’s services. Were you surprised, a Channel 4 journalist asked, that Shoesmith didn’t offer her resignation when she saw how damning the criticism was? Well, Balls explained, that would be a bit tricky.  Since no one had informed her of the news, she didn’t actually know about it yet.

That much, at least, was accurate: Sharon Shoesmith first found out that her life was being destroyed when Ed Balls talked about it on television. Only then did she receive a phone call from the council. To view this as unfair, you don’t need to think that she did her job well; you don’t even need to think that getting rid of her was wrong. All you have to think is that, if someone is being charged with something reprehensible, they have a right to defend themselves before a verdict is passed.

That’s what employment law says, and that, accordingly, is what the appeal judge who agreed that she was unlawfully dismissed concluded. Now that she has agreed a compensation deal and the terms have been leaked, many people have taken a different view; chief among them, perhaps, is the very same Ed Balls. The six-figure payout, he said, “leaves a bad taste in the mouth”.  Faced with the same situation, he said, “I would do exactly the same thing again today.”

Let’s be clear: in order to avoid the payout, the extent of Ed Balls’ responsibility was to make sure that Shoesmith was asked to give her side of the story first. This is not rocket science. Even if you don’t know the law, it seems like the sensible thing to do. The cost to Balls would have been, perhaps, a short delay to his display of machismo. In these circumstances, to blame Sharon Shoesmith not just for the death of Peter Connolly but for the payment she received seems like a stunning sleight of hand. And to say that you would do “exactly the same thing again” just seems stupid.

Luckily for the Shadow Chancellor, Shoesmith is still an easier target: the idea of anyone being compensated after the death of a child on their watch will always feel indefensible. But as the 2011 judgement makes clear, when Ed Balls said that the report blamed her, he was massively overstating the case. In fact, the report had no such remit, and did no such thing: as Lord Justice Kay put it, a joint area review like the one that Balls ordered from Ofsted is designed not to “identify culpable individuals… the aim is to see the picture in the round”.  Shoesmith was only personally criticised in a subsequent meeting.

This is not exactly a watertight standard when you consider how obviously the Secretary of State wanted to sack someone. After all, in the days after commissioning the report – and asking for an exercise that would normally take five months to be finished in three weeks – Balls had demanded that it be clear “in its attribution of responsibility” and find “definitive evidence on which the minister can act”. Then consider the media climate at the time, and in particular The Sun’s petition, signed by many thousands, demanding Sharon Shoesmith’s dismissal – a petition that Balls praised in that same press conference. Taking all this together, it is hard to see that the woman had a chance.

Is a payout on this scale appropriate? Should Shoesmith be giving it all to charity? I don’t know. But I know that the woman has lost her job in circumstances which have made it very difficult to find work in the same field again. I know that she and her family received reams of hate mail, an onslaught that Ed Balls did little to discourage with his personalised attacks. And I know this: very few of the people criticising her so viciously have ever done anything so noble as to devote their lives to working with children. This is the grim situation we find ourselves in: one where the people doing the very hardest, bravest work are the ones who leave themselves most open to vilification. How many young people, wondering if they have a vocation in social work, will see a case like this and conclude that they would be better off in sales?

To all of this Ed Balls and his cohorts will reply with one word: accountability. That the Ofsted report did not blame Sharon Shoesmith, so Balls’ case went, was besides the point: “It was for her to ensure that the systems were in place. It would be no answer to say ‘I delegated’.”

Accountability, its true, is vitally important in public office. But Lord Justice Kay put it well: it is a “deeply unattractive” proposition, he wrote, “that the mere juxtaposition of a state of affairs and a person who is ‘accountable’ should mean that there is nothing that that person might say which could conceivably explain, excuse, or mitigate her predicament. ‘Accountability’ is not synonymous with ‘heads must roll’.”

If you were thinking hard about accountability, you might see a lack of it in the way that Ed Balls has handled things. In court, his defence against the point that Shoesmith should have been allowed to make her case was that he had assumed, mistakenly, that she would have already done so during the inspection. But accountability, to listen to his very own argument as applied to her, means that ignorance is no defence. It was, surely, for Balls to ensure “that the systems were in place”.

Ed Balls will not accept accountability. Instead, he, and nearly everybody else, will continue to vilify a social worker for the death of a child. To do anything more thoughtful entails more troubling questions about human nature, and shared responsibility, and the horrors that cannot be erased by a witch-hunt.

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