Andreas Whittam Smith: The fine of art of scapegoating

Sharon Shoesmith had no chance to comment on the report into child protection in Haringey
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In his book about the handling of mad cow disease by both the Conservative and the Labour Governments, Sir Richard Packer, the former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, wrote: "It was standard New Labour practice to decide on who should be categorised as a villain in any given circumstances (whether fairly or not was irrelevant) and to take steps well beforehand so that depiction in that guise rang true when the time came."

The accuracy of Sir Richard's observation can be tested against the evidence presented in two recent cases – both involving Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. There is the action being brought this week by Sharon Shoesmith, the former Director of Children's Services at Haringey, against her employer and Mr Balls for what she claims was her unfair dismissal for her department's performance during the horrific Baby P case. Earlier there was the forced resignation of Dr. Ken Boston for his role in the so-called shambles in the handling of Standard Assessment Tests (SATS) designed to show children's progress at school.

According to Sir Richard's formulation, the first stage is to decide "who should be categorised as a villain". Dr Boston told a Select Committee of the House of Commons earlier this year that the Department had sought his resignation early in the crisis before an official enquiry had been mounted into what had gone wrong. He had refused to stand down. Nonetheless, as subsequent events were to show, he had been selected for the sacrificial role.

For Ms Shoesmith, it all went a bit faster. Soon after Baby P's mother and her boyfriend and his brother were found guilty of allowing or causing the child's death, Ms Shoesmith gave a press conference that was defensive and not particularly apologetic. That same evening, emails presented to the court show that the Department's officials were concerned about the situation but no more than that.

An internal email sent by Jeanette Pugh, the director of safeguarding, stated: "I have no reason to doubt her [Shoesmith's] competence or sincerity – and she has been very open and co-operative with me – but her stance today... makes things trickier." In another email sent by Ms. Pugh she commented: "So far I think the government has handled this as well as we could and the government is reasonably well positioned."

The next morning, however, the Government found it was no longer "reasonably well positioned". The Sun had headlined its front-page "Blood on their hands" and called for sackings in Haringey. David Cameron gave Gordon Brown a drubbing at prime minister's questions and demanded to know why no one had been removed over Haringey's failure to protect Baby Peter.

This was too much for New Labour. The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, phoned Ms. Shoesmith to warn her that "something dreadful" had happened in the House of Commons. He probably didn't add that something dreadful was to happen to her. But an hour later, the same Permanent Secretary at the Department, David Bell, who has suggested to Dr. Boston that he should walk the plank, demanded that Haringey should suspend Ms. Shoesmith. Again Mr. Bell was unsuccessful. Haringey refused.

Nonetheless the "villains" had been chosen. Never mind that they had not gone quietly. For then comes Sir Richard's second stage – to take steps so that the depiction rang true when the time came. In both examples the means were the commissioning of a report that would find the victim guilty and at the same time clear the Government of all blame.

As far as SATS was concerned, Lord Sutherland was selected to enquire into what had gone wrong. He duly found that the organisation headed by Dr Boston had "failed to deliver its remit from government and did not (effectively) manage the contract it held with ETS (the American-owned company that oversaw the tests". However the terms of the enquiry had been narrowly drawn. It did not cover ministerial interference. Indeed in one bizarre incident, Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, told the enquiry of a supposed meeting he had had with Dr Boston at which he claimed that Dr Boston had referred all his questions to another official. Later Mr. Knight had to admit that no such meeting took place. In his desire to "get" Dr Boston, Mr. Knight had let his imagination run away with him. In due course, however, Dr Boston resigned.

In dealing with Ms. Shoesmith, the weapon of choice was a report by Ofsted, the body which states in a barely literate manner that "we inspect and regulate to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages". Normally such reports take five months to complete, but on this occasion just 19 days was allowed. At all events, Ofsted did its stuff and reported that its inspectors had raised "glaringly serious" problems in Haringey's child protection regime. Ms Shoesmith was given no opportunity to comments on its findings before publication. Counsel for the Secretary of State is reported to have told the court that "even if she had been given the opportunity, there was no doubt the Secretary of State would have come to the same conclusion". A week later Ms. Shoesmith was sacked without compensation by Haringey.

There are additions to make to Sir Richard's pithy analysis. He describes "scapegoating" as a New Labour thing. But not long before he was writing, Michael Howard, Home Secretary in John Major's Government, had endured his notorious grilling by Jeremy Paxman in which the Newsnight presenter had asked him 12 times whether he had overruled Derek Lewis, then director general of the Prison Service, and instructed him to suspend the governor of Parkhurst prison after a mass break-out of prisoners and 12 times he refused to answer. In due course Mr. Lewis was sacked, about which Mr. Howard's junior minister, Ann Widdecombe, said that she had grave reservations.

It is also worth adding that in the three cases described above, each time the intended victims fought back. Mr. Howard was damaged by the episode. And Mr. Balls is beginning to accumulate "form" as the school bully.