Baby P social workers lose unfair dismissal claim

Friday 22 October 2010 13:49 BST

Two social workers sacked over the Baby P tragedy have lost their claim for unfair dismissal, it emerged today.

Gillie Christou and Maria Ward claimed they were unjustly fired by Haringey Council in north London in response to the public outcry about the little boy's horrific death.

But an employment tribunal panel ruled that the local authority acted reasonably in dismissing them because of serious failings in their care of the toddler.

Baby P, now named as Peter Connelly, was just 17 months old when he died in a blood-spattered cot 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 revealed 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.

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

The employment tribunal panel concluded: "There is no doubt in our minds that, whilst there may have been media pressure and political pressure and those involved had in mind the tragic death of Peter Connelly, the facts and beliefs which led them to dismiss the claimants' appeals against their dismissals were, in Ms Ward's case, the failure to maintain the required visiting frequency and, in both cases, the poor professional judgment (as the appeal panels expressed it) demonstrated by both claimants in relation to the Cricklewood absence.

"It is not in our view the case that those involved in the appeal panels bowed to the pressure to which we have referred."

The panel ruled in favour of the local authority by a majority of two to one in its judgment, which was handed down on Wednesday.

It noted that the facts of Peter's case were "sufficiently serious" that ensuring he was visited regularly was a "paramount requirement".

The panel added that "no contrition" was expressed on Ms Ward's behalf at an internal Haringey Council appeal hearing against her dismissal.

It said: "There was no apology for her failure to meet the visiting frequency requirement and the council were not being assured that she would not fail in the same way in the future.

"The view of the majority is, therefore, that dismissal does lie within the range of reasonable responses."

Referring to the Cricklewood episode, the tribunal panel said: "Ms Ward effectively ceded to the mother control over the situation at an early stage of a phase in which she had been allowed unsupervised access to her child. It was likely that the plan would be breached."

The judgment also observed that initial disciplinary proceedings brought by Haringey Council against Ms Ward and Ms Christou were "inadequate".

The hearing was told that this process was presided over by Sharon Shoesmith, who was herself fired as Haringey's director of children's services over failings exposed by Peter's death.

A Haringey Council spokesman said today: "We're pleased that the tribunal found in our favour.

"Ms Ward and Ms Christou were dismissed for gross misconduct because they failed to ensure Baby Peter was visited regularly and lost contact with him at a critical time.

"The judgment vindicates our decision to end their employment with the council. Our focus remains on continued improvements to the children's safeguarding service, as recently validated by Ofsted."

A spokeswoman for trade union Unison, which has supported the two social workers, said: "Unison is disappointed that, although the tribunal expressed concerns about aspects of Haringey's investigation, they reached a majority verdict that the council's decision to dismiss Maria Ward and Gillie Christou was not taken unfairly."

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

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

But the GSCC panel ruled they could remain on the social care register, allowing them to resume working with vulnerable children after the end of their suspension.

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

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