Just as public services come under unprecedented attack, up comes Sharon with her £1 million payoff and her list of self justifications and excuses. The story could have been planted by the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Incredibly, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said that the Court of Appeal’s ruling ‘give a much-needed boost to social workers up and down the country who protect daily thousands of vulnerable children and adults.’ Liberals flung the usual cliches of lynch-mob justice, demonisation and ‘witch hunts’, as if the dismissal of an executive who presided over horrific failure is exactly like what happened to innocent women in sixteenth-century England.
To me the case sums up the anger that so many people feel towards their local authorities, which wasted the regen cash of the boom years, whose jobs are completely closed off to workers from the communities they are meant to serve, and whose directors, when something irrevocable happens, say that lessons have been learned – and they never are. When people die on trains because Railtrack bosses cannot be bothered ensuring the safety of their passengers, we rightly demand accountability, sackings, jail time, heads on plates to go. When a child is tortured to death on the public sector watch, our wagons circle around managers on ministerial salaries.
My Shiraz colleague Jim Denham has commented on Shoesmith’s apparent insensitivity and lack of self awareness. These are traits acquired from organisational politics. When you spend years in the higher ranks of a powerful entity, discussing nothing but pay scales, funding pots and multi agency action plans, a deadly insularity takes hold. A child died with fifty injuries, okay – but what about me? What about my career, my reputation, my family, my life? Defending his company’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP boss Tony Hayward argued that ‘The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.’ Shoesmith told Radio 4 that ‘a child dying does not equal a department in disarray’.
It worries me that the unions do not recognise that the appeal was not about protecting hard working and hard pressed social workers, it was about protecting the pensions and security of the public sector management class. In his report into the murder of Victoria Climbie, another child tortured to death in the same LAA, Lord Laming refused to blame ‘hapless, if sometimes inexperienced, front-line staff’. Instead, he criticised ‘the managers and senior members of the authorities whose task it was to ensure that services for children, like Victoria, were properly financed, staffed, and able to deliver good quality support to children and families.’
It is significant that while a number of junior staff in Haringey Social Services were suspended and faced disciplinary action after Victoria’s death, some of their most senior officers were being appointed to other, presumably better paid, jobs. This is not an example of managerial accountability that impresses me much.
There is a failure of management culture. Baby P and Climbie will happen again unless the culture improves and it will not improve unless there are serious sanctions for corporate negligence. Likewise, the anti cuts movement will fail if it’s seen to be just a pressure group for lazy, stupid, overpaid, negligent council managers.
Update: This isn’t just about one LA of course. The Salford Star reports on a a series of appalling failures to safeguard children in that area. I know there’s a north/south divide, but it still surprises me that these events haven’t had national press.
Because in local government, nothing is ever anyone’s fault