Sharon Shoesmith and Corporate Accountability

May 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm (Cuts, Max Dunbar, unions, workers)

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


  1. lost said,

    i have been a social worker or in closely related work for most of the last 40years.

    whilst ia have not specialised in work with children at risk,i am aware of some of the issues.

    when i joined social work,there was a joke about an excahnge between 2 children.when one described being poor and “having rats”,the other replied that the first was lucky,as the second had social workers.that climate in my opinion has not changed much.

    to the best of my knowledge most social workers care about their work,the people they work with and for who include many in poverty,difficulty and distress.that includes too many who for whatever reason cannot or do not cope with their caring responsibilities to children.the financial and political pressures increase.

    as some have begun to point out social workers are the targets of criticism both if they do and if they dont take children into care or operate the full protection of children.

    usually when a child dies,it is the most junior social workers who lose their employment.despite it all on this occassion perhaps a senior manager has taken responsibilty for those ordinary ranks,perhaps not….

    the horror of it is that yet anoither child died.since baby peter died,more have undoubtedly followed.if 55 children are so killed a year that is more than one a week and there will be many more injured,neglected or otherwise harmed.

    cuts continue.the pressures rise.

    whilst there has to be a better way i do wonder what child care and protection would look like under socialism?how would it actually make a difference,for socialism would have to be judged by the constructive impact for the most vulnerable in society.

    as things are all these words,and war of words inclduing mine will not bring baby peter back nor protect tyhe life of any other child

  2. Mr Oscar back with the shelving said,

    dAilEy Mail article

  3. Sense about Sharon | redmikerowley said,

    […] for Shiraz Socialist.  My thoughts exactly.  Uncharacteristically therefore I shall sit back, shut up and let someone […]

  4. SteveH said,

    Agree with this article. I was in a meeting a few weeks ago where the Director of Childrens services was openly talking about ways we (as in the LA where I work) could get round the statutory legislation and not deliver an unnamed (sorry) service to some of the most vulnerable children in the area. I was sat thinking, you get £90k+ a year for the job of delivering services to children and you are looking for ways to covertly not deliver valuable services. Then is hit me, these people couldn’t give a shit about anything but the £90k+ per year.

  5. lost said,

    one of the questions the current slash and burn climate raises for me in not just defending services,but that we shouild argue for services worth defending and that actually have purpose.apart from the problems their class put in the way,this is no easy task for the needs and desires of so-called service users and so called professionals may well not fit neatly together.our identification in common,as the working class and those who are currently “the done to”goes some way but it does not solve it all.

    the end of capitalism and its replacement with fuller socialist social relations in which money and power are no longer determinants would go a long way-but i continue to ask how would we save childrens lives,how do we end child abuse,what would child protection under socialism look like.

    it may be a long time before we know gthe ansers but that does not deny the responsibi;lty for asking the questions and addressing them

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