Accountability and the role of the secretary of state are key issues
The latest judgment in the Sharon Shoesmith case found that the intervention of then secretary of state Ed Balls to remove Haringey’s director of children’s services denied her the “elementary fairness which the law requires”.
Accountability is clearly fundamental
Although this Court of Appeal ruling overturns the High Court judgment, it reinforces the key questions to arise from that earlier case: the extent to which directors of children’s services can and should be held accountable, and clarity about the role of the secretary of state.
Accountability is clearly fundamental. It affects the relationship between the director and the council, the culture within the department and structures that councils choose to adopt - particularly relevant as some consider shared roles and increased responsibilities.
Done right, accountability should empower staff to make the decisions they need to. All too often, though, accountability is used as a byword for blame. Although apparently cathartic to the mainstream media and sections of the public, blame does not make children safer. It saps confidence and morale, undermines the information sharing required to make improvements and makes children’s services a less attractive career choice. It makes children less safe.
This raises serious questions about the role of the secretary of state. In a localist world, it might be argued that government should direct questions to the local authority concerned. Yet in reality the secretary of state also has a role to play in reassuring the public. Nevertheless, in making any statement, he or she has a responsibility to ensure that the impact on the system and the safety of children is always above the public’s desire to point the finger. This calls for a more mature dialogue with the electorate.
It is a sad reality that another child known to social services will die. When that happens, it is vital that fair process is followed. Without this, there is a real risk of a two-tier system in which employees in some sectors receive a fair hearing, but those in local government do not - with all the attendant risks to the service.
It will not be easy. But if the government is discovering one thing, it is that localism is not easy.