Children’s services leaders demanded urgent talks over the government’s powers to sack them for departmental failings after Sharon Shoesmith’s bid for a judicial review ended in failure.
High Court judge Mr Justice Foskett turned down Ms Shoesmith’s request for a review of her treatment by Ofsted, children’s secretary Ed Balls and Haringey LBC following her 2008 dismissal in the wake of the Baby P tragedy.
But he said the case raised fundamental questions about how far a director of children’s services (DCS) could reasonably be held accountable for a collective failure in children’s services and removed from their post by the secretary of state.
“It would be a very significant step to say that ‘accountability’ means liability for summary dismissal without compensation,” he said.
“The prospect … is hardly likely to be an inducement for someone thinking of taking the job or, perhaps, in some circumstances, continuing in it.”
One director of children’s services, speaking to LGC on condition of anonymity, said that while opinion on Ms Shoesmith’s treatment varied, there was a need for clarity over how the government could use its powers - especially when the turnover of directors was approaching one in three each year.
“It’s the only job in local government where you are employed by the local authority but a secretary of state can remove your power to do your job,” he said.
“There needs to be some reasoning for it, so that we can have a greater understanding of what will trigger the use of that power.”
The DCS said directors wanted to see joint talks between sectoral bodies and the Department for Children, Schools and Families soon after the general election.
Although Mr Justice Foskett turned down Ms Shoesmith’s High Court application, he described Haringey’s approach to sacking her as “flawed and liable to be described as unfair”, suggesting it be heard at an employment tribunal.
He also raised concerns about aspects of both Ofsted and Mr Balls’ role in the case, admitting to a “lurking sense of unease” in dismissing Ms Shoesmith’s request.
Among the more dramatic details in the judgment was the suggestion that Haringey’s then-chief executive Ita O’Donovan and other members of the council had sought to amend the final draft of the Ofsted report “in a way that shifted the responsibility for this alleged failure from a combined failure on the part of members of the council and officers to an entirely managerial failure”.
Mark Greenburgh, local government partner at law firm Wragge & Co, said there had to be a clear balance of accountability between politicians and officers implementing measures and keeping members informed.
“Organisations do not learn from mistakes if the reaction to a failing is to sack everyone involved,” he said.