In an article I wrote in the CLB Employment Solutions blog in June 2011 I pointed out that newspaper coverage of the case was substantially inaccurate and sensationalist. The same could be said for much of this week’s coverage of a “confidential” settlement agreement which, according to BBC’s Newsnight, provides for a payment of over £600,000.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme former children’s minister Tim Loughton stated that the payment “stinks” and that it is a “reward for failure”.
However, unlike the BBC settlements with senior executives which have been so widely reported and criticised, the payment to Ms Shoesmith follows a decision made by an employment tribunal that she was unfairly dismissed. Once the finding was made, the question of how much compensation should be awarded is mainly a calculation of actual and projected losses, no doubt increased by (frequently incorrect) press coverage which might reasonably be regarded as rendering her effectively unemployable.
While everyone is rightly appalled by the dreadful treatment which Baby P suffered, it is worth considering why Ms Shoesmith was found to have been unfairly dismissed. Although this is a high profile case, the employer’s weak link in the context of the employment claim was one which is encountered all too frequently.
While it is undoubtedly the case that what happened to Baby P took place under Ms Shoesmith’s watch as head of Haringey Social Services, the employer deployed a knee-jerk response by ignoring all relevant procedures and effectively dismissing her on the spot, reportedly at the instigation of then Children’s Minister Ed Balls. the dismissal was so peremptory and poorly handled that Ms Shoesmith learned of her sacking, and the name of her successor as Head of Social Services, by watching the news.
Mr Balls clearly did not see the error of his ways when, after the finding of unfair dismissal was upheld by the Court of Appeal, he said that he was “surprised and concerned” by the decision which would make it “difficult for ministers to act swiftly” when children are at risk.
From the Tory perspective Michael Gove is reported to be “furious” about the settlement and regards the insertion of a confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement as “indefensible”.
The overwhelming irony in all of this is that while the loudest protests are coming from politicians who are missing the point, it seems to have been the hasty and misplaced actions of a government minister which have made what might have been a fair dismissal very clearly unfair. I’ve often heard employers say that what happened was so bad that it entitled them to disregard standard procedures. This is almost invariably a bad and potentially very expensive mistake.