The recent highly publicised case of Sharon Shoesmith, ex Head of Haringey Council Social Services, illustrates how upholding an individual’s rights through narrow focus on process associated with employment law, thereby ignoring or subordinating the bigger picture, can help to create many innocent victims. In this instance the most immediate victims being vulnerable children and adults.
This case and present judgment do not appear to be in the public interest. On one level, any compensation/damages to be paid, which are expected to be substantial, will most probably have to come out of the budget for social services for Haringey. This will undermine the resources available in this department and therefore its effectiveness.
On another level, it undermines the morale of committed social workers, and others, who are doing their best to uphold the public service ethos. It makes imposing managerial discipline generally more difficult where under-performance occurs, and makes those in authority more wary of attempting to do so.
It sends a message to those in managerial positions that they can avoid responsibility for under-performance in the departments they manage, commit fraud against taxpayers (in that they are being paid even when they are not up to the job), and that where an infraction of employment laws occurs (by accident or through their engineered efforts) they can get generous compensation.
It helps to create the picture that the public sector is a ‘soft touch’, and thereby encourages claims from fraudulent, malicious and vindictive claimants. A situation potentially made worse by introducing financial penalties for employers found to have breached rights as advocated in Resolving workplace disputes: A consultation.
Should employment laws apply in the public sector anyway? Or should there be more informal, less legalistic and costly ways of dealing with disputes? After all, costs incurred are borne by taxpayers, budgets are limited and any diversion of resources reduces the public sector’s ability to carry out its overriding mission of serving the common good.
It is difficult to conceive that a public service ethos proactively pursued is incompatible with being model employers (in the light of current knowledge, invention and resources), except occasionally and by accident. Rather each supports and helps facilitate the other. However, I can see how rigid enforcement of ‘rights’ under employment laws can undermine the public sector ethos and help to return to the pre Northcote-Trevelyan days.
It is suggested that Employment Tribunals should be given the right to strike out a claim acting on its own volition or after being requested by the respondent, in those cases where the Tribunal is satisfied that to continue would not be in the public or national interest, or could substantially undermine the effectiveness of a part of the public service.
In awarding compensation the Tribunal should take cognisance of public interest including the diminution of resources available and essential for continuing public services.
This suggestion would place employment law within a wider context and make it sub-ordinate to the public interest or common good. It re-balances human rights although it does not go so far as to consider whether at an individual level some rights are more important than others in the public sector, eg, to avarice of an incompetent manager or promotion prospects of a dedicated one. That subject would appear to be worthy of consideration where public sector performance is concerned.
Suffering and premature death, especially of children, is a tragedy. Sometimes parents and guardians are culpable, through for example, carelessness, neglect or deliberate harm. One of the signs of a civilised society is that we, as individuals, through our organisations, and as a nation through our public services contribute to the welfare and wellbeing of the vulnerable. I and many others would want to see our public services, especially social services, to be as effective as possible. We would find it incomprehensible that employment ‘rights’ of privileged and highly paid public sector managers are more important than the public interest. We would say that saving the lives of innocent vulnerable children is more important and right.