Tuesday, November 17, 2009

British childcare watchdog deliberately hid evidence in court case

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The childcare watchdog has admitted withholding crucial evidence that could potentially hand Sharon Shoesmith, the former head of children’s services at Haringey Council, hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation. Ms Shoesmith was sacked after a damning Ofsted report into how her department was run in the aftermath of the Baby P case. A High Court judge has taken the extraordinary step of reopening her case so dozens of pages of handwritten notes, e-mails and draft reports can be examined. Mr Justice Foskett also ordered Ofsted to pay for all extra legal costs incurred at the penal “indemnity” rate — a bill that could cost taxpayers £50,000.

Ofsted issued a humiliating apology for its handling of Ms Shoesmith’s legal challenge, admitting a “serious and deeply regrettable error”.

The latest unexpected twist in the case of Baby Peter, the 17-month-old boy who died from repeated abuse, has placed in doubt Ofsted’s competence to oversee child protection.

Last month Ms Shoesmith launched judicial review proceedings against Ofsted, Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary, and Haringey Council over her dismissal from the £130,000 a year job after the Baby Peter tragedy. She accused Mr Balls of putting pressure on Haringey to sack her with no compensation after a media campaign. Her lawyers have argued that a devastating Ofsted report used by Mr Balls and Haringey to justify their actions was deeply flawed and failed to follow proper procedures. That hearing ended a month ago and all parties were expecting the judge to make his ruling this week.

Ms Shoesmith’s lawyers had repeatedly tried to get hold of handwritten notes and various early drafts of the devastating Ofsted report into Haringey children’s services that cost her her job. Ms Shoesmith was told first the notes were not relevant, then that they “did not exist”. However, they were found several weeks ago by a lawyer new to Ofsted’s legal department who was following up a freedom of information request. Of the five key witnesses in Ofsted’s defence, three have produced new material. The judge was alerted on November 6.

Last night the Conservatives said that the court case had called into question Ofsted’s competence. “Ofsted has come out very badly from this tragic affair. An inspection in 2007 gave Haringey three stars, just days after Baby P has died. Their second inspection completely reversed that judgment. Now someone’s incompetence means we’re faced with the risible prospect of the taxpayer shelling out for Sharon Shoesmith’s legal costs,” Tim Loughton, the Shadow Children’s Minister, said. “Ofsted has to get its act together. Inspectors of children’s services need to be spending much more time talking to professionals and less time checking ticked boxes.”

Ofsted has been given two weeks to produce any other documents that could be relevant to the case.

In the emergency High Court hearing yesterday, Mr Justice Foskett also ordered it to give “a full explanation” of how it was that a series of requests from Ms Shoesmith’s lawyers for information on draft reports “was dealt with in the way it was”. He said that they were at first “batted away”, then turned down on the basis that the draft reports did not exist, “and now they do”. “I want chapter and verse on that,” he said.

Among the material are copies of drafts of transcripts of the Ofsted report into Haringey. There had been allegations that earlier drafts of the Ofsted report had been altered, or the assessments that they contained were altered in some way, he said. The reopening of the case means that a judgment is now unlikely until the new year.

Ofsted admitted that it had made a “serious and deeply regrettable error” in failing to disclose potential evidence. “We very much regret that this has happened. We have apologised unreservedly to the court and other parties. Unfortunately, mistakes sometimes happen and, while this is a serious one and deeply regrettable, we have nothing to hide,” it said in a statement.

Ms Shoesmith, 56, was dismissed in December.

During the judicial review it emerged that there were two key phone calls made to Haringey Council from a senior minister and senior official at the Department for Children, Schools and Families after a bruising Prime Minister’s Questions. It also emerged that Christine Gilbert, the Chief Inspector, made special arrangements for Mr Balls to have the Ofsted report before Haringey and gave him a personal briefing on the morning when Ms Shoesmith was suspended.

Original report here. (Via POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH)

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