Tom Winsor’s review of the forcing out of the Metropolitan Police (Met) Commissioner Cressida Dick by Sadiq Khan shows how women in high profile public positions remain vulnerable to arbitrary sacking and humiliation by politicians under pressure from the Murdoch press. Winsor’s review was published on 2 September and his findings strongly echo those of the employment appeal court hearing of Sharon Shoesmith in 2013, sacked by Ed Balls following the conviction in 2008 of Baby P’s mother and lover for his murder.
Sharon Shoesmith’s sacking by Ed Balls
Shoesmith was the director of Harringay children’s services when Baby P was murdered. Following the conviction of Baby P’s mother and lover, the education secretary Ed Balls commissioned an Ofsted joint area review into the service. On publication of the critical report, Balls announced, on television on 1 December 2008, that he was replacing Shoesmith as the director responsible for the statutory functions of children’s services – effectively sacking her.
Balls did not have the power to fire Shoesmith as a local authority employee. But he made it very clear in the press conference that he expected her to lose her job, without any financial compensation. He said:
“Her employment relationship is with Haringey and so the normal employment and legal procedures will take place; but I have to say, I think most people will look at this report, look at the clear evidence of management failures, and say that this kind of failure should not be rewarded with compensation or payoffs … I have to say I would be astonished if elected members in Haringey chose to do that, but it’s a matter for them.”
The role of the media
Throughout the long period of the investigation into Baby P’s murder, the trial and the subsequent reviews, much of the media had been highly critical of the local authority. In particular they focused on the 60 visits (by health and social services) that had been made to the family without anyone having realised the extent of the injuries he was suffering. David Cameron maintained that the child’s death resulted from Labour policy failures. Following the criminal trial, Rebekah Brooks of The Sun organised a petition which called for the sacking of Shoesmith and others in the department.
In the press conference, Balls indicated that he had been influenced by The Sun, referencing the petition: “I undoubtedly recognise the force of the petition from your newspaper, and right across the country many, many people, millions of people have been affected … the result of my direction today to Haringey is that [Shoesmith] will be removed immediately from her post”.
Following Balls’ television appearance Shoesmith was suspended by Harringay and dismissed on 8 December without notice or compensation. She lost her appeal in January 2009, only finally winning her case in 2013.
The appeal court found both Balls and Harringay to have acted illegally. The crux of the decision was that, although Balls was not Shoesmith’s employer, he had made it impossible for Harringay to continue to employ her and that Harringay, as her employer, had not followed due process. No fair disciplinary process had been followed whether by Balls or Harringay, and Balls had allowed Shoesmith no right of reply before coming to a final decision.
Balls’ rationale for the sacking was based on a contentious Ofsted report which he had commissioned. The court noted that he was also unduly influenced by The Sun’s petition.
In his concluding remarks Justice Maurice Kay LJ said:
- I cannot leave this case without commenting on the way in which Ms Shoesmith was treated. In another case, Sedley LJ was moved to say:
- “It seems that the making of a public sacrifice to deflect press and public obloquy, which is what happened to the appellant, remains an accepted expedient of public administration in this country”
- In my view, it is also what happened in the present case. Those involved in areas such as social work and healthcare are particularly vulnerable to such treatment. This is not to say that I consider Ms Shoesmith to be blameless or that I have a view as to the extent of her or anyone else’s blameworthiness. That is not the business of this court. However, it is our task to adjudicate upon the application and fairness of procedures adopted by public authorities when legitimate causes for concern arise, as they plainly did in this case. Whatever her shortcomings may have been (and, I repeat, I cannot say), she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply and summarily scapegoated.
Cressida Dick forced out
Tom Winsor, the former chief inspector of police, was commissioned by Priti Patel to review Dick’s departure from the Met in March 2022. The review is not a court determination, but it shares many of the characteristics of the Shoesmith case. Dick resigned as Met Commissioner on 10 February 2022 having been advised that Khan was intending to announce publicly on television that he no longer had confidence in her as commissioner.
In his report Winsor makes it clear that, as was the case with Shoesmith case, he “will not assess the merits of the performance of the Commissioner or the Metropolitan Police … the review is concerned with process, not substance. I express no view in this report as to the performance of the Commissioner personally or the force she led, and I have not sought or obtained evidence which would allow any conclusions to be drawn on those points”.
Winsor does recognise however, the impact of the media on politicians’ responses: “Some of the areas of recent public and/or media criticism of the Metropolitan Police are referred to in my report where they have been raised, and they are of background relevance to my findings as to what happened and my assessment.”
Although, like Balls in the case of Shoesmith, Khan was not Dick’s employer, his lack of confidence in her made her position untenable and Dick felt she had to resign. Winsor noted: “The Commissioner is not an employee of the Mayor, but she was in effect constructively dismissed by him.”
Winsor also found:
“The Mayor’s actions on 10 February 2022 failed to respect the dignity of the Commissioner as an individual, and as the holder of high public office. He did not act, in particular on 10 February 2022 itself, in accordance with the legislative scheme, still less its spirit.”
He is particularly critical of the lack of power the commissioner had in which “a determined politician has created conditions which apply undue, oppressive and perhaps intolerable pressure on the Commissioner, in particular by making or threatening to make a public statement of no confidence irrespective of the grounds for doing so, or indeed without stating what those grounds may be, nothing can prevent the making of such a statement”.
In 2021 an attempt was made to create a parliamentary petition to sack Dick and institute an inquiry into Khan’s failures to keep London safe, again linking the perceived failure of a public body to Labour policies or mismanagement. The petition failed as it did not meet the relevant parliamentary standard.
Winsor’s report into Dick’s sacking was commissioned by the Conservative home secretary in what appears to have been a politically motivated move to undermine Sadiq Khan. The report was restricted solely to the processes followed by his office and did not touch on the merits of the case or even Khan’s right to express lack of confidence in his chief constable (firing and hiring is within a mayor’s remit).
The Sun, although not the instigator, publicly supported and promoted a second petition to sack Dick following the Sarah Everard vigil.
Women at the top
Women CEOs are more likely to be sacked that their male counterparts and this cannot be explained by competence or results. It is thought to be related to the extra pressures and scrutiny under which they operate. In both these cases – Shoesmith and Dick – the sackings follow serious errors in the implementation of core service functions and some history of prior failures. They took place in a highly emotional climate with Labour politicians under attack for failing to take decisive action on organisational failures.
The lines of political and employer accountability were sufficiently blurred as to allow those forcing dismissal to believe that they were entitled to do so – or that public opinion would be sufficiently on their side to claim moral righteousness. They were aided in this by the media, particularly The Sun, and it was clear that in both cases the decision to sack was highly influenced by these media reports, constructed outrage and desire for a scapegoat. The sackings were public, humiliating, did not follow due process, and were unsupported by principles of natural justice.
In both cases men, for reasons of political expediency, sacked women who were highly regarded within their own organisations and by their own employees, and who in other circumstances had been praised by government ministers for the positive changes they had instituted in their services. While those doing the sacking were Labour politicians, they were supported by the right-wing media and successfully goaded by Conservative politicians.
Men at the top
I can find no examples of men leaders of public services being treated in similar ways. The errors and flaws of these two women leaders were no more egregious than those of their male counterparts.
Stephen House (now a deputy commissioner at the Met) had an inglorious career as the chief constable for Scotland (including the service taking three days to respond to a car crash leading to the death of its driver and passenger). But, even after several scandals, was able to leave of his own accord, and with dignity. If there was political pressure put on him to resign, it was not conducted in public or in a deliberately humiliating way.
Many children die every year at the hands of their carers, and in circumstances very similar to that of Baby P, but leaders remain in post and often with very little press scrutiny. In the case of Baby P, both the police and health services committed errors of significant magnitude but senior staff were not hounded out. Following Shoesmith’s sacking, children’s services across England all struggled to find leaders willing to take on the challenges – not because of the difficulties of the task but because of the risk of personal and professional annihilation in order to salvage the reputations of (largely) male politicians.
The Met police has particular longstanding and deep-rooted challenges but resolving problems of incompetence and misogyny through more incompetence and misogyny is unlikely to resolve them.