As a small child, I lived about a mile away from where Baby P, or Peter Connelly as we were later to know him, lived and died. Just a small distance, but miles away in many ways, as my family home was in the Victorian housing of Bowes Park and, maybe more significantly, the Borough of Enfield, rather than Haringey.
I’m not going to discuss the events leading up to the death of Baby Peter. I am not a specialist in social care. My expertise is in being a mother and a human being and that won’t help to end the institutional failings of Haringey Council’s children’s social services. But I do want to look at the dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith, whether it was right and whether it achieved anything.
The Laming report which followed the public inquiry into the death of another Haringey child Victoria Climbie recommended that there should be people ultimately held responsible under the law for the children under the care or supervision of the state. Two years later, the Children’s Act 2004 made both a council’s Director of Children’s Services and the elected Cabinet Member for Children’s Services legally responsible for the vulnerable people in their local authority’s care.
Following Baby Peter’s death, Cllr Liz Santry, the Cabinet Member for Children’s Services and Cllr George Meehan, the Leader of the council, both resigned. But Sharon Shoesmith, the Director of Children’s Services, did not, instead stating that she wished to stay on to support her colleagues and the external investigation into Haringey’s social services. We’ll never know if she would have resigned at the end of that process, as in a remarkable knee-jerk salute to the Murdoch tabloids, Ed Balls announced her dismissal and her employers meekly agreed. The decision was more illustrative of the value the Labour government placed on its relationship with the tabloids than of any value of human life. Balls put desperate populism bedfore due process and, not for the first time, has been shown to be nothing more than a bully.
The systemic failures within Haringey’s children’s social services were not the simple failure of one human being. Sharon Shoesmith should have resigned and almost certainly could have been sacked if she had refused to jump. But allowing a tabloid scapegoating to descend to an illegal and summary sacking was never going to satisfy anyone except the baying mobs who have no right to be a part of this decision-making process. And there’s no point making the top job in Haringey’s social services department seem as temporary as the managerial post at Stamford Bridge: there will never be an effective department whilst the senior staff are looking over their shoulders, waiting for the next disaster to strike.
On this morning’s Today programme, Sharon Shoesmith said that she didn’t ‘do blame’. There has been great outrage online, seeing this as Shoesmith attempting to disclaim any culpability. But in a toe-curlingly awful interview, in which Shoesmith came over as self-pitying, arrogant and without a trace of self-awareness, she did accept that she was responsible for Peter’s death. What she meant of course was that she should not take the blame individually for Peter’s death – and she is right. The worst point of the death of Baby Peter was that it was unnecessary. Almost every point raised after his death was made after the murder of Victoria Climbie seven years before, on the watch of the same social services department. All the agencies that failed Victoria, aslo failed Peter – not only social services, but also the police, GPs, hospitals and the council’s legal team.
By all accounts, Sharon Shoesmith did a reasonable job in very difficult circumstances. But someone had to take the ultimate responsibility not just for the death of Peter, but also for the systemic failure of the department that was supposedly under her control. And almost certainly that person should have been her. But we rely on following the due process of law to save us from injustice and no-one, not even Ed Balls, is ever above the law. Playing the blame game may help a minister win a few favourable tabloid headlines, but it does nothing to save a child’s life. Justice red-top style is no justice for Peter.