Page last updated at 05:23 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 06:23 UK

Balls criticised over Baby P case

By Tim Donovan
Politics correspondent, BBC London

Baby Peter
Baby Peter died after months of abuse despite visits from authorities

Children's Secretary Ed Balls has been heavily criticised for his treatment of social workers in the wake of Baby Peter's death.

A leading local government official has criticised him for damaging the standing of the profession and making it more difficult to recruit staff.

Town hall official David Clark said the minister "does not have the solution because he is part of the problem".

A spokesman for Mr Balls' department downplayed the comments.

Mr Clark is the head of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace), which represents the most powerful town hall figures in the country.

In a stinging attack on Mr Balls, Mr Clark said social workers were human and would sometimes make mistakes when difficult judgements have to be made.

But, he said, those mistakes should be examined calmly "not in a howling debating chamber egged on by a tabloid feeding frenzy".

'Put boot in'

Writing on the Solace website, he said: "Anybody who witnessed the disgusting spectacle of politicians pillorying the social work profession after the death of Baby P cannot help but be revolted.

"Pandering to certain sections of the media, politicians of varying political hues were happy to put the boot in to social workers at every level.

"This preparedness to opine, wholly unencumbered by facts, shows politicians at their worst, and statements like "we must ensure that it never happens again" display politicians at their most stupid."

Mr Clark's intervention will be seen as reflecting widespread concern in town halls at Mr Balls' reaction to the Baby Peter case, and his decision to focus blame on Haringey social workers.

Ed Balls
Ed Balls' reaction to the case has been widely criticised

Some accused him of rushing to find scapegoats after criticism from opposition parties and to satisfy The Sun newspaper which had pressured him with a petition.

Mr Clark said: "Our parliamentary leaders need to reflect that if no-one chose the fiendishly difficult job of a childcare social worker many more children would be harmed.

"Their pandering to base instincts is one of the reasons why we have difficulty in persuading anyone to pursue this career.

"Political leaders need to frame this debate in mature reflection on the issues, or soon we may have no childcare social work profession at all."

Two official reviews made it clear that mistakes were made by police, doctors, health visitors and health service managers too.

But Mr Balls announced the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith - Haringey's director of children's services - live on television.

Four more social work staff, including Ms Shoesmith's deputy, have since been dismissed by the council.

Caught off guard

Further criticism of Mr Balls' handling of the case is expected during a High Court action, brought by Ms Shoesmith, later this year. She will argue that Mr Balls' treatment of her was unlawful.

Baby Peter's mother, step-father and a man who was lodging with them, were jailed last month for 'causing or allowing' the toddler's death.

The step-father was also convicted of raping a two-year-old girl.

Mr Balls sacked Ms Shoesmith after claiming the original serious case review into the actions of all the agencies involved - which she chaired - was 'inadequate.'

Drawing of courtroom scene
Baby Peter's mother and her boyfriend were jailed over his death

But a new review published last month unearthed few new facts, casting doubt on previous accusations that the original was a 'whitewash'.

It is also likely that government officials knew before the first review was released what issues would be raised by the case, yet didn't spot their significance.

Some say they were caught off-guard by the ferocity of the public reaction to what happened to the toddler in the last weeks of his life.

Mr Clark's decision to speak out appears to have been prompted in part by the findings of the new review.

Key problems

It makes clear that social workers were competent and well-trained, and it avoids attributing personal culpability.

It underlines that all the agencies involved "could and should have" prevented Baby Peter's death, and one of the key problems was how they worked together.

The executive summary of this review -the only section made public - is different from the first in its interpretation of the facts, the clarity of the conclusions and the more uncompromising language used.

Anyone reading his comments in Hansard or being in a meeting with him, could only say he understands and cares
Solace chair Derek Myers

Local government officials say this was inevitable given the huge media attention and the political sensitivity of the case.

The new review had the benefit of hindsight, drawn up after details about Baby Peter's treatment had been aired during an Old Bailey trial.

Derek Myers, chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and chair of the Solace board, said: "I think to be unfashionably fair to politicians and to Ed Balls in particular, anyone reading his comments in Hansard or being in a meeting with him, could only say he understands and cares.

"However, the media pressure on politicians seems to be unmanageable."

A Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) spokeswoman said Mr Clark's personal comments could not be taken as reflecting those across Solace.

She said: "The announcement of £58 million new investment to improve the professional training and development of social workers has been strongly welcomed by the Social Work Task Force...and by the profession itself".

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