Balls under attack for scapegoating social workers after Baby P

A senior local government leader has launched an outspoken attack on the children’s secretary, Ed Balls, over his handling of the Baby P affair, accusing him of pandering to a tabloid anti-social worker agenda and exacerbating a crisis in child protection.

In an unusually frank blog posting, David Clark, director-general of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace), takes issue with Balls’s plans to rejuvenate the low reputation and morale of social work in the wake of Baby P, arguing that Balls could not offer the solution to the crisis in child protection because he was “part of the problem”.

He says Balls’s comments and actions in the wake of the affair last year reflected a wider ignorance among politicians of the realities of child protection social work.

“Apparently it is hard to recruit and retain childcare social workers so Mr Balls thinks more tax payer’s [sic] money is the solution. In fact Mr Balls does not have the solution since he is part of the problem,” writes Clark.

“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.”

Clark says Britain has one of the best child protection systems “on the planet” but it cannot exclude the possibility of human error on the part of social workers. If mistakes are made, then social workers’ competence should be investigated, “but not in a howling debating chamber egged on by a tabloid feeding frenzy”.

“Our parliamentarian 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.”

The comments reflect a simmering unease among senior local government managers over Balls’s use of obscure legislation to personally remove the former Haringey children’s services boss Sharon Shoesmith from her post last December. Shoesmith was formally sacked without notice or compensation by Haringey council a week later.

She is currently pursuing legal action against Balls, Haringey and Ofsted, the children’s services inspectorate. It is believed Solace, of which she is a member, is funding her case.

Shoesmith and several Haringey social workers directly involved in the case were subjected to a sustained campaign of vilification from the Sun and other tabloids in the weeks following the conviction of Baby Peter’s killers in November. Peter, who was on Haringey’s child protection register, died from horrific injuries at the hands of his mother, her lover and her lodger. Social workers have borne the brunt of media criticism for failing to prevent his death, although the NHS and the police and lawyers also made serious errors of judgement.

The frankness of Clark’s blogpost seems to have taken other Solace members by surprise. Derek Myers, the Solace chair, has posted a rather more diplomatic response to the blog. “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. The popular and mid-market press will only exaggerate and oversimplify, and political responses then get fitted to those unhelpful constructs.”