In August 2007, a toddler living in the London Borough of Haringey died. 18 months later on 11 November 2008 his mother, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s brother were convicted of causing or allowing the child’s death. The toddler was Baby P, eventually named as Peter Connelly.
Media interest was intense. On the day of the conviction, Sharon Shoesmith, director of Haringey’s children’s services, and Jane Collins, CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) held a press briefing that mentioned the disciplinary proceedings against individual social workers finding no evidence of gross misconduct. On the following day, November 12, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) issued a press statement condemning the behaviour of those convicted.
Later that day, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Gordon Brown (then PM) appeared to be taken by surprise by David Cameron’s (then Leader of the Opposition) criticism of the way Haringey Council had responded to Peter Connelly’s death. Cameron asked who was taking responsibility and why no one had resigned. He followed up his attack later with an emotive article in the Evening Standard, and the next day with a letter to the Sun. The Sun launched a petition calling for Sharon Shoesmith, the social workers involved, and a paediatrician at GOSH to be sacked, and by the weekend could claim the petition had 1.4 million signatures. The Government’s reaction triggered a chain of events culminating in a ‘perfect storm’ that had significant, far-reaching repercussions for national and local government, the news media, social work as a profession, children’s services, individual social workers and vulnerable children.
The Government response
The Government’s response to the criticisms was swift and robust. A press officer was sent to Haringey Council and on 1 December the Council leader George Meehan and the cabinet member for children and young people Liz Santry, resigned. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced in a press conference that he was replacing Sharon Shoesmith with John Coughlan, then director of children’s services in Hampshire, and appointed Graham Badman, previously director of children’s services in Kent, as chair of Haringey’s Local Safeguarding Children Board. A week later, Shoesmith was formally dismissed by Haringey Council.
Shoesmith didn’t take her sacking lying down. She appealed and in 2011 the High Court ruled that Ed Balls and Haringey Council acted unlawfully in dismissing her. In 2015, she completed a PhD through which she had tried to understand the psychosocial factors involved in the aftermath of Peter Connelly’s death. A couple of weeks ago, she published Learning from Baby P, which draws on her research. In the book, she notes some of the factors that prompted the government to act as it did. Shoesmith’s analysis is well worth reading; it’s incisive and insightful. My only quibble is that she appears to accept some conceptual frameworks uncritically, such as the feminist, psychoanalytic and medical models.
Shoesmith points out that by late 2008, the ‘New Labour project was running into trouble’ (pp.123-127). Gordon Brown had taken over from Tony Blair as PM the previous summer, but in May 2008 Labour had had its worst local government election results for 35 years and Labour’s attempts to reduce child poverty were faltering. In October 2008 the Healthcare Commission’s investigation into the Mid-Staffs scandal was completed revealing significant failings, and the global financial crisis prompted a £500bn rescue package for UK banks.
Cameron’s framing of Peter Connelly’s death in political terms had significant implications for the Labour government. Their flagship strategy Every Child Matters couldn’t be seen to fail, nor could Ed Balls, who had been Brown’s chief economic adviser until Brown became PM. Then there was Haringey. Haringey had high levels of deprivation and a history of what Shoesmith calls ‘defining events’. It had witnessed the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985 during which PC Keith Blakelock had been murdered, and the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 that had led to the Laming Inquiry and significant changes in child protection policy. In addition, Haringey Council had long been perceived as hailing from the ‘loony left’; understandably a centre-left government might want to distance itself. Lastly, the government felt compelled to align its narrative with that adopted by large sections of the public and press – that public sector services should to be seen to take responsibility for Peter Connelly’s death.
All three key political figures – Cameron, Brown and Balls – used the press directly to manage the political narrative. It could be argued that the press used politicians to the same end. In July 2007, six months after he’d resigned as editor of the News of the World following the conviction of two reporters in the phone hacking scandal, the Conservative Party had appointed Andy Coulson as its director of communications. The Sun, another News International paper, had a history of campaigning for changes in the law as a result of high profile child abuse cases; for longer sentences following the death of James Bulger in 1993, and for disclosure of previous sex offences following the death of Sarah Payne in 2000. During the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, it was suggested that after the Baby P trial the Sun put pressure on Ed Balls to order resignations (p.183). The press narrative in the Baby P case centred around calls for the resignation of professionals involved with Peter Connelly. Shoesmith explains her reasons for not offering to resign, but I think the issue of resignation warrants further comment.
It’s a resigning matter
Traditionally, tendering your resignation if something goes wrong is seen as an honourable thing do to – even if no one believes you’re responsible for what went wrong and your resignation isn’t accepted. A resignation symbolises acceptance of responsibility and would have been one factor in the calls for resignations over the Baby P case. But Shoesmith makes it clear in Learning from Baby P that she saw voluntary resignation as an admission of responsibility for Peter’s death, an impression she wanted to avoid – understandably given the introduction of the offence of ‘causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult’ in 2004 to close a legal loophole. Although the offence can be committed only by people living in the same household as the victim, its title begs the question of who else might be responsible for causing or allowing a death of a child by, for example, neglecting their professional duty. Police officers, social workers or paediatricians might be brought into the frame, something that could be inferred from David Cameron’s Evening Standard article (p.144).
But there’s another factor involved in the calls for sackings; it’s the assumption that if a public sector worker failed to prevent the death of child, they would have been able to prevent it if they’d acted differently. That’s nonsense of course. Even if a child were taken into care or a social worker were to live with the family, no child can be totally protected from harm. But the idea that children can be fully protected persists. Cameron, Brown and Balls all vowed to ensure that nothing like Peter Connelly’s death happened again (p.178) – even though, in reality, such promises are meaningless.
Child protection had become a political football and government, opposition and the media were vying for control of the ball. Ironically, the outcomes had significant negative repercussions for vulnerable children. Directors of social services became very nervous about their jobs, and social worker recruitment and retention, already under strain, became even more challenging, further increasing the vulnerability of the children social workers were dealing with. Local authorities made sure they erred on the side of caution; between October 2008 and March 2012 the number of applications for care proceedings increased by 79% (p.19).
Elective home education and the Badman review
The ‘Baby P effect’ rippled out to another group of children Shoesmith doesn’t mention – those educated at home. English law gives parents a duty to cause their child to receive an education suitable to their age, ability, aptitude and any special educational needs they may have (s.7 Education Act 1996). Local authorities can intervene if it appears a child is not receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) Education Act 1996). The law, rightly, puts the individual child at the heart of the education, and sensibly, gives final responsibility for the child’s education to parents. Some parents make a complete hash of bringing up their children, but historically they’ve done a much better job than the state. Home education has been a contentious issue however, and in 2007 Alan Johnson, Ed Balls’ predecessor at the then Department of Education and Skills, published a set of guidelines for local authorities about elective home education.
In January 2009, Ed Balls announced a review of elective home education. Home educating parents were perplexed, not least because the guidelines had been issued only a year or so earlier. Also, the review was framed in terms of home educated children being ‘hidden’ and home education being used as a cover for child abuse, even though there appeared to be no robust evidence of this actually happening. In addition, the review conflated education and welfare, which are treated as distinct issues by the law.
The review was led by Graham Badman, introduced as the former director of children’s services at Kent County Council. A month earlier, Balls had appointed Badman as chair of Haringey LCSB, but unless they’d been following the news closely, most home educating parents wouldn’t have made a connection with the Baby P case. They would also have been unaware that in May 2008, seven year-old Khyra Ishaq had starved to death at her home in Birmingham. She had been educated at home for the previous six months. Khyra’s death came to public attention only in June 2009, when the trial of her mother and her mother’s partner began. Her death was presented as reinforcing the government’s call for reforming the law relating to home education, rather than as a trigger for the review happening in the first place.
In 2009 Graham Badman was busy. In November 2008 he’d set up an education consultancy, Nektus, that carried out two local authority progress reviews in its first year. In December he’d been appointed Chair of Haringey LCSB, to oversee the aftermath of a very high profile child protection case. In January 2009 had become a visiting professor at the Institute of Education, and Acting Chair of BECTA – being appointed Chair on 1 May. He became a Trustee and Board member of UNICEF in July. His elective home education report was published on 11 June, and his recommendations accepted in full the same day by Ed Balls. Given all these commitments, it’s not surprising that more than one organisation complained that Badman’s account of what they said to him wasn’t quite what they recalled saying, and that Graham Stuart MP, a member of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee felt obliged to point out that Badman had made a significant sampling error in his assessment of the risk to home educated children.
Badman made 28 recommendations, including giving local authority officers the right to enter the homes of home educated children, to interview them alone and to assess their educational progress. A public consultation on Badman’s proposals followed, with a record number of responses. The full government response to the Badman report wasn’t published until October 2009, towards the end of the consultation period, so many people who responded to the consultation wouldn’t have seen it. Throughout the review, I got the strong impression that the Government didn’t see those who disagreed with the proposals as citizens expressing their opinions, but as political opponents. The Government planned to include the Badman proposals in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, but many were abandoned in the ‘wash up’ prior to the 2010 General Election, due to opposition from other parties. Conservative MPs had, not surprisingly given the political overtones of the review, been quite supportive of home educating parents. In December 2009, a record number of petitions protesting against the proposed changes to the law were presented to Parliament, a strategy initiated by Graham Stuart.
Learning from the Baby P effect
The primary task of government, national and local, is to protect the population to allow us – all of us – to go about our lawful business without let or hindrance. Obviously, there are going to be instances where legislation that protects one group of people inconveniences another – the law has to weigh up the interests of different parties. On the face of it, it looked as if that the actions of government, opposition and press in the wake of Peter Connolly’s death could result only in beneficial outcomes for vulnerable children. But their focus was on only one aspect of child protection and other aspects got completely overlooked, including local authority priorities (disabled children are also children in need but LA thresholds for support are set so high many disabled children get no social care support), social worker recruitment and retention and the consequent impact on vulnerable children, and children being taken into care unnecessarily. The proposals for home educated children, such as social workers being entitled to enter the family home and to interview children alone had significant implications for a number of important legislative principles.
Government, opposition and the press framed child protection solely in terms of the behaviour of individuals, whether they were adults who might harm children directly, social workers who might fail to prevent harm, or elected members of local government responsible for implementing national policies. Little attention was paid to the effectiveness of legislation, key legislative principles, local authority resources, the impact of the government’s action on social workers and on children deemed to be at risk when they weren’t. Good legislation requires careful thought and wide consultation, not a knee-jerk response to a party political attack. If government is seen as a party political project, rather than an institution that exists to serve the population, it puts everyone’s welfare in jeopardy, not least that of vulnerable children.
Shoesmith, S (2016). Learning from Baby P. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Updated 4 September 2016 with minor corrections.