A whistleblower in the Baby P case has called on Ed Balls to explain to the public his “knee-jerk response” in sacking the former head of Haringey Council’s children’s services, after she received a six-figure payout.
The Shadow Chancellor was Children’s Secretary in 2008 when he fired Sharon Shoesmith over the council’s failings in the death of 17-month old Peter Connelly, known as Baby P. In May 2011, the Appeal Court concluded Ms Shoesmith was unfairly sacked because Mr Balls and Haringey did not give her a proper chance to put her case before her removal.
Earlier this week, Ms Shoesmith received a settlement from Haringey Council, reported to be as much as £600,000 with legal costs. Lawyers argued that Ms Shoesmith, who earned £133,000 a year in the role, was the victim of “a flagrant breach of natural justice” fuelled by a media witch-hunt.
Dr Kim Holt raised concerns about the quality of care at St Ann’s Hospital in Haringey, north London, in 2007, six months before Peter was treated there and doctors failed to note his injuries. She believes Mr Balls made a scapegoat by sacking Ms Shoesmith so quickly and he failed to look into broader problems, such as NHS failings.
Speaking to The Independent, Dr Holt said: “Ed Balls made it so much worse. It would be helpful if he came out and explained why he did it. Now’s the time to tell it as it is and not try and put a political spin on it. He should tell us what he knows and whether now, on reflection, he feels it was sensible [to sack Shoesmith so quickly].
“All politicians need to think carefully about these knee-jerk responses. They do a lot of damage and, in this case, it hasn’t helped any children. It was very clear they wanted a quick solution to this massive public outrage about Haringey and they made the mistake of jumping too quickly. The judgements should have been made by experts who understood the system, rather than politicians.”
Dr Holt said that given the circumstances, she supported Ms Shoesmith’s payout. “It was pretty clear to me that she had been unfairly sacked. So now, when I see she’s given money for an unfair sacking I think, ‘yes, that’s right’. If the law says that’s how much compensation you get, then that’s it.”
Peter died in Tottenham, north London, on 3 August 2007 at the hands of his mother, Tracey Connelly, her lover, Steven Barker, and their lodger, Jason Owen. He had suffered more than 50 injuries despite being on the at-risk register and receiving 60 visits from social workers, police and health professionals during eight months.
Dr Holt, along with three other doctors, wrote a letter to hospital managers in 2007 warning that staff shortages and poor record-keeping at St Ann’s would lead to a tragedy. She was on gardening leave when Peter was admitted six months later and treated by an inexperienced doctor who failed to raise the alarm. She said there was “never a fully open, transparent process ... to know who was fully accountable.
“I made a disclosure to the second serious case review but ... they never got back to me ... the next thing I know is Ed Balls on the TV announcing the dismissal of Sharon Shoesmith and I’m thinking, ‘how come there’s no mention of the health [service] failings?’ The very same week I had a meeting with Great Ormond Street lawyers who were putting a lot of pressure on me to accept £120,000 to shut up and go away.
“[Balls’s sacking of Shoesmith] has done a lot of damage to the child protection system actually. People were very focused on the failings within social services but there were quite a lot of problems with the health service which weren’t discussed or debated because the blame was put on social services and a locum doctor. It exacerbated a culture of fear ....”
She added: “What I feel is wrong is everyone has forgotten the children. This is about Peter, but he’s got lost. We failed him and other children in Haringey. That’s what we should be focused on.”
Mr Balls said: “An independent report said there were disastrous failings in Haringey children’s services, they said that the management was at fault, Sharon Shoesmith was the Director of Children’s Services, so of course it leaves a bad taste in the mouth that the person who was leading that department and responsible ends up walking away with, it seems, a large amount of money.”
He later added: “It was a devastating report; it was devastating about Ms Shoesmith’s failure of leadership. In those circumstances, I had to act.”
The BBC reported that Ms Shoesmith posted a statement online saying: “A final farewell to Haringey as my case concludes. I wish those of you in children’s services, especially in Haringey, success, strength and courage in all that you do. Children have been my life’s work and I hope to continue in some capacity soon now that my PhD is almost complete.”
A Haringey Council spokeswoman would not comment on Dr Holt’s allegations but confirmed that a settlement was reached with Ms Shoesmith and that its terms were confidential.
Haringey and the Baby P scandal: Where are they now?
The former head of Haringey children’s services is currently studying for a PhD at the University of London, reportedly on “How society copes with unpalatable truths”. She hopes to work with children again in the future.
Dr Kim Holt
One of three doctors who raised concerns about quality of care at the clinic in Haringey that sent Baby P home. She is currently a consultant paediatrician at the Whittington Hospital and was voted on to a list of 50 inspirational women by Health Service Journal. She runs Patients First, which campaigns against the silencing NHS whistleblowers.
The social worker who drew attention to multiple failures within Haringey children’s services and wrote to Patricia Hewitt six months before Baby P died. Kemal now runs the Raising My Voice Foundation, which aims to help those experiencing neglect gain access to the services they need.
Dr Jerome Ikwueke
The GP was suspended for 12 months by the General Medical Council for failing to notice clear marks of abuse, including broken ribs. He has since returned to practice in north London.
Dr Sabah Al-Zayyat
The final doctor to have any contact with Peter. She was voluntarily erased from the GMC register after her failure to fully examine him two days before he died, when he had a broken spine. Current whereabouts unknown.
Dr Heather MacKinnon
The paediatric consultant who referred Peter to social services, sparking a police inquiry. She is still a practising paediatrician.
Councillor George Meehan
The Leader of Haringey Council at the time of Peter Connolly’s death. He has since resigned from the post but is still with the Council as Chair of its Corporate Committee.
Haringey Council’s Cabinet member for Children and Young People. Santry has since resigned from the council entirely and is currently a Corporation member of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London. She is also a volunteer advisor at the Citizens Advice Bureau.