Baby Peter sacking: Sharon Shoesmith caught in a storm

By Tim Donovan
Political Editor, BBC London

  • Published

Sharon Shoesmith was once part of the solution to Haringey's problems. As its £130,000-a-year children's boss, she was praised for improving the borough's schools.

But the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly in August 2007 plunged the authority into chaos and unleashed a tide of press and public anger.

On 1 December 2008, she switched on the television to watch the then Children's Secretary Ed Balls describe her as "unfit for office" and announce that he was directing Haringey Council to sack her. She had no warning.

Now, after a two-and-a-half year legal battle, she has had that decision declared unlawful and reversed by the Court of Appeal.

Haringey Council must provide an appropriate settlement for her and she will be eligible for substantial compensation for loss of earnings and a career ruined.

Public anger

The case of Baby Peter was one of the most emotive of recent times.

Few were prepared for the torrent of anger unleashed when Peter's mother Tracey Connelly, step-father Stephen Barker and his brother Jason Owen were convicted of causing his death, and details of his ill-treatment emerged.

As head of her local safeguarding children's board, Ms Shoesmith chaired the serious case review into the tragedy.

At a press conference to present its findings, after the Old Bailey jury had reached its verdicts, she faced a barrage of hostile questions.

She was accused of failing to apologise although some journalists there say that was unfair and she did, in fact, offer her condolences.

But she rapidly became the centre of the story, while a combination of outrage in the media and political manoeuvring put Ed Balls under pressure.

Political storm

In parliament, David Cameron launched a surprise attack on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who some say had not been well enough briefed.

Within minutes of their exchanges, a government minister was on the phone to the leader of Haringey Council George Meehan asking if he was going to suspend Ms Shoesmith. He refused.

Ed Balls had a completed serious case review on his desk, outlining the many mistakes and problems involved in the care of Peter Connelly.

But, apparently to head off a growing storm, he ordered another review led by Ofsted to look at safeguarding practice across the health agencies, police and children's services in Haringey.

He demanded its inspection and report be completed in three weeks, an unprecedentedly short time for a process usually taking four months.

Normal procedures were dispensed with including the opportunity, usually given, for children's services departments and their senior officials to read a draft report and challenge provisional findings.

During the inspection, the Sun newspaper delivered a petition and tens of thousands of letters to Downing Street, demanding Ms Shoesmith's removal, with Mr Balls agreeing to be photographed receiving them gratefully.

Unlawful and unfair

What shocked Ms Shoesmith was the speed with which events moved.

For several weeks, before the publication of the serious case review, she had been in regular contact with Mr Balls' senior senior civil servant Jeanette Pugh, who described her as "competent and sincere".

There was no hint then that her job was on the line.

But when the Oftsed report came back, listing a number of problems in Haringey, Mr Balls decided on a firm and visible public response.

He went before the television cameras to sack Ms Shoesmith without giving her any chance to refute, or respond to, the findings of a report which she had not been given the opportunity to see.

Ed Balls is now paying the price for an unlawful and unfair decision taken two and a half years ago in the haste to close down the controversy over Baby Peter.

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