(Pic. Tom Parkes)
Ed Balls has urged social workers to “speak up” for their profession, while pledging greater support for staff in the wake of the Baby P case.
In his first interview with Community Care as children’s secretary, Balls acknowledged that the case had “knocked the confidence” of many in the profession.
But he called on social work leaders and practitioners to contribute a “credible voice” to the current debate on child protection. “Social workers need support and a champion to speak up for them. It doesn’t happen often enough,” he said. “In the consultation on the Children’s Plan [the government’s 10-year strategy for children] we heard very loudly the voices of teachers and others – but I wish we had heard more about the views of social workers.”
Eve of Laming review
On the eve of the publication tomorrow of Lord Laming’s review of child protection, commissioned by Balls following the Baby P case, he said he hoped it and the Social Work Taskforce would lead to improvements in the standing of the profession.
But he strongly rejected allegations that his actions following the case, including the removal of Haringey children’s director Sharon Shoesmith, had been fuelled by The Sun’s campaign for all social workers involved in the case to be sacked.
Balls was speaking before news broke yesterday of Shoesmith’s decision to launch a High Court challenge against the children’s secretary, Ofsted and Haringey Council in relation to her removal from post and subsequent dismissal.
Part of Shoesmith’s challenge is that Ball’s decision to remove her was influenced by “media pressure”.
After the Baby P trial, Balls was pictured in the tabloid looking through readers’ letters with a Sun journalist. In an article for the paper, he wrote: “The huge strength of feeling across Britain is clear to see from the million plus readers – including many teachers and social workers – who have already signed The Sun’s petition.” The article appeared swiftly after Tory leader David Cameron had attacked Gordon Brown over the handling of the Baby P case.
Not bowing to media pressure
However, Balls pointed to his decision to order inspectors to conduct a joint area review of safeguarding in Haringey following the Baby P trial, adding: “I wasn’t bowing to media or political pressure. I didn’t jump to a verdict but sent inspectors in. What they said to me was more damning than what was written [in the newspapers].”
While cases like Baby P “may not always be reflected in the papers in a way that is fair,” Balls said, “people were personally affected by what they saw”.
When asked about the media attacks on Shoesmith, he said: “I personally felt there was unfairness in some of the treatment, but you can’t ignore the reality – there was real public concern which required action.”
Personal sympathy with vilified
However, he claimed “personal sympathy” with people vilified in the media, referring to recent stories about his own family – wife Yvette Cooper, chief secretary to the Treasury, and their three children – concerning expense claims. “There’s nothing worse than for people to be fairly or unfairly dragged through the papers as Yvette and our children have been,” he said.
Although he said he understood Community Care readers’ anger over the appointment of The Sun’s agony aunt, Deidre Sanders, to the taskforce, Balls called Sanders’ position “challenging but positive” for the sector, pointing out that she communicates with Sun readers on a daily basis.
Good out of tragedy
Balls added it was “essential” for the taskforce, which will publish its final report in October, to hear from frontline workers and called on its members to act as a “champion” for them. “It seems a distant ambition at this time of real pressure,” he said, “but I hope in a year’s time real good will come out of this tragedy.”
He challenged social workers to engage in the debate and “look forward” rather than “sit behind their desks and hope things go away”, stating: “My message is: we want to hear your voices.”