Margaret Hodge: Sex education, single mothers and why all the focus on childcare is music to a minister's ears

The Monday Interview: The Minister for Children
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The Independent Online

The strains of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" are resonating through Margaret Hodge's sitting room. The minister for Children is playing the tune on her new harp, a 60th birthday present from her husband Henry, a High Court judge.

The strains of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" are resonating through Margaret Hodge's sitting room. The minister for Children is playing the tune on her new harp, a 60th birthday present from her husband Henry, a High Court judge.

Mastering the harp is a priority for the minister, who wants to be proficient in time for Christmas. But last week's launch of the Government's "early years" strategy rather interrupted her plucking practice.

"Charles Clarke [the Secretary of State for Education] rang up the other day with something urgent about the strategy but I had to say I couldn't discuss it because I was in the middle of a harp lesson," she says with a laugh.

Sitting in her elegant sitting room in Islington, north London, Mrs Hodge says it is "stunningly wonderful" that child care has taken centre stage. The plan to open after-school clubs for parents, launched by the Prime Minister last week, made it clear the issue would be key general election battleground. Even the Tory attempt to jump on the bandwagon the day before, was, she believes, a sign of how crucial the issue has become. "Getting the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, Alan Milburn and the Leader of the Opposition all to understand that they have got to talk about the early years of a child's life is a triumph," she says.

Mrs Hodge has been fighting for more than 25 years to get child care on the agenda, since she entered politics as a Labour councillor as a break from "the boredom of nappy-changing". Her goal as minister is to improve the opportunities of all children early in life, regardless of their background. Pinned above her desk in Islington is a copy of the Feinstein graph, which shows how class has a profound effect on the development of children in the UK.

The brightest toddlers, if they are born to working-class homes, are overtaken by dim, middle-class children by the time they are six. "You have children from rich backgrounds who don't have very good cognitive attainment and those from poor backgrounds who show very good cognitive attainment," she says. "By the time the age of five or six comes around, class locks in and the kids from the poor backgrounds go down and the kids from the rich backgrounds go up. I think my purpose in life is to change that."

The minister believes it is best for all children to be at home for the first year with one of their birth parents. With this in mind, the Government is planning to extend maternity and paternity leave in its election manifesto, and Mrs Hodge is putting the finishing touches to the options.

"If and when we extend maternity pay beyond the first six months we could look at part of that being taken by the father," she says. "The Swedes say there is a certain amount of leave that can only be taken by the father. You could either share it or you could say some is only for the father. Or you could have a year's maternity pay; either it is shared or a portion can only be taken by the father. We are looking at all this. It all costs a lot of money." Ironically, the former leader of the Socialist Republic of Islington, as the council was known under her leadership, is happy to challenge the politically correct consensus if it is in the interest of the child.

At risk of infuriating her feminist allies, she says single motherhood is "a bad thing" and it is best for children if their birth parents stay together. "Children prosper best when they have a father [as well]," she says. "They need the role models of a mother and a father. It's not condemning it, but if you think what's best for a child it's a relationship with both their birth parents. It is jolly hard work bringing up a child on your own."

She cites a "frightening statistic" showing "children of divorced parents have as high an incidence of mental health problems as children who are taken into care.

But the thorny issue of who gets custody when relationships break up has put the minister on a collision course with the militant fathers' campaign group, Fathers 4 Justice, whose tactics have included scaling the walls of Buckingham Palace in a Batman costume and chucking a condom full of purple flour at the Prime Minister during question time. On Friday, as she arrived to address 200 people near Bootle, Merseyside, she was amazed to discover police holding back pickets. "I did a speech and blasted Fathers 4 Justice came. They were there with loud-hailers and so on. I talked to two of them because I thought it would calm them down."

Actually, the minister for Children is quite sympathetic to the fathers' plight. But she has refused to give in to their demand that fathers and mothers share 50 per cent custody, insisting the child's interests always be put first.

"Of course fathers miss their kids," she says. "Divorce and separation is horrible for everybody. But the idea that the state can sort out entrenched animosity and bitterness in a relationship I think is stretching it a bit far."

This view, shared by most ministers, has put Mrs Hodge at loggerheads with the rock star, Bob Geldof, who has become the frontman for the fathers' movement and recently made a documentary about the plight of divorced dads. "He interviewed me for an hour and a half for his programme and used 20 seconds," Mrs Hodge says. "He won't listen to reason. He believes the courts are biased; he believes everybody is institutionally against dads. It is just not true. You can't look to the state to resolve those domestic issues."

One area where Mrs Hodge sees an enhanced role for fathers is talking to their sons about sex education. Teenage pregnancies in the UK are the highest in Europe, and are increasing, despite a campaign to reduce them. "The figures that just came out show they have gone up .2 per cent. It is going in the wrong direction. I am really worried." Mrs Hodge says she is "baffled" by the rise, which shows high concentrations of teenage mothers in low-income areas and seaside towns.

The Government is revising its sex education curriculum and wants teachers to warn students about promiscuity. She says the American emphasis on abstention does not work. What she wants promoted in schools is the message, "Don't enter into a sexual relationship now; put it off until you are really ready and you are mature enough". She adds: "You have to put sex education in the context of relationships so you try to encourage them to postpone." Mrs Hodge sees tackling peer pressure to have sex so young as a priority. "They say, 'it's cool'. It's as much boys as girls. The boys say, 'You gotta shag somebody'."

With about a quarter of teenage pregnancies involving under-18s who already have children, Mrs Hodge also wants an emphasis on preventing second pregnancies. The role of the school nurse should be strengthened, and sexually active teenagers should be encouraged to use contraception, including a contraceptive injection for girls.

"What is really interesting is this contraceptive injection. If people are having sex you don't want them to have babies at that age. You do want children to put off having sex at such a young age, you do want them to have appropriate contraceptive and you want responsibility from such girls and boys."

In an attempt to bring down the pregnancy rate in schools, the minister is even planning aversion therapy. "I want to get teen mums to go into the classroom and explain how hard it is, how poor you are, how you lose all your friends and your freedom and and how lonely it is." Mrs Hodge believes one reasons school-aged girls are having babies is low self-esteem. "I think it is about lack of value in yourself," she says. "They want something to love and babies adore you."

Adoring babies is something Margaret Hodge understands well. Pictures of children adorn her study which is packed with books about them. And photos of her own children and granddaughter are all over the house.

Becoming minister for Children was the Blairite's dream job. But soon after taking on the role she was forced to apologise after wrongly describing a former child-abuse victim as "an extremely disturbed person", and she has been dogged by allegations that she did not do enough to investigate claims about child abuse while leader of Islington council.

But the feisty grandmother has not been cowed by her critics and says she must be judged by her record in office. "This is so much my job. I just love it. I think I have got the best job in government. It is one of the most difficult. None of it is simple, none of it is clear. That is what is stunningly wonderful about it. I love getting my brain round these things."

Then Margaret Hodge turns back to her harp practice, hoping her own star job will continue to twinkle.


Born 8 September 1944

Education Studied Economics at the London School of Economics

Personal Divorced and remarried, with four children

1966 Teacher and market researcher

1973 Councillor, London borough of Islington

1975 Chair, housing committee

1981 Deputy leader

1982 Leader

1992 Senior consultant, Price Waterhouse

1994 MP for Barking

1997 Chair, Education sub-committee

1998 Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Employment

2001 Minister of State for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education

2003 Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education

2003 Minister of State for Children and Families