Another minister under fire: call for Hodge to quit over child abuse scandal

Minister for Children admits a 'lack of understanding' when she was a council leader but denies ignoring pleas for help
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Indy Politics

The Tories called for the resignation of Margaret Hodge, the minister for Children, last night after social workers accused her of failing to confront one of Britain's worst child abuse scandals when she was leader of Islington council.

Two former officials at the London borough have claimed publicly for the first time that Mrs Hodge failed to back them over allegations that youngsters in care had been subjected to sex abuse. The scandal was first exposed by the London Evening Standard.

Mrs Hodge admitted yesterday that she had shown a "deep lack of understanding" of what was happening in children's homes run by Islington.

But she insisted she had never ignored a single allegation of abuse against a child and her experience in Islington made her "well equipped" to learn the lessons of past mistakes and apply them to her new post.

Yesterday, the Evening Standard printed a memo from Mrs Hodge rejecting a request for extra staff from the local office running an investigation into abuse. She also criticised social workers for alerting parents to the allegations at a public meeting.

The fresh allegations prompted Eleanor Laing, the new shadow minister for Children, to attack Tony Blair for appointing one of his close friends to such a sensitive post.

"I don't see how anyone can have faith in Margaret Hodge to do this vitally important job properly. The allegations made today by the two senior Islington social workers are shocking. Islington council failed to protect children in its care from paedophiles, Margaret Hodge was leader of that council," Ms Laing said.

"She herself has accepted some responsibility for the dreadful things that happened. She let down those vulnerable, innocent children. Why has Tony Blair chosen her to speak for children now? There are hundreds of other Labour MPs; couldn't he have given this responsibility to someone who has shown themselves worthy of it?"

One paedophile, Roy Caterer, a sports instructor at a boarding school used by Islington, was sent to prison for seven and a half years for abusing seven boys and two girls. In 1995, an independent investigation strongly criticised the "chaotic" organisation of the council and its "conditions for dangerous and negligent professional practices in relation to child care".

When the Evening Standard first exposed the scandal, Mrs Hodge, who led Islington from 1982 to 1992, originally attacked it for "gutter journalism". But by 1995, she said: "I accept responsibility. I was leader of the council at the time."

Yesterday the newspaper identified the two whistleblowers who revealed the failures at Islington, as well as one of the victims of sex abuse.

Michael Fitch, who was subjected to abuse by Caterer while in Islington's care, also called on Mrs Hodge to quit. "That woman. Get her out of there. She shouldn't be minister for Children. I'd like to tell her to her face," he said.

Mrs Hodge, whose new ministerial role gives her sweeping powers over child policy, including abuse cases, yesterday said that she "deeply regretted" the abuse of children by her staff. "I've had 12 years to think about those issues, to read about them, to talk to people about them, to learn about them," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I think that equips me better than most, having been through that experience, in thinking about how we now create a safe environment for those children at risk, and really put the children at the heart of all the policies and the structures that we develop.

"There were terrible things happening in children's homes, and I deeply, deeply, deeply regret it. Never a month goes by when I don't think about it."

But she added: "Of course it was happening in Islington, but there were 500 investigations going on into children's homes across the country. I think there was a deep lack of understanding, by myself, by the social services, by policy makers, by all of us as to actually the state of what was happening in children's homes."

Mrs Hodge stressed that whenever an allegation was brought to her attention, the council investigated it and in some cases called in the police. "We can't find an easy quick fix to these issues. But have I learnt? Of course I have. And I'll bring that experience to bear in how we now take forward those services for children," she said.

Mr Fitch, who was identified as "Dean" in the original Standard stories, was in care from the age of nine to 19, the latter half during Mrs Hodge's reign. He twice tried to tell Islington social services that he was being abused by Caterer at Shepall Manor Special School in Stevenage. "Caterer took me to the woods at the back of the school one lunchtime and had sex with me," Mr Fitch said. "Afterwards, he showed me a nine-foot pit he had dug and told me, 'If you tell anybody I'll bury you alive'. I was terrified." Despite the threats, he went to the headteacher but was ignored. When back in Islington in the school holidays, he "begged" social workers not to send him back. "But nothing was done."

Even after he left the school and went to a care home in Islington, Caterer continued to visit him. Again, he told social workers he was being abused and again they "did nothing".

"Nothing I told them seemed to make an impression. I realised that to them I was meaningless. That's when I started to cut my arm with a knife," Mr Fitch said. Mr Fitch's eight-year-old brother, Doug, was subsequently harassed by Caterer. Mr Fitch now takes antidepressants, is plagued by gender confusion, panic attacks and insomnia. He has tried to commit suicide more than a dozen times.

THE ISLINGTON SCANDAL

1982 Margaret Hodge becomes Islington council leader. Forms friendship with Tony Blair, at one stage living a few doors away.

February 1990 Liz Davies and David Cofie, senior social workers, discover evidence of sex abuse of children and report it to a residents' meeting attended by Mrs Hodge.

May 1990 Mr Cofie and Ms Davies are told by Lyn Cusack, assistant director of social services, to stop interviewing children about the claims.

1991 Roy Caterer, a sports instructor at a boarding school used by Islington, arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing seven boys and two girls.

October 1992 Mrs Hodge steps down as council leader.

February 1994 Mrs Hodge accepts there was abuse, blaming her initial response on officials' "misleading information".

May 1995 Report says Islington's ideological policies stopped complaints being investigated. Mrs Hodge says: "Of course I accept responsibility. I was leader of the council at the time."

1 May 1997 Tony Blair moves from Islington to Downing Street.

June 2003 Mrs Hodge made minister for Children.

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