Children's minister apologises to abuse victim

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair rallied to the defence of Margaret Hodge, the Children's minister, two hours after she was forced to issue a humiliating apology yesterday in the High Court to a child abuse victim she described as "extremely disturbed."

The Prime Minister made clear he would not bow to demands to sack Mrs Hodge, a close personal friend and political ally, despite claims from the Conservatives that her position was untenable.

During Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, Mr Blair was forced on the defensive by the Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, who accused him of defending an ally "who tried to bully her way out of trouble".

Mr Howard renewed calls for the sacking of Mrs Hodge, who apologisedto Demetrious Panton yesterday and paid £10,000 to a charity of his choice, as well as his legal costs of about £10,000. In a highly effective attack, which was deeply embarrassing to the Labour Party, the Conservative leader accused Mrs Hodge of using "the full authority of her government position" to try to "suppress an investigation into her conduct" by the BBC.

She had falsely described Mr Panton as an "extremely disturbed person" in a letter to the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies.

Labour MPs and ministers, including Gordon Brown and John Prescott, were stony-faced yesterday during the exchange. Despite Mrs Hodge's apology to the child-abuse victim, many ministers are upset by the distraction the episode has created and question her judgement.

A friend of the former leader of Islington Council, who was made Children's minister in June, said she had been upset by the episode and the furore her remarks provoked and admitted that it was wrong.

A senior government source said: "It's a big distraction that Margaret could have done without. The whole episode has been distracting for Margaret. She feels upset that she made a mistake."

Mrs Hodge is regarded as an able minister who spearheaded the Sure Start programme to help vulnerable children and young people from low-income backgrounds. But there were questions about the promotion of Mrs Hodge, who was leader of Islington Council during a series of child-abuse scandals, to her new post, which was created by Tony Blair to streamline policies for children across government. She and her husband, Henry Hodge, a barrister, are friends of the Blairs and once lived in the same street.

Mr Hodge, a circuit judge since 1999, is being considered by Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who is also a friend of the Blairs, for promotion to the High Court bench.

Mrs Hodge's barrister read out the apology yesterday morning on her behalf to Mr Panton in the High Court. In an agreed statement, Mrs Hodge said she was "genuinely sorry" she had called Mr Panton, who was abused by paedophiles while in an Islington Council care home, "extremely disturbed" in a letter to the BBC. This false statement ought never to have been written and contributed to the pain and anger felt by Mr Panton over his childhood experiences, the minister said.

The apology was the second she has made to Mr Panton in less than a week. She said sorry last Friday but he considered it was insufficient and demanded a public apology in the High Court as well as a £10,000 donation to a charity, the National Association for the Care and Rettlement of Offenders. Mr Panton, an adviser to several government departments on urban deprivation issues, accepted yesterday's apology but reiterated his view that Mrs Hodge should resign.

"It's the first time I have smelled the sweet smell of victory," he said. "I am here today victorious over a minister who made a damning remark about me and has had to withdraw that remark because there was absolutely no basis for it." Ministers hope Mrs Hodge's climbdown and payment of Mr Panton's legal costs will bring an end to the affair.

The minister has had to foot an estimated £30,000 bill for her error. But it should not break the bank. Mrs Hodge has a private income. Her father, Hans Oppenheimer, is reported to have left her shares in the family steel business from which she enjoys an annual dividend of about £100,000.