Speaker saves Hodge from Tory ire over child sex scandal

The speaker Michael Martin intervened yesterday to halt a barrage of Tory attacks on Margaret Hodge, the new minister for Children.

In an unusual move, Mr Martin silenced Tory protests about the Government's decision to delay until September the publication of measures to prevent child abuse. Conservative MPs had claimed the move was linked to the controversy engulfing Ms Hodge over her handling of a child-abuse scandal when she was the leader of Islington Council in the early 1990s.

A dispute began in the Commons after Downing Street confirmed a report in yesterday's Independent that a Green Paper on child protection, orginally due in February, would be delayed from this month until after the summer recess. It claimed the decision was not because of the row over Ms Hodge's appointment, saying Mr Blair wanted to launch the document with her and his diary was "very full".

The former education secretary Gillian Shephard said to MPs: "Is it not disgraceful that the Government is more concerned with stifling a controversy than the needs of vulnerable children, two of whom die each and every week from abuse?" Nicholas Soames, another Tory former minister, questioned whether Ms Hodge was "truly suitable for a job of this type" because she had been "responsible for homes in which there were some of the most serious cases of child abuse that had ever been seen in this country".

Eric Forth, shadow Leader in the Commons, called for an urgent debate on child welfare after Ms Hodge's "quiet extraordinary" appointment. "If nothing else, this must surely be an example of the Prime Minister's total lack of judgment and sensitivity. It is an insult to the damaged children of Islington and for their parents."

The Speaker intervened by saying: "There seems to be an attack, an ongoing attack, a concerted attack on the minister for Children." He ruled that the issue should not be discussed in yesterday's weekly session about future Commons business. He told the critical Tory MPs: "I ask you to be seated and, for other MPs who have this line of questioning today, I will stop them, I will prevent them."

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, defended the minister. "She has a very good record in government of supporting children at all levels of life and taking forward those policies," he said. She had "an excellent curriculum vitae for being a children's minister".

Earlier, Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, called on Ms Hodge to quit. He said: "Whoever does this job has to be responsible and seen to be responsible and I don't see how the British people will look at her now and say she can carry out these duties. She failed when she had her chance and I think, therefore, she should do another job."

Eleanor Laing, the Tory spokeswoman on children, dismissed the claim that Mr Blair needed to launch the Green Paper, which will form the Government's response to the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie three years ago. She said: "It is the minister for Children who should be publishing this report. The real reason for this outrageous and dangerous delay is that the minister for Children is too busy defending herself now that the truth is coming out."

Friends of Ms Hodge dismissed the critics as "politically motivated". Ms Hodge was "not director of social services in Islington" and had to run the authority on "a shoestring" because of a Tory cash squeeze at the time, they said.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said: "We are disappointed to learn the Green Paper will be delayed until the autumn."

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