The hypocrisy of Ms Hodge and her friends

Margaret Hodge wants bygones to be bygones, but those who suffered under her leadership are not so keen to forgive
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The Independent Online

A couple of weeks into the job, and things are not looking at all rosy for Margaret Hodge. The first ever Minister for Children is being aggressively confronted with her past, a past, her detractors say, that makes her absolutely the wrong person to hold the post she has just been given. The evidence against is, indeed, damning.

Ms Hodge, in the Eighties and early Nineties, was leader of Islington council. During her tenure, a culture of sexual abuse flourished in Islington's children's homes that remains one of the darkest scandals local government in Britain has known. Social workers attempted to alert Ms Hodge and other senior Islington councillors to their suspicions at the time, but they were not believed. Instead they were marginalised and slandered, while horrific abuse continued.

Eventually, some of the social workers who were worried by the situation took their story to Scotland Yard and to the press. Ms Hodge branded the series of newspaper reports into paedophilia, pornography, pimping and rape - sometimes perpetrated by council workers, sometimes by others who paid off council workers - as "gutter journalism".

She took the newspaper in question, London's Evening Standard, to the Press Complaints Commission. None of the complaints made by Islington Council against the paper was upheld, and eventually Ms Hodge admitted that the allegations made in more than 50 reports in the paper were true.

Ms Hodge blamed her initial response on "misleading" information from senior officers and colleagues. This was not the conclusion of an inquiry into the murder of Liam Johnston, a child who was murdered by his pimp father while under Islington Council's watchful eye. In this inquiry, the social workers were exonerated, while councillors were lambasted for rigorously pursuing a policy of "decentralisation", which fostered a "neighbourhood" command structure that was "a timebomb waiting to explode".

Ms Hodge eventually accepted, perhaps reluctantly, that as leader of the council, she had to take the ultimate responsibility for the dreadful crimes committed against children that had occurred while she held her post. Her sense of culpability, though, did not stop her from becoming the Labour member for Barking in 1997. Nor did it stop her from pronouncing her latest career move "a dream job".

Now, she argues that,far from rendering her an inappropriate person to be Minister for Children, the failures of the past have made her an ideal candidate. Ms Hodge is keen to stress that in the Seventies and Eighties, when much of the abuse eventually uncovered occurred, no one was really aware of the prevalence of child sexual abuse and the way in which abusers targeted children in care as victims. Since that time, she says, she has immersed herself in the subject, and has learnt a huge amount.

How much can Ms Hodge really have learnt, though? Not enough to understand that her excuses sound thin when the mismanagement she is accused of occurred not in the Seventies and Eighties, but during the first half of the last decade. Not enough, either, to understand that the people who fell victim to her decisions - both abused children and frustrated social workers - remain understandably bitter. Ms Hodge and the Labour Party may agree that bygones should be bygones. But those who suffered under Ms Hodge's leadership of Islington Council are not so keen to forgive.

The main whistleblower in the scandal, the former Islington senior social worker Liz Davies, who remained anonymous during the Nineties, has now revealed her identity in order to make new allegations against Ms Hodge. Likewise, the people who suffered abuse during this time are keen to co-operate with the press in expressing their still-burning sense of injustice, and their disgust at her new appointment.

The outrage that these people still feel after the passing of a decade or more is perfectly understandable. It is worrying that neither Ms Hodge nor those who appointed her were able to understand that this sort of response was inevitable. As for the idea that Ms Hodge has learnt from her mistakes, one can only regret that the Government is stretched so thin that it has to rely on these people, instead of those who have learnt from their successes.

The heart sinks at the prospect of yet another round of personalised sniping and mudslinging as a substitute for genuine domestic politics. But at the same time, there can be no doubt that the Government -- with its quite monumentally undeserved reputation for media manipulation - is guilty once again of the sort of gross insensitivity that enrages both the media and the voters, as is Ms Hodge herself.

It is a great pity that the new job of Minister for Children has been besmirched in this way so soon after it was set up. While the job title is just as patronising and silly as that of Minister for Women, that other touchy-feely-amounting-to-nothing confection of Labour's, the job really involves pulling together all the disparate services for vulnerable children and sensibly streamlining them within the Department for Education and Skills.

So children and family social services move over from the Department of Health; the teenage pregnancy and family policy unit moves over from the Home Office; and family law and policy matters move over from the Lord Chancellor's Department, so they can all be co-ordinated by one minister, alongside all of the other services for children that are dealt with by the Department of Education.

Essentially, the Minister for Children's job is about improving public services. In a new book, The Man In The Caravan And Other Stories, Charles Leadbeater has travelled round the country and found individual stories of how public service improvements have been achieved.

His conclusions include this one: "There is no magic recipe for public service improvement. The ingredients used by councils in this book are familiar to most good organisations: strong leadership, demanding performance management, sound financial systems and constant customer focus." Whether or not one believes that Ms Hodge should be given a second chance after the disaster in Islington, it cannot be denied that part of her failure was that she and her organisation displayed few, if any, of these characteristics.

Why take such a sensible post and place it in the hands of such an obviously controversial appointee? One depressing answer is cronyism. It is well-documented that Ms Hodge, while she was leader of Islington Council, was a friend and neighbour of the Blairs. But cronyism in the Labour Party isn't just about long-standing political or social alliances. It is also about staying within a private network of supportive hypocrisy.

Both families, while living in this left-wing area, chose to educate their children in other boroughs. It is particularly astonishing, though, that the leader of the council herself found the educational services that her council was running not to be quite good enough for her own precious offspring. But the sort of hypocrisy that governs such decisions is allied with the sort of hypocrisy that allowed Mr Blair to offer Ms Hodge the job of Minister for Children, and that allowed Ms Hodge to accept it.

Just as Ms Hodge didn't find the education services she ran to be good enough for her own children, she probably wouldn't, if for some reason she had been unable to care for them herself, want their welfare placed in the hands of a woman who had weathered a child-abuse scandal. If only Blair and his Government would make the choices for others that would be acceptable for themselves, than the Government would work a great deal better.