Margaret Hodge: The abused and the accused

Is she the victim of a 13-year-old vendetta or of her own misjudgement? Will she stay or will she go? While doubts remain, the new Minister for Children's future is in the balance

Yvonne Roberts
Sunday 06 July 2003 00:00

On Thursday, one of the four grown-up children of Margaret Hodge, the embattled Minister for Children, phoned her with what was good news, relatively speaking. "Yippee!", she told her mother. "You're off the front page. You're on page seven instead."

Hodge has been the centre of a long-running campaign, conducted on a daily basis by the London Evening Standard, to see her removed from the newly created post. The grounds are that she showed bad judgement and espoused wrong priorities in handling a major child abuse scandal when she was leader of Islington council in the 1980s and early 1990s. If Hodge had hoped the furore had abated, she was to be disappointed. On Friday, the newspaper reported that only one in 13 of the children's charities contacted had given the minister unqualified support.

"It's an issue of trust," says Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers. "She has to gain the confidence of professionals, young people and carers. That's very difficult with these revelations, whatever the rights and wrongs. This isn't a very forgiving government - except when it comes to one of their own. What surprises me is that Blair didn't anticipate the reaction."

But Blair took a calculated risk on the grounds, according to one source, that, "The job was a paper-pattern fit for Margaret. She has the background, the drive and the passion. [The post of] Minister for Children, creating a whole new ethos among education, health and social care professionals is like turning the QE2 round with a tugboat. She's an old toughie. She works best with that kind of challenge."

The question now is: will she stay or will she go? And if she does remain in what she has called her "dream job", will her confidence be so badly dented that she fails to deliver? When Margaret Hodge heard that she was the new Minister for Children, tsar for the welfare of 11 million, "she was thrilled," says a friend. "She knows she could make a real difference to children's lives and she honestly cares about that hugely. But it will also give her a chance of achieving what all ambitious politicians want most - a permanent legacy."

Born Margaret Eve Oppenheimer in Egypt in 1944, Margaret Hodge was a teacher and a market researcher before becoming leader of Islington council for 10 years from 1982, during its so-called "loony left" period. She and her husband, Henry Hodge, a former legal officer at the Child Poverty Action Group and now Chief Immigration Adjudicator, are strongly interwoven with the Blairs. Henry Hodge's solicitors' practice gave Cherie Booth her first brief as a barrister, and the families were neighbours before the Blairs moved to Downing Street.

Although Margaret Hodge is associated with New Labour modernisation, she has clung to some of her more radical socialist roots. For instance, as minister for lifelong learning and higher education, she tenaciously tried to improve the poor university intake from the working class, kicking Middle England's ankles hard, while defending Blairite tuition fees.

Whatever the reservations of some children's charities, those working in early years development want Hodge. The reason is her record during her first three-year stint in Education from 1998, and the lack of momentum since her departure. "She was spectacular," says Tom Shea, a leading childcare consultant. "What happened in Islington was sad, tragic, outrageous but what's needed now is a children's champion who can acknowledge and admonish. She does both."

"Without her," says Ann Longfield, head of Kids' Club Network, a provider of after-school care, "the national childcare strategy just wouldn't have got off the ground. She forced people to listen, to find the money, to make things happen. She's not a status quo person. Some civil servants dislike that because, if they don't deliver fast enough, she wants to know why. She's bossy and blunt and that attracts criticism. When she left for higher learning, suddenly it was as if the volume had been switched off."

The Minister for Children job brings together the various sectors affecting the young. It excludes youth justice, but includes Early Years, Sure Start, the Family Policy and Teenage Pregnancy units and health, all of which have been gleaned from either the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's office or the Department of Health, but which are now based in the Department for Education and Skills.

A Green Paper, a response to the Laming inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, will lay out the the Government's aim to create a holistic, seamless service in which professionals - teachers, social workers, health visitors et al - work as a team, focused on prevention as well as protection. It's a revolution.

The paper, due to be published on Friday, has now been postponed until September. The Standard says this is to avoid Hodge's political wounds staining the launch. The official line is that Tony Blair wants to be involved. Either way, the Standard's campaign is a textbook example of how to hunt down a politician.

Supporters of Hodge claim it is a 13-year-old vendetta incurred by two errors of judgement. The first is the most serious. She was told by police that there was no case for action on alleged paedophile activity and she accepted their judgement. But social workers say she ignored for two years their persistent attempts to get further action taken. Her second was to refuse to apologise to the Standard for accusing it of "gutter journalism". "I apologised to the young people," she says. "I couldn't bring myself to apologise to the paper."

She is now paying dearly - but so too are the survivors of abuse. The Standard has published harrowing testaments. At least one believes Hodge's failure to intervene meant his younger brother was also assaulted. Roy Caterer, a sports instructor, was subsequently jailed for seven years for abusing nine children. A list of 22 suspected paedophiles was also drawn up by the police. The names were never made public.

Hodge says she's learnt lessons but that, back then, general knowledge of paedophile audacity was limited - an excuse not supported by many. A more generous acceptance of responsibility might have done her more good. Whatever her failings, the campaign against her is shot through with hypocrisy and cant, as much to do with collecting Labour scalps as protecting the vulnerable.

On Tuesday, Hodge will give a keynote speech to the Local Government Association, outlining her plans as children's minister. She wants a children's commissioner; she intends social workers to be valued; she wants to see a children's centre in every town and to make a marked improvement in the lives of 60,000 children in care. Hodge's predicament raises the question: what counts for more - past transgressions or future potential? Certainly, if she's not in the job, she can't make amends. But her plans are not the manifesto of a woman expecting to resign.

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