Blair throws protective arm around embattled Hodge

Paul Waugh,Deputy Political Editor
Friday 14 November 2003 01:00

Tony Blair has thrown a protective arm around Margaret Hodge, the minister for Children, as lawyers threaten to file a libel suit over her description of a child abuse victim as "extremely disturbed".

Solicitors for Demetrious Panton, who suffered at the hands of a paedophile in an Islington care home while Ms Hodge was leader of the borough's council, have given her until 2pm today to explain why she made the remarks in a letter to Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman of governors.

Her parliamentary secretary told Mr Panton's solicitors yesterday that she could not reply because she was expected to be out of London on official business. Ms Hodge then cancelled a public engagement in Birmingham.

Ms Hodge had complained to Mr Davies that Radio 4's Today programme, which used testimony from Mr Panton, was part of a "concerted campaign" by the broadcaster to link her to the abuse cases.

In a highly symbolic move, Ms Hodge received the strong support of the Prime Minister yesterday when he invited her to Downing Street for high-level meetings on children's policy. Mr Blair is keen not to lose her experience on issues such as child care and education, which were combined when her post was formed in June.

The children's charity Kidscape has demanded the minister apologise, saying it was "unacceptable" for a politician to defend herself by attacking a survivor of child abuse. Michelle Elliott, the charity's director, said: "It shows a total disregard for the suffering this person has been through."

Another charity spoke out in support of Ms Hodge. NCH Action for Children said that she had a "strong record of delivering for children" as minister for Sure Start, the Government's programme for under-fives.

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