Tony Blair should never have appointed Margaret Hodge to the post of Minister for Children. It was a move made in the pre-Hutton days of decisions taken between friends on the hoof. It should have been obvious that giving Mrs Hodge such a high-profile position in this particular field would condemn her forever to be measured by her past. Under her leadership, Islington children’s homes were the scene of scandalous abuse. The apology she made yesterday to Demetrius Panton, a survivor of Islington care whom she described as “extremely disturbed” in an extraordinary attempt to stop the BBC airing his views, will not silence her critics. Instead, it will only serve to strengthen the perception that she is more interested in saving her status than in protecting her party or assisting children.
This latest lamentable episode demonstrates that Mrs Hodge has not even begun to “learn the lessons” of the past, as she has claimed to have done. Her attempt to gag the BBC is an alarming echo of her dismissal of the Evening Standard’s 1992 investigation into Islington care as “gutter journalism”. That newspaper exposed a horrifying series of organised paedophile rings, and was helped in exposing the scandal by social workers who were so concerned at the council’s refusal to acknowledge the problems that they felt compelled to speak out.
Mrs Hodge has always denied that she was aware of the issues at Islington homes while she led the council between 1982 and 1992. And she has even claimed that her experiences at Islington put her in a better position to be Children’s Minister.
Yet her humility has been surprisingly short-lived. Her first instinct, when she discovered that the Today programme was planning to investigate her role in the Islington scandals, was to try to stop the programme in the most high-handed manner, by writing, in a bullying tone, to the BBC Chairman -she also sent a copy of the intimidating missive to the BBC’s editorial department.
Her decision to attack Mr Panton, the articulate man who had suffered abuse as a child in an Islington home, was a fatal error of judgment. Mr Panton is a confident adult who has suffered no serious mental problems. By accusing him of being disturbed, Mrs Hodge achieved exactly the opposite of what she had intended: she stirred a separate scandal and raised even more questions about her judgment.
It is bizarre that one of the first acts of the first-ever Minister for Children should be to cast slurs upon someone who is seeking redress for being abused as a child. Making a belated apology to that person, through the medium of a letter delivered by a solicitor, can hardly make up. Mr Panton is rightly demanding a full public explanation, a contribution to a children’s charity and a payment of the legal costs he has had to incur by threatening to sue for libel.
Mrs Hodge has made an admirable political journey from a Lenin-loving council, complete with the adolescent imagery of red flag fluttering above the roof, to being a banner-waving Blairite. Eleven years is not a long time to make the transition from champagne socialist to ardent Blairite. The fact that Mrs Hodge achieved it with her ego so evidently firmly intact, amply demontrated by the events of recent days and weeks, suggests that she is yet to reach political maturity.
Mrs Hodge has said sorry, but “sorry” is not the hardest word. The hardest words are “I resign”. She is doing nothing for her party, her Prime Minister, or the children she was appointed to help. Her decision will not preclude a different ministerial position at a later date, but, for now, she must muster the courage to go.