The Observer, 6th July 2003
Paul Harris and Martin Bright investigate how a 12-year-old saga of child abuse and cover-ups has returned to haunt Children’s Minister Margaret Hodge.
Liz Davies remembers the moment when she realised that she had a scandal on her hands. For several months she had been talking to groups of children she suspected were being abused. Then, one day, two young boys walked into her small council office in Islington.
One of the boys looked afraid, but the other reassured him. ‘It’s all right,’ he said ‘She’s not one of them.’ It was those chilling words that gave Davies her first hint that much of the horrible child abuse she was uncovering was happening within the care system of Islington Council – the very organisation meant to protect the borough’s most vulnerable children.
That was in April 1990. The scandal would eventually explode into the national consciousness two-and-a-half years later in a series of exposés in London’s Evening Standard. They described a care system penetrated by paedophiles that had abysmally failed to care for scores of children. The council, then led by Margaret Hodge, appointed last month as the country’s first Minister for Children, initially condemned thestories, for which Davies and several other social workers acted as anonymous whistleblowers.
Although police investigations dismissed claims of a paedophile ring operating in Islington, allegations of child abuse at the children’s home on Hodge’s watch were borne out by official inquiries. Hodge’s name would forever be associated with one of Britain’s most notorious child abuse scandals.
Now the scandal has reared its head again. Hodge’s appointment sparked a furious campaign by the Standard and other newspapers to have her resign. She indicated this weekend that she was determined to face down the calls for her resignation: ‘There is no way that I am going to walk away from this job after just two weeks. It’s an incredibly challenging and important post and I want to be allowed to get on with the day job.’
Yet the clamour for her to quit was yesterday growing as, 12 years on, Davies is once again at the centre of the scandal. Shedding the cloak of anonymity, she gave her first full interview to The Observer this weekend to speak about the genesis of an affair that is now threatening the future of yet another of Tony Blair’s Ministers.
Davies had been working out of the Irene Watson Neighbourhood Office for several years when she and her co-workers noticed a sudden increase in the number of children visiting them. Situated in the Hornsey area of north London, a mixed area of middle-class homes and desperately poor council estates, the office was responsible for a warren of inner-city streets. The teenagers, who had clearly slept on the streets and were involved in petty crime, would be waiting for them each morning. ‘It was like a queue,’ she said.
That was late in 1989. After several months, as trust between Davies and the children grew, their stories began to emerge. The picture was of terribly damaged young people, often with a history of depression and attempted suicide. Then other stories began to emerge: of sinister adults preying on children who were lured into private houses or abused in care homes, which were being used as under-age brothels. Davies and several other care workers became convinced a paedophile ring was at work in the area.
In 1990 Davies’s colleague, David Cofie, raised the issue at a forum of local residents. He also took his claims direct to Hodge, who was the local ward councillor. Davies asked for more resources to tackle the problem, but Hodge turned the request down.’She only cared about the budget,’ Davies said. In May, senior council officers told Davies, Cofie and others working with them to stop their investigations. ‘They said it was an exaggeration. I was stunned,’ Davies said.
They carried on their work. They interviewed children as individual cases and privately built up a picture of widespread abuse, which they said was being carried out by a network of abusers. They wrote 15 separate reports, but said their warnings still went unheeded, even as they uncovered appallingly serious allegations. ‘There is a lot that I just can’t ever speak about,’ Davies said.
Certainly official reports carried out in the wake of the scandal being made public paint a picture of terrible dilapidation in Islington’s care system. One report, dated February 1993 and obtained by The Observer, describes a care home of dirt, peeling plaster, mattresses for beds and no security. ‘Nothing could have prepared us fully for what we encountered inside. We were devastated,’ the report’s authors wrote.
But, even as they uncovered stories of children being taken away by adults on weekend trips to the country or being placed in homes with suspected abusers, Davies said her team’s work was ignored. It took a toll on her mental health. The final straw came when a seven-year-old boy was placed in a home run by someone she had already warned about. ‘I remember seeing that child cowering in a corner inside that home,’ she said ‘That was enough.’
She was already having nightmares and she got a new job outside the borough by February 1992. But she could not forget the things she had witnessed. She, and others, went to the press. By the end of the year the Islington child abuse scandal was the talk of the nation.
Margaret Hodge also says she remembers things clearly. She recalls the first time Cofie came to her with his reports of a paedophile ring, including suspicions that one was operating from a house in her own Islington council ward. She says she acted in the correct manner. Cofie was the senior children’s social worker in the area and someone whose opinion she respected. He said up to 14 children were being abused at the house and they should be taken into care immediately.
A memo produced by the Evening Standard last week showed that Hodge questioned providing extra resources for the investigation after the police found no evidence of abuse. ‘David Cofie came to me, and of course I was petrified,’ Hodge told The Observer. But the Children’s Minister claims she did everything in her power to investigate the claims. ‘The famous memo itself says we activated the area child protection procedures and I remember there was a sur veillance of the house for up to six months. Every child that went into that house was interviewed.’
Despite all the interviews and investigations, Hodge was told there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations. ‘I know [Cofie] was upset. I know he thought he was right. But in that instance I think we did everything absolutely right. I don’t think we did a thing wrong.’
Davies admits it is possible Hodge was not told the details of what she was reporting. ‘I had little direct contact with her. It is possible that no one was telling her what we were telling them,’ she said. If that is the case, then there are serious questions still to be asked of the role of senior staff at Islington social services and in particular John Rea Price, the Director of Social Services, who became Director of the National Children’s Bureau in 1992. Despite several attempts by The Observer to contact him last week, Price has consistently refused to comment on events in Islington. He now works as an inspector of prisons for the Home Office, where he specialises in Young Offender Institutions.
Hodge knows that as council leader she must ultimately shoulder the blame for what happened in Islington in the 1980s and 90s. The final investigation into the scandal, carried out for Islington by the head of Oxfordshire Social Services, Ian White, in 1995 concluded that there was no evidence of a network of paedophiles or ritual abuse. But on the children’s homes issue it was damning. ‘It is apparent… that the London Borough of Islington did not in most cases undertake the standard investigative processes that should have been triggered whenever they occurred. It is possible, therefore, that some staff now not in the employment of Islington could be working in the field of social services with a clean disciplinary record and yet have serious allegations still not investigated in their history.’ The council was ordered to write to all social services departments nationally to warn them to check their records for ex-Islington staff.
Most seriously, it also reported that there was a culture that tolerated relationships between care staff and teenage boys. It also blocked the investigation of people from gay or ethnic backgrounds. ‘This is a recipe for disaster,’ the report said. The report concluded that the ultimate responsibility for the disaster within social services lay with the council and senior officers. The buck ultimately stopped with Hodge, who had been council leader since 1982.
Hodge’s successor as council leader, Derek Sawyer, who commissioned the White Report, said Hodge had done everything she could at the time. ‘The reality is that Margaret and the council did take seriously allegations of abuse, always referred them to the police. Obviously there were real problems with the children’s homes, and that was exposed. But there has also been a settling of old scores, which has been regrettable.’
But Davies, who now works as a lecturer at London Metropolitan University, is determined that Hodge should go. ‘What are all those young people feeling now when they hear about who is the new Minister for Children?’, she said.