Hodge apology fails to satisfy abuse victim (15.11.03)

The Independent, November 15th 2003
By Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor

MARGARET HODGE, the minister for Children, offered an unreserved apology yesterday to a victim of child abuse whom she had described as an “extremely disturbed person”. She also promised never to repeat the phrase and told Demetrious Panton she was “genuinely sorry for having contributed to your pain and anger”.

Mr Panton, who was abused by a paedophile in an Islington care home, said he welcomed the apology, but it was based on “political and legal expediency”. He also called on her to resign for the distress she had caused him and to pay an undisclosed sum to a children’s charity.

In a letter to Mr Panton, the former Islington council leader accepted he had suffered appalling abuse in the 1970s and “anyone in your situation would rightly feel angry and let down after so many years of being disbelieved”. Mrs Hodge added: “I would like to apologise unreservedly for using the words ‘is an extremely disturbed person’ with reference to you. I assure you I will not repeat those words again.”

Mr Panton said he wanted a full apology in open court, a payment to the charity of his choice and reimbursement for the cost of pursuing a libel action. “I know the difference between a genuine apology and an apology which is based as a consequence of legal and political expediency,” he said. “While I welcome the apology, I think that this apology is perhaps in the latter category.”

Korieh Duodu, Mr Panton’s lawyer, said his client was still entitled to a full explanation for Mrs Hodge’s remarks. “We are still completely in the dark how she could have made such an upsetting and damaging remark,” he said. But Mr Duodu also made clear the prospect of a libel action, which almost certainly would have led to the minister being forced from her job, was now remote.

“Mrs Hodge’s letter of apology is certainly a step in the right direction,” he said. Provided the public apology and payments were made, “my client is willing to let the matter rest”.

Despite Mr Panton’s calls for her to quit, it now looks likely she will meet his demands and keep her post. A spokeswoman for Mrs Hodge said her solicitor was in discussions with Mr Duodu but a further statement from the minister was unlikely before next week.

The move will be a relief to Downing Street, which had offered her its full support. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The judgement the Prime Minister has to make is whether a minister is able to do the job he has asked them to do. He believes that if you look at what Margaret Hodge has achieved within government, for example her work on Sure Start, her work on higher education issues, that she has a good record.”

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