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    The Observer
    Hodge’s History Bites Back
    6 July 2003

    The new Children’s Minister is at bay as calls mount for her to quit. Martin Bright and Paul Harris investigate claims against her as she tells her story for the first time.

    Liz Davies remembers the moment she realised she had a scandal on her hands. For several moths 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.” Those chilling words 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 the London 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 first Minister for Children, initially condemned the stories, for which Davies and several other social workers acted as anonymous whistleblowers.
    Although police investigation 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. 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 I am going to walk away from this job,” she said. Yet the clamour for her to quit was growing yesterday 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 Hornsey, 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 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 appeared: 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 colleague, David Cofie, took his claims direct to Hodge, the local ward councillor. Davies asked for more resources to tackle the problem, but Hodge turned down the request. “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 wide-spread 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. “There is a lot that I just can’t even speak about,” Davies said.
    Official reports carried out in the wake of the scandal being made public paint a picture of the 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. 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 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 Britain. 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 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 she claims she did everything to investigate the claims. “The famous memo itself says we activated the area child-protection procedures and I remember there was a surveillance 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. Hodge has always admitted responsibility as council leader for problems in the children’s homes and always claimed she was unaware of the full scale of the allegations until late 1992, in the final three weeks of her council leadership. She still vividly remembers the horror of those final days in her post. The Evening Standard provided her with between 30 and 40 detailed questions about the claims of paedophilia, and she immediately called together her senior social-services staff for a series of crisis meetings. “I called three or four meetings with relevant staff, and went through every single question. We did it completely, thoroughly. The advice I got was that all the allegations were unfounded.”

    Davies admits it is possible Hodge was not told the details. “I had little direct contact with her. It is possible no one was telling her what we were telling them,” she said. The final investigation into the scandal, carried out for Islington into the head of Oxfordshire Social Services, Ian White, in 1995, concluded there was no evidence of a network of paedophiles or ritual abuse. But on the children’s home 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.”
    Most seriously, it also slammed an equal opportunities policy that was political correctness gone mad, where the investigation of people from gay or ethnic backgrounds was blocked. “This is a recipe for disaster,” the report said. The report concluded that responsibility for the disaster within social services lay with the council leader since 1982.
    Hodge still stands by her attempts to bring services closer to ordinary people. “It is difficult to put yourself back in time,” said Hodge. “It was an era when it seemed social workers were more on strike than they weren’t. In fact, we had increased both their salaries and their numbers because we wanted to get the child protection right. I think we understood about physical abuse but I don’t think we fully understood about the scale of sexual abuse,” she said. “We have learnt. It did happen on my watch. But there isn’t a single person working in social services who hasn’t had a difficult situation to deal with.”
    Christian Wolmar, whose book, Forgotten Children, is the standard work on the child-abuse scandals of the Nineties and who has known Hodge for 20 years said: “She should have done more to investigate what was going on. But I do not think abuse went on as a result of what she failed to do.”
    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 investigated them and referred them to police. Obviously there were real problems with the children’s homes, and that was exposed.”
    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?”

    Links > http://www.observer.co.uk/childrenChildren in Britain: Online special

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