Bring down Hodge – but not for this

The disturbing case of the UK children's minister and the offended abuse victim.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

For any of her politics and policies, Margaret Hodge should be hung, drawn and quartered. Since she has been in the New Labour government, she has ridden roughshod over further and higher education. In her current capacity as children’s minister, she has produced a policy that treats parents like monsters, teachers like police officers and expects social workers to behave like Solomon, with terrible implications all round.

But what has she done lately to get half of parliament and most of the media baying for her blood? Offended a victim of child abuse, in a story about something she did – or did not do – 10 years ago. The ensuing furore may not be quite the ‘ruthless and unjustified witch-hunt’ described by Hodge’s mate Polly Toynbee in the Guardian (1). But it is certainly the wrong kind of criticism, done in the wrong kind of way.

The story, in brief, is this. Margaret Hodge was Labour leader of Islington Council between 1982 and 1992, during which time she apparently failed to act upon allegations of large-scale abuse of children in the council’s care. The London Evening Standard newspaper broke the story in October 1992, upon which Hodge accused the paper of ‘gutter journalism’ before rapidly stepping down as council leader. An inquiry three years later found that Islington Council failed to investigate the sexual abuse allegations properly (2).

When the New Labour government appointed Hodge as children’s minister this year, the Evening Standard renewed its campaign against her. Hodge acknowledged making one ‘terrible error of judgement’ in 1992, but refused to resign. The launch of her Green Paper on child protection, Every Child Matters, was put on hold while the fuss died down, and eventually published in September 2003.

Then about a week ago, Radio Four’s Today programme planned to run a story for which they had spoken to Demetrious Panton, who back in 1985 had complained about having been abused while in the council’s care. Hodge wrote to BBC chairman Gavin Davies, accusing the programme of ‘deplorable sensationalism’ and calling Demetrious Panton an ‘extremely disturbed person’. Davies read the letter out on air, and Panton, now a government consultant, threatened to sue Hodge for libel. Hodge wrote a letter apologising for her remarks, which was published in the press; Panton demanded that Hodge make an apology in court and give £10,000 to a charity of his choice; Hodge did so.

As the fur continues to fly about whether or not Hodge should resign, everybody – including Hodge – seems to agree about two key things: the importance of a major public apology, and that the lesson of Islington was the need to be more proactive in uncovering signs of potential child abuse. This consensus needs to be challenged.

Regarding the public apology: The fact of a government minister attempting to gag Radio Four because she didn’t like the content of a particular story is objectionable. Her slur on Panton was particularly crass, while her apparent ignorance of his position as a government consultant is breathtakingly stupid. But there is something disturbing about a government minister being ritually humiliated and publicly blackmailed over something like this.

Hodge’s crime was not simply that she offended an individual, Demetrious Panton, but that she implicitly demeaned the status of child abuse victims, by saying that their words might be the product of a disturbed mind rather than the authentic truth. And in issuing a formal apology to Panton, Hodge is effectively saying that she will never again speak against anybody alleging abuse. This, of course, has encouraged yet more victims to demand their own personal public apology too.

Since Panton’s threat of legal action, the search has been on for other victims of child abuse in 1980s Islington. The London Evening Standard has run stories on Douglas Fitch, 28, and 40-year-old Yvonne Williams, both of whom were abused while in Islington care. Fitch told the Standard that Hodge could have prevented the abuse that he suffered, if only she had listened to senior social workers when she was leader of the council. ‘I hold Hodge responsible for what happened to me and I will not rest until I get justice’, he said (3). ‘The thing that makes me sick is that I have never been sincerely apologised to’, said Yvonne Williams, in an article headlined ‘I want an apology too’. ‘If Hodge had only listened…my case would have been properly investigated and I would have got closure.’ (4)

Of course, Panton, Fitch, Williams and the other victims of abuse in Islington deserve sympathy. It is barely possible to imagine what they went through, and easy to see why they remain so angry. But the juggernaut of demands for personal apologies from Hodge, and the refrain that she is responsible because she ‘didn’t listen’, needs to be understood for what it is.

However much Hodge grovels, it will not prevent abuse from happening in the past or in the future. This cry for individual recognition – as Yvonne Williams put it, ‘She needs to feel our pain, hear our anger’ (5) – implies that the role of politicians is to emote and empathise, rather than engage in rational discussion and develop cool-headed policy. It encourages a scenario in which victims of abuse are supposed to dwell on their terrible experiences and find more and more people to blame, and build their self-identity around the fact that they have been victimised and, indeed, ‘disturbed’, rather than encouraging victims to create a more positive life for themselves in the future.

Meanwhile, the complaint that ‘she didn’t listen’ really means, ‘she didn’t believe what I said straightaway just because I said it’. No doubt Panton, Fitch and Williams are totally justified in making such a complaint in this case. But the thrust of the argument – that a children’s minister should, first and foremost, believe complaints of abuse – is wrongheaded, and very dangerous.

Back in June 2003, when Hodge’s appointment as minister for children was marred by the re-run of the Evening Standard campaign, Hodge acknowledged her error of 1992. But she added: ‘I think in the context of those times, people will understand why I made that [error of] judgement. I hope they understand that I’ve learned the lessons from that.’ (6) In other words, from now on in she pledges to believe every abuse allegation made.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee spells out the extent to which Hodge has taken her lessons in non-listening to heart. ‘Many think her Islington history, during which her senior officials wrongly assured her that abuse allegations were false, means she has irreplaceable personal experience of a kind very few ministers possess’, writes Toynbee. ‘On the basis of it, writing her Green Paper, she…has come up with a widely praised system for ensuring every hint of abuse or neglect is flagged up at a central hub, forcing teachers, doctors and social workers to cooperate.’ (7)

Anybody familiar with this green paper, Every Child Matters, will see that Hodge does, indeed, propose a detailed and complex surveillance system to ensure that parents and carers everywhere are continually suspected of abuse. And anybody familiar with the less-than-perfect system of child protection in this country, which has been shown to hound innocent parents on the basis of the sparest of evidence, yet allows the clear signs of abuse suffered by eight-year-old Victoria Climbie to go uninvestigated until her death, should know that a healthy suspicion is required when it comes to politicians on a self-declared mission to hunt out ‘every hint of abuse or neglect’.

Believing the children makes for good rhetoric, but what anybody concerned with tackling child abuse should surely know is that children sometimes tell the truth, they sometimes make things up and they sometimes get things wrong. They are sometimes manipulated by adults with their own agendas. Just as any other serious criminal complaint demands evidence as well as allegation, so accusations of child abuse demand proper investigation, not blind faith. It seems that today’s society is so caught up in the hysteria surrounding child abuse that we are in danger of losing the distinction between posturing and child protection – and Hodge no less than anybody else.

Furthermore, whatever happened 20 years ago, it simply cannot be said that today’s society does not ‘listen’ to stories about child abuse. From revolting publicity campaigns by children’s charities to awareness-raising lessons in schools, it often seems that society has swung in the direction of actively soliciting allegations of abuse – to the degree that children are sometimes ‘groomed’ to make accusations. Many of the high-profile victims of care-home abuse in the 1980s have only officially told their stories because of police trawling operations, in which victims were offered incentives to speak and little, if any, evidence was required to back up their claims. In consequence, there is an official drive to encourage tales of abuse, accompanied with a growing official concern about the problem of false allegations – not a particularly wholesome situation.

‘The real lesson that should be learned from the Climbie case is that those working with children can become so obsessed with finding abuse everywhere that they don’t see it when it is staring them in the face’, argued Helene Guldberg on spiked, following the publication of Hodge’s Green Paper. ‘The child protection industry has already lost sight of the distinction between serious cases of abuse that warrant intervention, and a generalised suspicion about parents’ supposed inadequacies in meeting their children’s every need’ (see Leave those kids alone, by Helene Guldberg).

It is the policy produced by Hodge today, far more than any mistakes she made 10 years ago, that represents the major danger for the UK’s children, parents and carers. It is Hodge’s position as children’s minister that gives her the power to promote suspicion and mistrust between parents and children, parents and carers, children and carers and children and children. If she could be made to resign for this reason, that really would be a story.

(1) Burn her!, Guardian, 17 November 2003

(2) Timeline: Margaret Hodge row, Guardian, 19 November 2003

(3) Another victim says he will sue, London Evening Standard, 12 November 2003

(4) ‘I want an apology too’, London Evening Standard, 17 November 2003

(5) New social worker condemns Hodge, London Evening Standard, 17 November 2003

(6) Timeline: Margaret Hodge row, Guardian, 19 November 2003

(7) Burn her!, Guardian, 17 November 2003

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Topics Politics


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