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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
Blair backs children's minister
Margaret Hodge
'Judge me by my record'
Prime Minister Tony Blair has defended his new children's minister despite her background as leader of a council hit by one of the UK's worst child abuse scandals.

Mr Blair said Margaret Hodge, previously early years minister, had a record "which she and we can be proud of".

He leapt to her defence after Tory MP Andrew Rosindell queried the appropriateness of Mrs Hodge's recent appointment.

The exchanges, at prime minister's questions, came after the Conservatives called for Mrs Hodge to be sacked.

Emergency debate

Eleanor Laing, the new shadow children's minister, said on Tuesday people could have no confidence in Mrs Hodge given her alleged failure to act over sex abuse cases when she was leader of Islington Council.

Islington Council was dogged by claims that council staff were abusing children in care during the 1980s and 1990s.

But Mrs Hodge, who was council leader between 1982 and 1992, says having that experience makes her well qualified for the new job and Downing Street is supporting her.

Mr Rosindell asked if Mrs Hodge was an appropriate choice for children's minister in view of the findings of one inquiry which described Islington "as a chaotic organisation that breeds the conditions for dangerous and negligent practices in relation to child care".

Achievements

But Mr Blair replied that during her time as minister for early years between 1998 and 2001, Mrs Hodge had secured free education for all four year olds and now 88% of three year olds.

She was responsible for 647,000 new child care places and the development of the Sure Start programme which was benefiting young people in constituencies across the country.

"That's a record of which she and we can be proud," added Mr Blair.

Meanwhile, Mrs Laing is pressing for an emergency House of Commons debate on the issue.

Responsibility

She said: "The evidence clearly shows she is not fit to fulfil the responsibility of the job.

"We ought to have a minister for children in whom everyone can have confidence.

"The prime minister should remove Margaret Hodge to give people confidence this important post is being managed by someone responsible."

Tony Blair's official spokesman says the prime minister was fully aware of Ms Hodge's background when he appointed her to the new post.

"The prime minister believes she has spoken about the events of 12 years ago and given what she has said about the lessons learned, she is a minister who is equipped to do the job," said the spokesman.

Record

He said Mrs Hodge should be given credit for admitting mistakes were made.

Speaking on BBC London, Mrs Hodge urged people to look at her record in government in developing children's services.

"What I want now is the opportunity after two weeks in office to get on with the job of putting in place all those services... which will give a better start to young children and indeed make sure there are safe in their homes, in their communities, in our streets," she said.

Mrs Hodge was severely criticised by an inquiry into the death of one child during her time as Islington Council leader for failing to heed the warnings of social workers.

Mrs Hodge's new role involves overseeing policies on children under five, childcare, teenage pregnancy, family law and children at risk. She was formerly minister for higher education.

Lessons learned

Mrs Hodge told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday that she "deeply regretted" the abuse of children by council staff.

But she insisted: "I've had 12 years to think about those issues, to read about them, to talk to people about them, to learn about them.

"I think that equips me better than most, having been through that experience, in thinking about how we now create a safe environment for those children at risk, and really put the children at the heart of all the policies and the structures that we develop."

On Tuesday, she said allegations that she failed to tackle a paedophile ring in Islington were untrue.

A memo written in 1990 showed both social workers and the police had been involved in a thorough investigation into the concerns, she said.

The minister for children post was created partly in response to the Laming report into the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Margaret Hodge
"We're putting the child at the centre of everything we do"



SEE ALSO:
Hodge defends child minister role
30 Jun 03  |  Politics
Hodge is minister for children
13 Jun 03  |  Education
Climbie tragedy 'not the last'
27 Mar 03  |  England
Margaret Hodge
21 Oct 02  |  Politics



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