CHILDREN MINISTER'S JOB ON LINE; Margaret Hodge Is Summoned to Summit over Abuse Scandal

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 13, 2003 | Go to article overview

CHILDREN MINISTER'S JOB ON LINE; Margaret Hodge Is Summoned to Summit over Abuse Scandal


Byline: PATRICK HENNESSY;HUMFREY HUNTER

MARGARET Hodge's job as Minister for Children was hanging by a thread today as she was hauled into her Whitehall department for crisis talks with her boss.

Mrs Hodge cancelled a planned public engagement in Birmingham to return to London for a summit with Education Secretary Charles Clarke, key officials and political advisers.

The sole item on the agenda was her political future amid the continuing furore over the child abuse scandals at Islington council, which she led from 1982-92.

Mr Clarke was said to have "cleared the decks" and recognised the force of claims that threats of legal action from two former abuse victims meant it was now impossible for Mrs Hodge to do her job.

Downing Street was aware of today's crisis talks and is said to be sympathetic to moves to resolve the crisis one way or another. A source close to Tony Blair said: "It is fair to say today is D-day for Margaret Hodge."

The Prime Minister and Mr Clarke were said to be anxious not to lose her because she is regarded as a competent minister.

But they were also said to recognise that the row over Islington, which was showing no sign of abating, was overshadowing key initiatives on children's rights planned by the department.

Mrs Hodge was said to be discussing a number of possible courses of action, including making a personal apology for trying to gag a BBC report on the affair and for describing a former abuse victim, Demetrious Panton, as an "extremely disturbed person".

Another option was said to be for Mrs Hodge to resign if legal proceedings against her are formally started, using the face-saving formula of standing down to contest legal actions against her.

Mr Panton's lawyers are understood to have given her a deadline of 4.30pm today to respond to their urgent enquiries about her description of him.

Westminster sources were making it clear that the precedent for ministers facing personal legal actions which did not concern their departmental work was for them to step down.

A Whitehall source said: "Margaret got away with it the first time this row surfaced, some months ago, by claiming she had learned her lesson.

"The trouble is her outburst with the BBC and Demetrious Panton suggests that she hasn't."

Details of today's crisis talks emerged as the Standard learned that senior Cabinet members have rounded on Mrs Hodge and are urging the Prime Minister to remove her because the furore is so damaging to the Government.

Downing Street was yesterday less than wholehearted in its support for her, with Mr Blair's official spokesman merely saying: "She remains a member of the Government."

One leading Cabinet minister has privately told colleagues: "She cannot survive while all this goes on." Another has warned that the row surrounding her is now a "nightmare issue" for the Government which is overshadowing all attempts to move forward on children's policy.

The fact that her most senior colleagues are turning on her is a bad sign for Mrs Hodge, who has already faced calls from the Tories and some Islington abuse victims to quit.

The Tories kept up the political pressure with backbencher Andrew Mackay demanding a Commons statement about her letter to the BBC.

If Mrs Hodge did resign there was the possibility of her making a swift return to government, in a less controversial post, in a reshuffle expected in the New Year following Lord Hutton's report into the death of scientist David Kelly.

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CHILDREN MINISTER'S JOB ON LINE; Margaret Hodge Is Summoned to Summit over Abuse Scandal
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