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Margaret Hodge: child abuse happened on her watch (credit: Michael Daley)

Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking since 1994, has been widely praised for her work as chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, notably as the scourge of multinationals avoiding paying corporation tax in Britain. It is the culmination of an illustrious political career. She was successively Minister for Children, for Work and Pensions, and for Culture and Tourism — serious roles for a serious politician. But amid the media adulation there has been a resounding silence about the child abuse cover-up orchestrated by Hodge during her time as leader of the London Borough of Islington from 1982 to 1992.

Hodge, daughter of Hans Oppenheimer, a millionaire steel broker, became an Islington councillor in 1973, one of the new wave of middle-class socialists to be elected. She quickly rose through the ranks, taking on the housing portfolio, and within five years had been awarded an MBE in recognition of her achievements. But as Hodge was collecting her gong from the Queen, paedophiles were operating with impunity within children's homes across the borough. It was not until 1990 that she was officially informed by senior social workers of their suspicions, although the rumours had been flying around the town hall well before then. However, Hodge chose instead to believe senior officials who assured her that nothing of the kind was occurring. In 1992, the London Evening Standard published extensive evidence of the abuse, which Hodge denounced as "a sensationalist piece of gutter journalism". 

When Hodge became leader in 1982 she set up a new "devolved system" of management, which resulted in records being lost and families disappearing below the radar if they  moved within the borough.  In 1995, an independent report found that the council had indeed failed to investigate the allegations properly. Following its publication Hodge finally, but grudgingly, admitted she had made mistakes. According to Christian Wolmar, author of Forgotten Children: The secret abuse scandal in children's homes, "The events in Islington were more a systematic failure of the whole social services department, rather than the exploitation in the gaps in the protection of children by individuals."

Demetrius Panton was one of the many children who was sexually abused while in Islington's care in the 1970s. In 1985 Panton went public with his allegations but did not receive a reply until 1989. The council denied responsibility. Panton accused Hodge of being ultimately responsible for his abuse. The story of Islington might well have gone away for Hodge, but in 2003 she was appointed the first-ever Minister for Children by Tony Blair. A number of senior social workers who had worked under Hodge at Islington began to ask questions as to why on earth she should be given such a portfolio. One described the move as "like putting the fox in charge of the chickens". 

That year Hodge scored another own goal when she was forced to apologise to Panton after accusing him, in a letter of complaint to the BBC about its coverage of the scandal, of being "extremely disturbed". "I don't know how she survived," Panton told me. "This individual tried to silence me."

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