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.”
Police were never called in to investigate child abuse in Islington because Hodge did not report it, and as a consequence could use as her “defence” that no one had ever been convicted and no organised ring of abusers exposed. The lack of police attention allowed the abusers to disperse and continue their activities. Three former heads of Islington children’s homes relocated to Pattaya, a tourist resort in Thailand notorious for its child sex activities. One of the men, Nicholas Rabet, was eventually charged by Thai police in 2006 with abusing 30 local children, some as young as six. The police suspected him of abusing hundreds more. He died of an overdose soon afterwards.
Hodge portrays herself as a representative of the people, but that image does not quite fit the evidence. In 2005, as Work and Pensions Minister, she made another gaffe by saying that the 6,000 people made redundant by the collapse of MG Rover could go to work at Tesco.
As chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Hodge has been a fierce critic of Starbucks, Google, Amazon and other companies that dodge paying UK corporation tax. “This is outrageous and an insult to British businesses and individuals who pay their fair share,” she said in 2012. But that same year it was reported that Hodge’s family business, Stemcor, paid UK tax of just £163,000 on UK revenues of more than £2.1 billion, or 0.01 per cent. Mrs Hodge described herself as “only a very small shareholder”. She is in fact one of the richest members of the Commons.
Still, she lives to fight another day. She is rumoured to be in the running as Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London in 2016. But how she has got away with her involvement in the Islington scandal while Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt are being taken to task over the National Council for Civil Liberties/Paedophile Information Exchange furore is a mystery.