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SPEAKER INTERVENES TO END TORY ONSLAUGHT ON MARGARET HODGE

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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Commons speaker Michael Martin stepped in to prevent further attacks on the appointment of Margaret Hodge as minister of children and on her stewardship as leader of Islington LBC, after what appeared to be a co-ordinated Conservative protest against her new government appointment.

For observers, the continuing attack on Mrs Hodge has less to do with her ministerial ability but with the opposition's determination to step up its policy of casting doubt on Tony Blair's judgment, whether about trusting his director of communications, Alaistair Campbell, and of some of his ministers, who were formerly demonised as 'loony left'.

The issue of Mrs Hodge's appointment was raised at commons' questions about forthcoming business - and followed an attack by Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, on which he said Mrs Hodge's position as minister for children was 'untenable.'

Shadow leader of the commons Eric Forth asked for an urgent debate on the government's approach to child welfare 'which would give us an opportunity to explore the recent extraordinary appointment of the honorable member for Barking as, as of all things, minister for children. If nothing else, that is surely an example of the prime minister's complete lack of judgment and sensitivity.

'Given the many former professional social workers on the Labour benches he has an ample choice of people who know about the subject and can easily demonstrate a record of genuine care of children. Instead, he chose the former leader of Islington Council.

'At the very least, that is an insult to the damaged children of Islington and their parents. At the very worst, it is yet another example of putting the Islington mafia before Islington children.'

Leader of the house, Peter Hain, described Mr Forth's attack as 'rather disreputable.' He said she had carried out excellent work as a minister in recent years: carrying forward a policy that had provided free par t-time early education for all four-year-olds; established a growing child-minding sector; and helped develop the sure start programme, which provides a range of family and health services to young children and their families in disadavantaged areas.

That was an excellent CV for a children's minister, added Mr Hain.

However, former Conservative cabinet minister Nicholas Soames said it was not enough to point to improvements 'that she recently made in an earlier job when that is set against one of the most atrocious periods of local government in London, during which she was responsible for homes in which there were some of the most serious cases of child abuse that have ever been seen in this country.'

Former Conservative education secretary Gillian Shephard said she had learned the government was delaying publication of its green paper following Lord Laming's report on the Victoria Climbie inquiry. 'If so, is it not disgraceful that the government are more concerned with stifling a controversy than with the needs of vulnerable children, two of whom die from abuse each and every week?'

Mr Hain said there was no connection between the green paper publication date and the position of the children's minister.

Eleanor Laing, who shadowed Mrs Hodge as learning and skills minister, said the issue was too serious to be dismissed in such a way by Mr Hain, who had not been in post for long. However, she claimed, Downing Street had made it clear that morning that Lord laming's report was being delayed becuase of the 'difficulties' facing Mrs Hodge.

At which point Mr Speaker intervened, saying: 'There seems to be a regular and concerted attack on the minister for children. The house must know that when an honourable member is being attacked in such a way there should be a substantive motion before the house. I will not allow such matters to come up in business questions.'

Hansard 3 July 2003: Column 535 - 542

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