Learn to listen, minister

Should Margaret Hodge have resigned? It would have been easy for us
to have jumped on to the media bandwagon and called for the
children’s minister to go, but we have not. When the spectre of her
Islington past began to haunt her during the summer, we argued that
she should stay. And we still do, though her position is
considerably more fragile now than it was then.

Hodge’s intemperate remarks in a letter to the BBC chairperson
Gavyn Davies, claiming that a victim of abuse in Islington
children’s homes was “an extremely disturbed person”, hardly
inspire confidence that she is the right person to push through the
reforms set out in the green paper Every Child Matters,
where the ability to listen to the views of vulnerable people and
champion their interests is of paramount importance.

Some of her other musings since becoming children’s minister have
also been questionable, if less incendiary than her latest gaffe.
No sooner had the green paper been published than she appeared to
suggest that social services departments should remain intact, in
spite of the document’s explicit plans to split them in half; on
the eve of the National Social Services Conference last month she
undermined the conciliatory attitude of her boss Charles Clarke by
suggesting that failing children’s trusts would be handed over to
the independent sector; and she hinted that youth justice may
eventually move to the Department for Education and Skills, causing
some surprise at the Home Office which has no intention of parting
with the brief.

In this context, her humiliating climbdown this week looks like the
last straw. But it is not. She has made significant concessions to
the subject of her BBC letter, Demetrious Panton, including a
public apology and the donation of a large sum to charity. She has
agreed to pay her debt and now she should be allowed to get on with
the job. The lesson of this sorry episode is that she should think
more carefully before she acts and her handling of the green paper
in the coming months will be a clear indication of whether she has
learned it. As the consultation deadline approaches, many in the
child care field have argued strongly for caution in implementing
structural changes that have still to be fully tested.

Hodge claims to be a “listening minister”. Now she must set about
proving it if she is to restore confidence in her leadership.

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