By Robert Mendick
Ex-children’s minister apologises for council’s ‘shameful naivety’ in ignoring victims’ voices
One of Labour’s most senior MPs has confessed to “shameful naivety” in ignoring the pleas of victims of paedophiles who were assaulted in children’s homes in a scandal-hit council she used to run.
Margaret Hodge, a former children’s minister, issued an apology amid a growing furore over the latest investigation into widespread sexual abuse in the London borough of Islington.
Police have uncovered possible evidence that Jimmy Savile sexually assaulted vulnerable children in a care home in Islington. It is the first time Savile has been connected with the abuse in Islington in the Seventies and early Eighties that has resulted in the council paying hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation to victims. It is thought dozens of vulnerable children were abused by a number of paedophiles.
However, most of the abusers escaped justice because allegations made at the time by victims were ignored and many files, which contained corroborating evidence, have been lost or shredded. Mrs Hodge was a councillor from 1973 and leader of the council for a decade from 1982.
The Department for Education has announced that Islington should now examine claims that Savile abused children from one of its homes for itself. The home has not been identified and one of Islington’s tasks will be to find it and to see if staff aided and abetted Savile.
An investigation by The Telegraph can disclose:
• At one Islington children’s home, a victim of abuse recalled “Jimmy Savile taxis” being despatched to the hostel where she was living 40 years ago. She has no recollection of Savile ever visiting the home.
• A man closely connected to the same children’s home was accused of rape and attempted rape of young girls;
• The allegations against the man were ignored and the alleged attacker went on to work overseas in a hospital for seriously ill children;
• Concerns over Islington’s ability to conduct an independent investigation have intensified after it emerged that the councillor in charge of children’s social services is Mrs Hodge’s son-in-law.
Victims of abuse in Islington are still coming forward, in some cases more than 40 years after the alleged incidents. One person has claimed she was regularly sexually assaulted in a park and her sister raped by a man connected to one of the children’s homes in the borough in the early Seventies. The alleged suspect was allowed to leave Britain and went on to work with dying and seriously ill children in a hospital abroad.
A friend of the woman said: “She just came out with what happened to her only last year. She is still very damaged. She was about 10 at the time.
“She would be taken to the park and he attempted to rape her. Her sister was raped. She said she reported it to the authorities, but she was simply moved to another children’s home. Her attacker is now living overseas.”
The victim also spoke of “Jimmy Savile taxis” coming to the home, suggesting that children were collected there and ferried to Savile, who used his position as a celebrity to procure children. The victim was unable to provide any further details and had no recollection of Savile visiting the home. Savile is reckoned to be the most prolific child sex offender in modern British criminal history.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has instigated investigations into 21 children’s homes around the country where Savile is suspected of abusing vulnerable young people. In almost all the cases, the identity of the home is known. Local authorities or organisations have been asked to conduct their own inquiries in each case.
Islington Council dismissed calls for Joe Caluori, who is married to Mrs Hodge’s daughter, to step aside from his post while its investigation is ongoing. The council insisted there was no conflict of interest and that the council’s director of social services would report directly to the Department for Education rather than to Mr Caluori.
But victims, lawyers and whistle-blowers are demanding an independent inquiry.
Demetrious Panton, who was repeatedly abused by Bernie Bain, the former head of an Islington children’s home in the late Seventies, said: “An independent police investigation into Islington is crucial. I know so much. Yet, throughout all the 13 inquiries into Islington, I was never once asked to give evidence.”
Mr Panton, who is a lawyer, added: “We still don’t know the full extent of Islington’s corruption. There are a lot of individuals who I know, abuse survivors, who have not yet contacted Islington or the police about what they know. There is a real lack of trust.”
Mr Panton first complained about Bain in 1979 but was ignored. When Mrs Hodge was children’s minister in 2003, and her job under pressure over her former role at Islington council, she accused Mr Panton of being “extremely disturbed” in a private letter to the BBC in an attempt to discredit his testimony.
Asked if he thought it right that Mrs Hodge’s son-in-law now held a key position in the council, he replied: “Of course not. I don’t know him at all and he may be a fine councillor, but I would think it is better that he is not in this position, given the association.”
Mrs Hodge told The Telegraph in a statement: “I have apologised a number of times over the last 10 years for our failure to understand about child abuse and take children’s voices seriously in the Eighties. I am sorry. Our naivety was shameful and I’m really glad we’ve learned since then the importance of listening to the voices of children who have been abused.”
Frances Swaine, the managing partner at Leigh Day law firm, which represented several Islington abuse victims, underlined calls for an independent inquiry. “In her position as leader of Islington Council [Mrs Hodge] was under a duty to investigate evidence of the sexual abuse of children in her council’s care,” she said. “Sadly, for whatever reason, this did not happen for several years.”
Dr Liz Davies, a reader in child protection at London Metropolitan University and a senior social worker who first reported concerns to her superiors, said: “If ever there was a case for a national police investigation team, it must be in this instance [Savile’s crimes], to coordinate all the inquiries.
“Yet, Mr Gove has asked Islington to conduct its own investigation and it is now firmly the responsibility of this authority. Historic child abuse cases are not simple and Islington has not got the best of reputations for retention of children’s and adult’s files and relevant documentation.”
A spokesman for Islington council said: “The council’s Director of Children’s Services has been asked by the Department for Education (DfE) to oversee this investigation. She will appoint an independent person from outside the council to lead our investigation.
“Our investigation will follow the clear and detailed guidance provided to us, and we will then submit a draft report to Lucy Scott-Moncrieff – appointed by the DfE to provide the Secretary of State for Education with assurance that all investigations are robust and thorough. Elected members never take part in investigations of this nature. It will be carried out by suitably qualified professional officers.”