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Hodge defends her early-years record

Julie Henry reviews the achievements of a minister who championed the cause of childcare long before she was an MP

A broadsheet newspaper has asked Margaret Hodge to write a pre-election piece on what she has achieved in office - in no more than 40 words.

The minister responsible for early- years was incredulous about this as she reeled off a long list of initiatives in her early-years "revolution".

The almost weekly announcements of more childcare places and this year's pound;3 million recruitment campaign for early-years workers have undoubtedly raised the profile of the sector. However, early-years groups dryly point out that, despite the minister's breathless claims, the Government was not the first to recognise the importance of affordable childcare to working mothers.

Rosemary Murphy, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said: "They sometimes act like it was their idea. The truth is most childcare in this country is delivered by the private and voluntary sector, not the state. And women have had to go out to work whether the Government wants them to or not."

Despite widespread appreciation of the minister's open, chatty style and good humour, the early-years lobby has criticised parts of the National Childcare Strategy.

Moves to let childminders smoke and smack, the "dumbing down" of childcare qualifications, and the plan to introduce hotel-style stars for nurseries (see above), have all been attacked.

Ms Hodge is no stranger to controversy. She led the so-called "People's Republic" of Islington, at the time of a damning report into child abuse in the council's care homes.

She is the daughter of German-Austrian asylum-seekers who came to England when she was five. She remembers eating fruit cake and scones when the man from immigration came round to prove" that the family had been naturalised.

Her mother died when she was 10 and after a stint at a school in Bromley, she was sent, as an "impossible teenager", to a boarding school in Oxford.

An economics and politics degree at the London School of Economics was followed by work as an unqualified teacher and as a market researcher. She went into politics because a friend suggested that it would keep her sane while she was having a family.

As a councillor she campaigned successfully to have the time of committee meetings changed so she could put her children to bed.

A number of her Islington council initiatives such as generous maternity leave packages and one of the first workplace nurseries were slammed for being "loony left" but have now won mainstream approval, She became MP for Barking in 1994 and, after the 1997 election, was appointed chair of the education and employment select committee. There she was a resolute questioner of, among others, the then chief inspector Chris Woodhead and Education Secretary David Blunkett himself. She also put an early spotlight on teacher shortages in a 1997 committee report.

A friend of the Blairs, Mrs Hodge and her circuit-judge husband Henry lived in the same road as the PM in Islington and often went round for dinner. She was known to have been disappointed that she was not made a minister first time round.

In the longer term, Ms Hodge wants schools to play a bigger part in childcare. "For many years childcare was a word-of-mouth thing. You would hear about a childminder down the road if you were lucky. No one thought about things like qualifications or police checks," she said.

"What we are trying to do is make sure services put children at the centre, that the best levels of care and education are part of every setting."

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