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Hodge takes on abusers

Schools will help new 'children's minister' ensure horrors such as death of Victoria Climbie never happen again. Jon Slater reports.

MARGARET Hodge this week spoke of being in her "dream job" as the Prime Minister made her Britain's first-ever children's minister. She now has potentially one of the highest-profile positions outside the Cabinet as a key part of her role will be to ensure mistakes that led to the tragic death of Victoria Climbie in 2000 are not repeated.

The creation of the post in last week's reshuffle puts schools at the centre of a revolution in child protection. Ms Hodge, former higher education minister and a mother of four, will be based in the Department for Education and Skills in a new children and families directorate. She will be in charge of thousands of officials and a pound;1 billion-plus budget.

After meeting the media on Monday, Mrs Hodge went on to a reception where she met leadres of social services and children's charities.

Mrs Hodge said: "This is a dream job, something I have felt for years was needed. The best way to serve children is to put them at the heart of what we do and build services around them."

Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, said Mrs Hodge's appointment would lead to a "historic change" in the way services are delivered and could lead to social workers being based in schools. A study carried out for the Home Office but never published found such a move could cut exclusions by a quarter.

Ms Hodge has a long record in early years. As a junior education minister she was responsible for the introduction of Sure Start, the Government's flagship service for young children.

But critics have been quick to remind her of past mistakes. As leader of Islington council, Mrs Hodge was criticised for not acting quickly enough to investigate alleged child abuse by council staff.

Alan Johnson, Blairite former trade and industry minister and Communication Workers Union leader, replaces Ms Hodge as higher education minister. David Miliband remains school standards minister and Ivan Lewis, Stephen Twigg and Baroness Ashton as junior ministers.

Areas under Ms Hodge's control include family law; social services; teenage pregnancies ; and the Connexions careers service.

Previously split between the Home Office, Department for Health, Lord Chancellor's Department and DfES, these services will now be part of the new children and families directorate.

One of Mrs Hodge's toughest tasks will be to break down the barriers between agencies that were key factors behind Victoria Climbie's death.

A children's Green Paper, to be published next month, will give early indications of her approach.

The Government will hope that improving children's services will help challenging schools and allow teachers to focus on academic standards rather than social issues.

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1968 Graduates from LSE with degree in economics.

1973 Elected an Islington councillor.

1982-92 Leader of Islington council which becomes known as a bastion of London's loony left.

1992-4 Consultant for Price Waterhouse Coopers.

1994 Elected MP for Barking in a by-election.

1996-7 In Opposition, writes Labour policy on nursery education.

1997 Labour win. Despite living on the same Islington street as the Blairs, Mrs Hodge is overlooked for ministerial post and settles for chairmanship of the Education Select Committee.

1998 Appointed junior education minister responsible for nursery education and Sure Start.

2001 Appointed minister for higher education.

2003 Launches controversial plans for university top-up fees. Becomes first children's minister.

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