Further progress for an ex-leftie

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Handsome, clever and rich: Jane Austen's description of Emma Woodhouse could well apply to the new minister for lifelong learning and higher education.

Margaret Hodge will no doubt relish her next challenge, leaping from responsibility for under-fives to post-16s. During her time as under-secretary at the Department for Education and Employment with responsibility for disabled people and early years she has not been afraid of controversy or backward in listing her achievements.

She was incredulous when a broadsheet newspaper asked her to write a pre-election piece on this topic, in 40 words. Just for starters there were 200,000 extra free nursery places for three and four-year-olds, a pound;3 million recruitment campaign for early-years workers, plus the launch of the Disability Rights Commission, and Sure Start, a scheme to provide more than 100,000 poor children and parents with extra support for health and education.

But she was criticised for allowing childminders to smack their charges and smoke in their company (with the parents' permission).

Despite being part of Tony Blair's Islingtoncoterie, Margaret Hodge had to wait a year before she was appointed to the DFEE. Meanwhile she became a lively co-chair of the select committee on education and employment.

The new minister honed her political skills in Islington in the turbulent Thatcher years when it was held up to media ridicule as a "loony left" council. As leader from 1982 to 92, she fought rate-capping, the poll tax, and being personally surcharged. She broke free from the hard-left, emerged as a Blairite and was elected to Parliament for the London borough of Barking in 1994.

A staunch supporter of maternity and paternity leave as well as shorter working hours, she caused some amusement by issuing a warning to the Prime Minister after the birth of his son: "When I became pregnant, I took six months off work at Islington council. When I returned, I found myself ousted."

Universities should be warned that she described the Government's imposition of tuition fees as "fair, brave and much-needed"; but further education colleges might take heart that she called for pound;500m extra spending for the FE sector in 1998.

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