Sometimes the sense that we are standing in the wrong place to see what's really happening turns out not to be a sad personality defect, but the truth. It is often easier to grasp with hindsight. For example, it is really not difficult to look back and be horrified at the slowly building evidence of establishment complicity – at best – in a child abuse ring that involved public figures, and wonder why it seemed more important to protect the adults and the system in which they prospered than the children who were their victims.
But it takes a greater effort of imagination to see that while, for example, enabling parents to return to work is important, if the focus was on the wellbeing of children first and foremost, then priorities might be slightly altered. What if the political attention paid to affordable and available childcare, or violence against women, began rather than ended with the question of "what about the children?". Would it change the spending priorities if the first objective of policy was to make sure that children have safe places to live and play, enough good food to eat and support when a family crisis strikes?
When it so often feels that women are an afterthought in policymaking, to suggest children should come first might appear to be wilful obstructionism (or just daft). But according to a new survey by the charity Home Start, which befriends struggling families at home and is producing its first ever manifesto tomorrow, even these basic preconditions of wellbeing – warm dry homes, safe, protected places to play, nutritious meals – are missing from the lives of many of the families it helps, making it all the harder to sustain stable relationships.
The UK notoriously languishes in the bottom half of Unicef's annual estimates of children's wellbeing in rich countries. Each year, the Children's Society's good childhood report identifies the cornerstones of happiness: feeling safe at home, being part of a stable family, and free from bullying at school. What a devastating reflection of this government's effort that these simple essentials are still missing from people's lives.
It seems clear that the way policy is targeted now is still failing the most vulnerable families. Part of the reason is money. So many children's services are delivered by local councils that it is no surprise that they have been under cruel pressure – particular smaller voluntary sector organisations like Home Start, where local groups have been engaged in a fight for survival that has not always been successful.
But the less money there is, the more priorities tell. Of all the UK, England is sclerotically slow, last to institute a children's commissioner, still foot-dragging over child detention, still clinging to a Victorian approach to the age of criminal responsibility and still, we are now horribly aware, prepared to sacrifice some of the most vulnerable children to preserve the face of the establishment. It is the poorest children, inevitably, who are the most exposed. But all children suffer from their low visibility to policymakers.
Yet the new sensitivity to what was formerly a matter to brush behind the brocade sofas of gentleman's clubs suggests a change could be on the way. Home Start is only one of several charities that is setting out to influence policy. At the beginning of the week the childcare charity 4Children organised a session in parliament to try to force children's policies onto the pre-election manifesto-writing agenda.
If something good was to come out of the long-delayed exposure to the abuse of children in the 70s and 80s – along with some justice for the victims – it would be to jolt policymakers out of the mindset that if you look after the parents, the children will be looked after too.