Leading Article: Children in need of political change

NOBODY knows whether more children were left alone this Christmas than last. The handful of reported cases may be exceptions or the tip of an iceberg. Statistically, there is nothing significant to report except an increase in the number of stories on the subject.

This does not diminish the horror and distress of those individual cases, but if there are generalisations to be made, they are about perceptions, not cases. The one certainty is that perceptions have changed. Neighbours have become readier to act on their suspicions, the social services are more alert, and newspapers are more likely to report 'home alone' stories, especially at Christmas time.

Perceptions are important because they shape the future as well as tell us about the present. When they change it is not normally because they have been manipulated by films or articles, but because those films and articles have touched a nerve in the popular psyche that happens to be exposed at a particular moment. Probably it is no coincidence that so many 'home alone' stories come on the heels of the debate about single mothers and the recent trials of child murderers. All are related to worries about children in society.

We already know many of our children are being badly educated. Are they also emotionally deprived? If so, is this because the prevailing social and political ethos encourages parents to be selfish? Is it because poverty and unemployment impose impossible stresses on parents? Or the social services are not doing their job? Does the blame lie with the state or the individual?

Children are our investment in the future. There may be a sense that our society is losing confidence in its capacity to regenerate itself, along with other social concerns such as poverty, selfishness and a more general sense of pessimism. It is important, therefore, that the response to the 'home alone' cases should not be confined to a review of the legal and social protection of children.

There are, of course, many small things that can be done. Laws and guidelines could be clarified, and the social services helped to distinguish better between children left safely at home for an evening, as they often are on the Continent, and those seriously endangered. There is also one large change that could be made. All the evidence suggests that establishing universal nursery education would have a significant beneficial impact on children's lives. That case is now accepted by the Government. This is surely a sign that changed perceptions of what matters to society will eventually change political priorities - a sign of hope indeed.

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