Byline: PATRICIA MORGAN
JUST as the Conservative Party tries to get to grips with a moral agenda that stresses the importance of the family, the Labour Party has an altogether different target - childcare.
Addressing social service staff last week, Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown repeated the call for massive government-funded childcare. This, he claimed, is the key to women's empowerment, children's welfare and success, and the good of the economy.
According to Brown, a fortune in extra revenue is meant to flow back to the public purse as eager, taxpaying mothers flood onto the labour market.
While the Government is still deliberating the realities of such childcare schemes, the Labour Party has apparently trumped it with promises of `early excellence centres', bringing together day care and early education.
Thus, under a Labour government, infants would spend the entire day away from home. Both the baby and the four-year-old could be dropped off on the parent's way to work and all meals would be provided in what amounts to near-residential care. Alarmingly, even the name `early excellence centre' suggests that its opposite - parental care - is practically a form of neglect.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, an extraordinary consensus of trade unions, employers, feminists, and charities maintains that getting mothers to work sooner, and for longer, will transform our children's lives for the better.
Yet some of today's childcare centres have a track record of turning out emotionally impoverished children. Over recent years, I have ploughed through a multitude of studies from all over the world detailing the reality of children's lives spent with childminders and at centres, and this week the Institute of Economic Affairs publishes my report, Who Needs Parents?
I failed to discover any promised land or elixir of progress. Instead, the picture has become ever bleaker. Far from having their development enhanced, many children are adversely affected in many ways.
The studies reveal that children who have spent long hours in group care are persistently aggressive and disobedient. In particular, we should be especially concerned for the social, emotional and intellectual development of boys.
Then there is a large and inexorably growing body of research showing all forms of substitute care lead to disturbed parent-child relations. This has serious implications for later life. The early lack of positive ties to parents has been related to everything from behaviour problems such as lack of consideration or sympathy for others to poor achievement.
Unfortunately, the public and those who influence policy are unlikely to hear about the bad effects from unbiased sources. Genuine debate has been stifled, and research which goes against the feminist childcare agenda is ignored.
The childcare lobbyists are so well ensconced in government departments and research bodies that professionals with conflicting ideas or evidence keep quiet for fear of accusations of joining a `backlash against women'.
The result is that the public is unlikely to have heard of one particularly significant study of 236 eight-year-olds from all social classes in Texas, published in 1990.
The study found that the earlier these children were subjected to childcare and the more extensive it was, the worse their behaviour, their school work, their relations with other children and their emotional health.
Even their IQ scores were affected. Children who spent a long time in childcare after infancy did not do well either compared with those who went only part-time or stayed with mother. …