I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he knows, free entitlement to early-years provision for three and four-year-olds is a universal offer that is taken up by almost all four-year-olds and more than 95 per cent. of three-year-olds. In Reading that equates to approximately 3,500 places, helping to give three and four-year-olds the best possible start in life.
There is no doubt that the extension of free nursery education is one of Labour's finest achievements. In order to spread the word to a wider audience, can the Minister tell the House how many extra nursery places have been delivered in all Berkshire authorities since 1997?
I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend that information because the figures before 1997 are not available, but we know that it was not a priority for the Government at that time: free provision was patchy and often depended on whether one had a good Labour council funding it, or whether one could afford to pay. This Government have been the first to introduce and to be committed to universal free entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, and we remain so because of the difference that it makes to reducing inequality, to helping every child to fulfil their potential and to helping families to balance work and family life. Parents want to know whether all that will be in jeopardy if the Conservatives come back into government.
Many nursery providers in my constituency are under considerable financial pressure thanks to the changes made by this Government. A recent survey found that about half have considered closing. Many cannot meet the cost of free entitlement. How do the Government expect a broad range of nurseries to remain in business in Reading and elsewhere if they cannot afford to cover their basic costs?
Frankly, that was nonsense. It is because this Government doubled the number of places for the under-fives that the private sector was able to expand in the way it did under the Government last year; there are now more than 1.3 million places. The funding that we are putting in for free entitlement is enabling those providers to stay in business largely. Certainly our independent research shows that the money that we are putting in—£4 billion a year across all early- years provision—is sufficient for free entitlement. We want local authorities to be more consistent in the way in which they administer that, but it is helping the private sector to thrive.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) is absolutely right. When it comes to nursery places in Reading or any other part of the country, the Minister knows that the sums do not add up. Two out of three nurseries still cannot provide free places for the Government money that they receive. Why, when more than 9,000 families are predicted to see their child care close by the end of this year because of the financial crisis, is the Minister failing to take action to stop the instability that is so damaging for so many families up and down the country?
The £1.3 billion per year for the free entitlement is enabling many nurseries in the private sector to continue. We are committed to continuing that funding, along with the funding for Sure Start children centres and all the early-years provision in our maintained schools. The question that parents want answered is whether the hon. Lady, if a Conservative Government came to power, would be committed to continuing that funding and continuing the provision for the under-fives