A survey by the Labour party of nursery education in 92 local education authorities in England and Wales has underlined the dramatic disparities in the numbers of places and type of service available.
Its publication was timed to lend weight to Labour's attack on the Government's Nursery Vouchers Bill, which had its second reading on Monday, though the debate was overshadowed by Harriet Harman's choice of a selective grant-maintained school for her son.
The survey, conducted in the summer by Labour's Under-Fives Inquiry group, found that while 53 per cent of three and four-year-olds nationally have a place in an LEA nursery or primary school reception class, numbers of places available in individual LEAs vary wildly.
More than 90 per cent of parents in Knowsley, Walsall and North Tyneside can claim a place for their children, while only 25 per cent can do so in West Sussex, Wiltshire or Oxfordshire.
The nature of what is provided is also diverse. Only 27 per cent of three and four-year-olds have places in proper nursery classes or schools. Most of these are part-time, and while 62 per cent of Knowsley's places are in nurseries, there are none in Gloucestershire.
The survey found no discernible pattern as to where the private sector is strong and no area where it is the largest provider of services.
Spending varied from Pounds 160 per child in Buckinghamshire to Pounds 2,300 in Haringey. Most authorities have ignored Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's suggestion last year that councils were free to use under-fives money on other sectors of education if they were strapped for cash. Most of those paying below the Standard Spending Assessment are shire county authorities.
Margaret Hodge MP, who heads the Under-Fives Inquiry, says in the report that the paucity of full-time day-care places (22 authorities had no such places while a further 13 were "unable to answer the question") had worrying implications for working mothers with children under five.
"Today, 46 per cent of mothers with children under five work. By the end of the decade that figure is expected to rise to 70 per cent. If there are no affordable services for very young children, poorer families will remain locked into dependency."
Another worry, says Margaret Hodge, is that local authorities often have no idea how many of their nursery staff hold appropriate qualifications.
Barely one in 10 was able to give spending figures on training, and only one in three knew how many staff held National Nursery Examination Board or Qualified Teacher status.