More than 200,000 women had abortions last year, the highest number ever, figures show today.

Almost 4,000 of the 201,173 procedures carried out in England and Wales were on girls under 16, the legal age of consent for sex.

The total rose by almost four per cent last year on 2005. The increase is being blamed on a crisis in contraception services.

Lambeth had the highest rate of abortions among under-18s - 44 for every 1,000 women having a termination. Across London, 24 in every 1,000 under-18s had an abortion last year.

The lowest rates in the capital were in Westminster and Harrow, where 15 per 1,000 women under 18 had terminations.

The overall abortion rate has been rising steadily since 2002 and last year almost two per cent of women aged between 15 and 44 had a termination.

The figures, released by the Department of Health, show more abortions were carried out earlier in a pregnancy, reflecting government investment and the target of a maximum wait of three weeks.

Critics said women were finding it more difficult to access contraception services in the NHS as money earmarked for sexual health clinics was diverted to offset debts.

A higher proportion were carried out using medication instead of surgery.

One in 12 terminations was carried out at more than 13 weeks' gestation and 136 procedures were carried out where the foetus was 24 weeks or older.

Abortions over 24 weeks' gestation are only allowed in exceptional circumstances, if there is a substantial risk the child would be born with serious handicap or the mother's life was in danger.

The peak age for terminations last year was 19, with 35 in every 1,000 women that age undergoing the procedure.

Abortions among young girls rose, with 135 carried out on under-14s, 1,042 on girls under 15 and 3,990 on those under 16.

The proportion of under 18s having abortions last year rose slightly compared with 2005.

Almost nine out of 10 abortions were paid for by the NHS and eight out of 10 were for single women.

Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, which provides contraception and abortion services, said: "The fact that there has been such a percentage rise in the numbersof women having an abortion since 2005 isn't surprising given that contraceptive services are in crisis and at their lowest point for many years.

"Services are being cut and clinics are closing up and down the country.

"In England, the average amount spent on each woman's contraception is about ยฃ11. Some primary care trusts have admitted they spend just 18 pence.

"This is unbelievable and wouldn't be tolerated if it happened in another part of healthcare.

"This dire situation will continue to get worse unless primary care trusts and the Department of Health take urgent action."

Health minister Caroline Flint welcomed the fact more women were having abortions earlier in their pregnancy, when the risk of complications is reduced.

"However, the NHS needs to work harder to reduce the demand for abortions by improving access to contraception," she added.

"Primary care trusts have received an extra ยฃ40 million to improve access to contraceptive services."