Many English hospitals had to turn away women in labour last year because they were full, figures reported today show.

The BBC says of the 70 per cent of hospital trusts that provided data, more than 40 per cent said they had been forced to shut their doors or divert women to other sites at least once. One in 10 said it happened more than 10 times.

The figures were obtained in a freedom of information request made by the Conservatives.

The Government said maternity units sometimes were forced to take action because it was hard to predict demand.

Of 103 trusts providing maternity services that responded, 42 per cent had to close their units or divert women to another site at least once in 2007 because of capacity problems.

The Tories said that of those trusts that had to turn women away, 74 per cent had more than 3,000 births last year, suggesting large maternity units seemed to be more at risk of having to close.

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley told the broadcaster: "The Government's plans to close maternity units when services are already overstretched fly in the face of common sense.

"Labour are fixated with cutting smaller, local maternity services and concentrating them in big units.

"But women don't want to have to travel miles to give birth.

"And they certainly don't want to have to travel even further because they're turned away by the hospital of their choice."

The Tories said University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, one of the biggest maternity providers in England, reported closing 28 times.

A Department of Health spokesman told the BBC diverting women to other hospitals should be the exception rather than the rule.

"It is difficult to precisely predict when a mother will go into labour and sometimes, at times of peak demand, maternity units do temporarily divert women to nearby facilities," he said.

"When this does happen it is often only for a few hours and to ensure mother and baby can receive the best care possible."