The proportion of women in England screened for cervical cancer has remained unchanged since 1995, with a persistent 16 per cent who do not have regular smears, according to the latest report from the cervical cancer screening programme.

Cervical cancer experts say that many of the 'missing' women do not take up the offer of five-yearly smears for religious or cultural reasons. Now a series of local initiatives is being set up to encourage hard-to-reach groups to come forward.

Annie Angle, senior information nurse at the Cancer Research Campaign, said: 'Steps that can be taken to target these women might include ensuring that they have a female doing the screening, or that they are accompanied by a woman, or have help to overcome language problems.'

Nearly 84 per cent of women aged between 25 and 64 have been screened for cervical cancer in England at least once in the past year, latest figures have confirmed.

Last year 3.8 million women were screened, with 86 out of the 99 health authorities achieving coverage of at least 80 per cent.

Just two HAs achieved coverage of less than 70 per cent.

NHS and private pathology laboratories examined a total of 4.3 million smears. Breakdown of this year's cervical cytology figures also reveals a slight fall in coverage among younger women, aged between 20 and 34.

But Dr Peter Sasieni of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund says that without the programme 'we would be seeing an epidemic of cervical cancer in young women'. The charity estimates that the national screening programme led to around 6,000 fewer deaths between 1991 and 1997 and that by 2025 it will prevent some 5,000 cancers a year.