THE Government has been challenged to rethink its decision to close a women's open jail near York by the Shadow Prisons Minister.

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman visited HMP Askham Grange this week as it faces closure after the Ministry of Justice said dedicated jails for female offenders were no longer needed, just months after inspectors praised the prison as "remarkable".

The Government has said the changes will allow women prisoners to serve their sentences closer to home, but Mrs Chapman said it would leave some offenders, including mothers of young children, further away from their families.

Politicians in York have been seeking assurances about the future of 100 staff at Askham Grange, with a petition calling for it to remain open signed by more than 1,300 people.

The prison has space for 162 women and Mrs Chapman said it has the second lowest reoffending rate of any women's prison, at ten per cent, less than half the rate of other jails its size. The Ministry of Justice, which is also set to close East Sutton Park prison in Kent, rated it as "exceptional" last year.

Mrs Chapman said: "I was really impressed with the work going on inside Askham Grange - the women were confident, articulate and job-ready, and it was great to talk to them about their future plans.

"The Government's prison closures have been a mess, closing some excellent establishments without taking their performance into account. While trying to convince us they are going to place all women closer to home, they are planning to abolish two of the most successful prisons and leave local women further from their families. I recommend they take a look at the practices at Askham Grange and think again."

The Ministry of Justice said the changes will make women's jails "resettlement prisons", helping to reintegrate offenders into society and providing a "small average reduction in distance" between prisoners and their homes. Lord McNally, Minister for Female Offenders, said keeping female prisoners close to their homes is pivotal to "breaking the pernicious cycle of reoffending".

Justice Minister Simon Hughes told City of York Council leader James Alexander recently that all Askham Grange staff would be offered new jobs within an hour of York.