Thousands die early as poverty gap widens

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Thousands of people are dying prematurely in deprived inner cities as the gap between rich and poor in Britain widens. The difference in life expectancy between the poorest and most affluent parts of the country has grown to 11 years and is now more pronounced than in Victorian times, researchers say.

Thousands of people are dying prematurely in deprived inner cities as the gap between rich and poor in Britain widens. The difference in life expectancy between the poorest and most affluent parts of the country has grown to 11 years and is now more pronounced than in Victorian times, researchers say.

In February 2001, the Government announced national targets to raise life expectancy in the most disadvantaged areas faster than elsewhere by 2010.

The target, from a baseline of 2001, is outlined as: "Starting with local authorities, by 2010 to reduce by at least 10 per cent the gap between the fifth of areas with the lowest life expectancy at birth and the population as a whole."

Figures out today show the trends so far are moving in the wrong direction. The increase in life expectancy in the most advantaged areas is outrunning that in the poorest areas. Among men, the gap between the local authority with the lowest life expectancy - Glasgow - and the one with the highest - East Dorset - rose from 10 to 11 years over the period from 1995-97 to 2001-03. Among women, the gap increased from 7.8 to 8.4 years. George Davey Smith, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Bristol, who led the study, said in the British Medical Journal: "In a relatively short period, that is a substantial increase."

The health gap remained stable between 1992-94 and 1995-97 but has been widening since. It is now wider than it has been since Victorian times, the authors say, and reflects increases in the gap between rich and poor.

"Income inequalities rose markedly in the 1980s and have been sustained throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. The poorest 10 per cent in society now receive 3 per cent of the nation's total income whereas the richest 10 per cent receive more than a quarter."

Wealth inequality has also increased. Between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of wealth held by the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population increased from 47 per cent to 54 per cent and the share of the top 1 per cent rose from 18 per cent to 23 per cent.

The authors say: "Despite their commitment to tackling health inequalities, when it comes to underlying income inequalities, New Labour have been prepared only to try lifting some sections of the population out of poverty. They have yet to effectively tackle the wider issue of inequality."

A growing economy and measures such as the minimum wage, extra help for the unemployed and tax credits have failed to tackle the problem. More substantial redistributive policies are needed to address poverty and income inequality, they say.

In a 1999 study, The Widening Gap, the same authors found the death rate among people under 65 was two and a half times higher in Glasgow than in more prosperous areas in southern Britain.

They said if people in the worst areas had enjoyed the same health as those in the best, 71 per cent of the deaths under 65 would have been avoided, a saving of more than 10,000 lives.

Professor Davey Smith said yesterday: "As health inequalities have worsened since, we can say that if anything the proportion of premature deaths that might have been avoided in the worst areas has increased."

The Tory health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, said: "Labour have failed to reverse the trend of health inequalities across Britain. Only yesterday John Reid said the Government was committed to tackling health inequalities, but this is all talk."

Twin tales

* ADULTS WITH NO QUALIFICATIONS

Glasgow: 41 per cent

East Dorset: 28 per cent

* UNSKILLED WORKERS

Glasgow: 5 per cent

East Dorset: 4 per cent

* PROFESSIONALS

Glasgow: 20 per cent

East Dorset: 29 per cent

* AVERAGE HOUSE PRICE

Glasgow £119,933

East Dorset £255,415

* MORTGAGE PAID OFF

Glasgow: 15 per cent

East Dorset: 45 per cent

* PERMANENTLY SICK OR DISABLED

Glasgow: 9 per cent

East Dorset: 2 per cent

Human Geography of the UK, Prof Danny Dorling

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