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Millions wasted on food schemes as the rich-poor health gap grows

Short-term, headline-grabbing programmes have done little for the well-being of lower social classes

The health gap between the nation's rich and poor has widened over the past decade, despite millions of pounds of public money spent on tackling health inequalities, according to a parliamentary committee.

Ministers have rolled out short-term policies driven by a desire for positive publicity, rather than concentrating on longer, more effective measures that could make a real impact, says a Health Select Committee report.

In a damning conclusion, its report warns that the true impact of multimillion-pound schemes aimed at improving the health of Britain's poorest people is unknown because proper data about the results of such initiatives is rarely collected.

The report, published today, also highlights the Government's failure to roll out simple measures that would help people to stop smoking, eat better, and live healthier lives. MPs say they are "appalled" by the failure to introduce a clear food labelling system, four years after they first recommended it. Fast-food outlets and tobacco smuggling must be better controlled because they contribute heavily to health inequalities between the richest and poorest, the report argues. It also backs the call by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for compulsory cookery lessons for schoolchildren.

Kevin Baron, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: "We were shocked by the numbers of people who rely on takeaway food. The Government must make a quick decision and introduce a traffic-light system of labelling on all foods. This will make a big difference to many people's health.

"Governments have to start thinking long-term because individual lifestyles are the biggest threat to public health in the 21st century. Finding more effective ways to help people to change their behaviour will take more than three-year or four-year programmes that sound brilliant politically and look good in the media."

Britons from lower social classes die younger, smoke more, are more likely to be obese and have higher rates of infant mortality than people from the highest social classes, according to official figures. These health inequalities have widened despite the Government's ambitious target to reduce the gap by 10 per cent by 2010.

The year-long cross-party inquiry found that while the health of all groups is improving, the gap between rich and poor has increased by 11 per cent among women and 4 per cent in men since 1998. It is critical of the fact that millions have been spent on programmes such as Health Action Zones, whose effectiveness is not proven. MPs are critical of the fact the Government's much-vaunted Sure Start has been extended nationwide without convincing evidence to justify it.

Tammy Boyce, from the King's Fund think-tank, said: "Ministers don't want to evaluate because who wants to be told millions have been spent on a programme that doesn't work? So they just keep pressing for more innovation. Well, guess what? People on the ground have had enough. They want time and money to figure out what works."

The report criticises the lack of co-operation between Whitehall departments, despite assurances from the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, that civil servants worked so closely together on tackling health inequalities that they were almost "joined at the hip". Pointedly, the report says that if such "joined-up working" was truly the best in Whitehall, "this must mean that elsewhere it is very poor".

The Government underestimates the barriers to healthy eating, the report warns. It argues that people need cheap, convenient access to healthy food – and the skills to cook it – rather than a multiplicity of takeaways.

Fresh ideas: 'We need healthy eating lessons'

Adele Hinchcliffe, 32, is an ex-smoker and the single mum of Lauren, 12, and Olivia, eight. They live in Brinnington, an area of deprivation and high unemployment near Stockport. Adele smoked "cheap" rolling tobacco between the ages of 19 and 30. She was never offered help by her GP or midwife, but finally quit on her own. The family relied on ready meals and takeaways until Lauren's weight reached nearly 10 stone last year and her mother sought help from the obesity programme, Mend. Now the family understand food labels and are angry at being conned by "low-fat" claims. The children eat school dinners so Adele would like to see chips and burgers taken away. "All the kids and parents should be taught about healthy eating by the school. Otherwise healthy school dinners won't make any difference."