More than 10,000 premature deaths per year will be saved if the government persists with policies to combat poverty and reduce health inequalities, according to a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The study of the health gap between the richest and poorest parts of Britain predicts a rapid improvement in mortality rates in deprived areas if key social policies are successful and even a 'modest' redistribution of wealth is achieved.

The report, published on Monday, follows on the heels of the government's own progress report on its anti-poverty campaign.

The second annual report on poverty from the Department of Social Security announces a 'major'drop in child poverty. In the three years to spring 2000 the number of children living in households where nobody is in work fell by more than 250,000.

More than one million families are now claiming the working families tax credit, making them about£31 per week better off than they were under family credit.

But the report reveals that the number of pensioners living in poverty increased by 100,000 before the introduction of the minimum income guarantee.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report can be read as an endorsement of current government policy, although co-author Dr Richard Mitchell insisted that it was not political.

Using figures from government sources, researchers calculated that 7,500 deaths among under-65s could be prevented if inequalities in wealth narrow to 1983 levels.

Most of the lives saved would be in poorer areas, where 37 per cent of excess deaths would be prevented. Full employment would prevent 2,500 deaths.

Eradicating child poverty - which the government has pledged to achieve within 20 years - would save 1,400 children's lives, 92 per cent of all excess child deaths in areas of higher-thanaverage mortality.

Dr Mitchell, a senior research fellow at Leeds University, said the report's figures were 'conservative' and did not take into account likely mortality improvements in people over 65. He hoped the report would focus attention on the importance of a 'macroeconomic' approach to inequality, as opposed to small-scale local initiatives such as health action zones.

Responses to the report were mixed. Birmingham health authority director of public health Dr Jacky Chambers said she was tired of researchers trawling through 'the same old data'.

She called for analysis at local level, which would reveal the impact of current efforts to tackle health inequalities, and suggest how much more needs to be done.

There was a warmer response from Professor Mark Baker, director of public health at North Yorkshire HA, who said it added 'significantly' to information on inequalities.

But he added: 'Reducing variations in health by levelling up is something that statisticians can deliver, but the human race finds it hard to do. '

John Nicholson, chief executive of the UK Public Health Association, said the report would increase 'pressure in the right direction'. But he warned that there was no guarantee that the government's polices would succeed.

The early signs of progress highlighted by the DSS report on poverty could collapse unless the government acted to support them with a fundamental structure, he said. 'These slight improvements have been made with a favourable economy. There isn't anything there to sustain people through any hint of a downturn. '

Inequalities in life and death: what if Britain were more equal? www.jfr.org.uk.

Opportunity for All/One Year On: making a difference.

www.dss.gov.uk.