The government this week launched an offensive against claims that its social exclusion agenda has done little to tackle the root causes of poverty and a widening north-south divide.

Prime minister Tony Blair charged Cabinet Office minister Dr Mo Mowlam with a new role heading the government's social exclusion unit.

He also announced that the unit's work will continue for three more years.

On the same day Mr Blair embarked on a two-day tour of north-west England in an attempt to 'put in context some of the stereotypes of the down-trodden north and the prosperous south'.

The visit followed publication last week of research by the Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research, which shows that 14 out of 15 parliamentary constituencies with the 'worst' health are in the north.

Mr Blair's speech was sandwiched between the Townsend launch and publication today of findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which add further weight to the links between geography, poverty and ill-health.

The report - Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 1999 - compares levels of health, wealth and social inclusion against core baseline indicators first measured when the Labour government was formed in 1997. The total number of indicators used has increased from 46 to 50 this year.

Comparing the regional spread of low incomes, the report found twice as many people of working age receiving 'key' government benefits in the north-east as in the south-east.

In comparison with 1997, this year's report shows increasing numbers of people living on very low incomes.

The total number of people living on less than two-fifths of the national average is up by 1 million to 8 million.

More than 2 million children still live in households where no adult has a paid job, despite an upturn in the economy.

Overall, the report paints a 'steady picture', with little change to the number of people living on half the average income or in long-term receipt of benefits. The number of young people aged 18 to 24 who are unemployed or on low pay has also remained steady.

It shows improvements in the economy, falling levels of unemployment, and a 10 per cent drop in the number of adults on means-tested benefits.

But the report's authors emphasised that the effects of the government's anti-poverty strategy are 'only just beginning to kick in'.

Most of the statistics used to measure progress are 1998 figures, while most of the government's anti-poverty initiatives got under way in the last 12 months.

Co-author Catherine Howarth said: 'I think by next year there will be an explosion in evidence, ' which would make it possible to properly evaluate the success of the government's efforts.

Dr Peter Kenway, director of the New Policy Institute, which compiled the research, said the poverty and social exclusion agenda remained 'frighteningly large'.

The report highlights some 'overlaps' and key differences between its 50 indicators and the 38 'success measures' outlined in the government's annual assessment, Opportunities for All: tackling poverty .

Dr Kenway said: 'The difference is that our indicators go beyond theirs. Their indicators tend to focus on areas where they are focusing their initiatives.'

Report co-author Guy Palmer said it would be 'reasonable' to infer that the government's own assessment would be more likely to show success than the broader Rowntree indicators.

He said areas which had been paid little attention by the government included indicators to measure 'social cohesion', such as the proportion of people without a bank account or telephone.

Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 1999 . Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 01904615905.£18.95. Summary: