The government's public health programme has come under fire after research found the 'biggest health gap' ever measured between the richest and poorest households.

The study, which compared 1 million people living in parliamentary constituencies with the highest mortality rates to 1 million living in constituencies with the lowest, provides stark evidence of a widening north-south divide.

More than half of the 15 'worst health' areas were in Glasgow, while Sheffield Hallam was the only constituency in the 13 'best health' areas which was north of Norfolk. In the 'worst' constituency, Glasgow Shettleston, 59 per cent of children were found to be living in poverty - more than six times as many as in the 'best' constituency, Wokingham, where the figure was 9 per cent.

The Widening Gap accuses the government of 'reneging' on its pledge to reduce poverty, providing 'soundbites and good intentions' instead of a commitment to redistribute income and wealth.

The study, by researchers from the Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research at Bristol University, takes up the case made by the 'Black' report in 1980 for tax redistribution to reverse 'widening inequalities'.

It also gives current costings for the implementation of Black's recommendations -£12.5bn in total.

The research compares post-election 'euphoria', when then public health minister Tessa Jowell vowed to 'wage war on inequalities', with the government's record since and the programme outlined in the Saving Lives white paper.

The most withering attack is reserved for the government's 'flagship' health action zones policy, highlighting the 'long history of only limited success, or even outright failure' of area-based schemes, as well as the 'extremely limited funding' for early work.

Former health secretary Frank Dobson is quoted reporting the success of HAZs in helping 'people on low incomes have greater access to healthy food' and checking homes for 'dodgy electrical wiring'.

'Helping the poor (in selected areas only) locate reasonable greengrocers and tidy up the wiring is unlikely to have a major impact on reducing inequalities in health across Britain, ' it says.

Also under fire are the 'vague' criteria used to select areas, with bids often allocated on 'the basis of competitive tender' rather than 'greatest health needs'.

Other initiatives - including a week's free nicotine therapy for poor people and 'infant feeding advisers' - are also 'unlikely to have a major impact' on inequalities.

The study attacks the financial constraints placed on Sir Donald Acheson's independent inquiry, which last year published 39 recommendations including one to 'reduce income inequalities and improve the living standards of households in receipt of social security benefits'.

See comment, page 15.

The Widening Gap: health inequalities and policy in Britain . The Policy Press, 0117-954 6800.£16.99.