The gap between the life expectancy of the rich and poor has widened despite efforts to close it, a government watchdog has revealed.

A National Audit Office report that focused on 70 of the most deprived areas in England found that while life expectancy went up across the board, the difference compared with more affluent parts of the country was greater - 7% for men and 14% for women.

In 1995-97, men in poorer areas were expected to live 72.7 years, compared with 74.6 years in the rest of England.

By 2006-08 the life expectancy of men in these areas rose to 75.8, but the average for men in the rest of the country went up to 77.9 years.

Women in poorer areas could expect to live to 78.3 in 1995-97, compared with 79.7 in the rest of the country. But by 2006-08, poorer women would live to 80.4 while their more affluent counterparts would, on average, live to 82.

The NAO said its calculations showed, since 1995-97, the gap between life expectancy of men in the poorest areas and the rest of England increased to 7% by 2006-08. The gap for women was 14% wider at the end of the same period.

The figures come despite a Labour target in 2000 to reduce the difference in life expectancy by 10% between the poorest and richest by 2010.

But today’s report shows although people are expected to live longer overall, the gap between deprived areas and other areas continued to grow and the target is unlikely to be met.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: “The Department of Health has made a concerted effort to tackle a very difficult and long-standing problem.

“However, it was slow to take action and health inequalities were not a top priority for the NHS until 2006.

“We recognise that this is a very complicated issue and that it took time to develop an evidence base.

“However, the best cost-effective interventions have been identified and now must be employed on a larger scale in order to have a greater impact and improve value for money.”