CANCER sufferers are dying because a Government information campaign pledged five years ago to help early diagnosis was never launched, MPs warn today.

Death rates are highest in large parts of the North-East because people in less affluent areas are less likely to receive vital early treatment, they say.

Today's report, by the public accounts committee, highlights how a comprehensive public awareness campaign, promised in the 2000 NHS Cancer Plan, is still awaited.

As a result, awareness of symptoms remains low - one of the main reasons why patients are diagnosed later in England than in most European countries.

The report says that a North-South divide in cancer deaths is widening because of the failure to educate people how to detect possible tumours.

Four of the ten areas with the highest cancer mortality rates are in the region - Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside, Newcastle and Tees.

The MPs say: "There are clear and unacceptable inequalities in outcome between different parts of the country. There is a North-South contrast in mortality rates.

"If England's survival rates were comparable with the best in Europe, thousands more people across society, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, would survive."

The report notes that research in the late 1990s found that survival rates for 44 of the 47 most common cancers were worse in deprived areas.

But even though survival rates improved, "the five-year survival gap between better and worse off has widened for both men and women, for the majority of cancers", it says.

The report demands the Department of Health publishes simple guidelines to help people recognise appropriate symptoms for major cancers.

Cancer Networks, already set up in every region, should identify the biggest problem areas to tackle the underlying reasons for late diagnosis.

The problems were exacerbated by waiting times for radiotherapy treatment that were too long and getting longer, despite efforts to recruit more staff.

The MPs also attacked the "complacency" of many family doctors, which meant one-third of cancer sufferers were not diagnosed and therefore not referred urgently to specialists.