HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc298-306

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

12 midnight

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

I thank Madam Speaker—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly as an Adjournment debate is in progress.

Mr. Colman

I thank Madam Speaker for allowing this debate on the World Health Organisation third ministerial conference on environment and health, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will open at 10 am in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. As I said during business questions last Thursday, I urge the Government to timetable a full debate in the House before the summer recess on the outcomes of the conference, given the important policy areas to be covered by the conference in the next three days, which include the United Kingdom environment and health action plan.

In this short Adjournment debate, I will cover what I believe to be the main areas of concern, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response—if not immediately—when she enters the Chamber, and subsequently in writing. This is the third conference in the WHO European region environment and health process, which has been running for 12 years. The process brings together representatives of 870 million people from 51 countries, including all the countries of the European Union, central and eastern European countries, the newly independent states and the central Asian republics.

As hon. Members will be aware, there are huge differences in the levels of health between countries. Since the decline of the Soviet Union, both public health and the state of the environment have diminished across Europe. However, it is also important to recognise—as did Acheson in his report into health inequalities in the United Kingdom—that great inequalities can exist in the health of different groups within the same nation. I hope that our Government will act on the basis of that report, independent of the WHO environment and health process.

The first conference in Frankfurt in 1989 issued a set of "principles for public policy" to guide Governments' actions on environment and health. The second conference held in Helsinki in 1994 called on Governments to produce national environment and health action plans—some of which have been ground-breaking in their encouragement of joined-up thinking between different ministries and Departments in countries across Europe. The third conference, starting in the morning, hosted by the United Kingdom Government, focuses on action. All involved sincerely hope that implementation will begin, and that outlook is reflected in the conference theme: "Action in Partnership". I shall take this opportunity to consider some of the outcomes of the ministerial conference.

First, I note that the main outcome is to be a legal protocol on water and health, which is the protocol to the 1992 Helsinki convention on the protection and use of trans-boundary water courses and international lakes. The aim is to prevent, control and reduce the incidence of water-related diseases through collaboration on water management and the protection of health and the environment. I am sure that that laudable proposal, which has been developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the WHO regional office for Europe, has cross-party support in the House.

The protocol addresses measures to achieve adequate supplies of wholesome drinking water, adequate sanitation and the effective protection of water resources, and safeguards against water-related disease arising from the use of water for recreational purposes. I am sure that all those who swim in the sea—including me—support that latter aim. I hope and trust that the Minister will send a message to her European colleagues to sign, ratify and implement the protocol.

The European region as a whole faces significant problems. According to the World Health Organisation, one in seven people in the WHO European region do not have access to safe water. Surely that must be considered a violation of one of the most basic human rights. Furthermore, at the dawn of the third millennium, diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever and hepatitis A—which we thought had long since disappeared from Europe—are reappearing. In Latvia, for example, several hundred cases of hepatitis A and bacterial dysentery are attributed to contaminated drinking water each year.

Given that the protocol has been agreed and is to be signed on Friday, what will be done to ensure that its worthy objectives are implemented? How are we to guarantee that the protocol is translated into meaningful action on the ground? Will the Government consider hosting a funders meeting, bringing together the World bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other funding sources, as well as representatives of citizens and non-governmental organisations, in a partnership to examine how we move from words to action?

Partnership is the recurring theme in the conference proposals. I particularly welcome the commitment to public participation, access to information and access to justice in environment and health matters and the reiterated commitment to the Athens convention of 1998. What are the Government's plans to support further work in that field? I have long been a supporter of the local Agenda 21 process, with its emphasis on economic development, environmental protection and social equity and the involvement of all local stakeholders. Of course, many local authorities have ensured that links between health and the environment are part of their local Agenda 21 plans.

The WHO healthy cities project has also made a significant contribution to improving public health and the environment at the level where it counts most—the local level. The UK is to have the national environment and health action plan, which also proceeds on the Agenda 21 stakeholder approach. When will that be launched? What key indicators do the Government intend to use in that important policy document?

I note that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will tomorrow chair an important session of the conference, on early human health effects of climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion in Europe. I hope that he will be able to support the proposals on contraction and convergence being made by Globe, the cross-party MPs' group on the environment, and will urge on all countries present the urgent need to sign and ratify the Kyoto proposals as an absolute minimum domestic action.

Yesterday's Chatham house conference on implementing the Kyoto protocol demonstrates the need for urgent action at COP-5 in Bonn this autumn. I commend to the House the suggestion of the honourable Simon Upton of New Zealand, who has led in this field, for the European Union to negotiate a deal on Russian hot air in return for finance to deal with environmental degradation in Russia.

The World Health Organisation's contribution to monitoring the impact of climate change on human health is to be applauded and, I hope, developed. However, I hope also that the focus of all our actions will be on preventing climate change as far as possible, rather than on adapting to those changes once we know that they are happening. I am glad to say that Ministers of all countries in the European regions reaffirmed their commitment to the precautionary principle in paragraph 44 of the draft ministerial declaration. I warmly welcome that endorsement of the principle, and hope that it leads to action to reduce risks to health where there is uncertainty. Furthermore, I also commend to the House the proposal for an international centre for emissions trading based in London as a way economically to drive down emissions.

I ask that every health authority, trust and primary care group should be requested, as part of an NHS-Kyoto CO2, reduction target, to bring forward its plans for sustainability. The conference is a great opportunity for the NHS to demonstrate what it has already done towards achieving the UK reduction target of 20 per cent.

I note the adoption of the charter for transport, environment and health. It is good that the WHO has at last placed firmly on the agenda transport and its impact on health. That will be particularly welcome to asthma sufferers throughout the world. The charter also takes a sensible approach to other aspects of transport, ranging from particulates to social isolation caused by lack of access to transport and the destruction of communities by traffic and noise.

About 120,000 people are killed in traffic accidents each year, and one in three of those are under the age of 25. There is also a wealth of evidence that the most disadvantaged suffer most. Those from the lowest social class are up to five times more likely to be the victims of traffic accidents and are far more likely to live in areas of higher traffic pollution levels, more traffic noise and busier, less sociable streets. Those World Health Organisation figures are surely unacceptable to all hon. Members.

The problems caused by traffic are only one part of the equation. There is an emerging link between lung cancer and exposure to traffic pollutants. It is estimated that 80,000 deaths among adults of over 35 years of age in urban areas of Europe are related to long-term exposure to transport air pollutants used in the ambient concentration of particulates as an indicator of exposure.

I look forward to pressure from the UK Government to move the charter from declaration status to legally binding convention status as soon as possible. Domestically, I hope that Ministers will shortly be able to fulfil their promise to announce a national target for traffic reduction, and that they will introduce policies to achieve that target.

Hon. Members will no doubt join me in welcoming the WHO's focus on child health at the conference. It is of great importance that the special vulnerability of children is recognised when safe exposure levels are set for toxic substances. The strong stance of the recently launched WHO initiative on tobacco is welcome, but the impact of tobacco advertising on child health needs to be addressed. The proposal in the draft declaration for annual monitoring and reporting on the state of child health in paragraph 50(F) is also worthy of note. It is to be hoped that Governments will include a focus on reproductive health as a key issue in protecting child health.

What is missing from the conference agenda this week? It is disappointing that there is to be no discussion about healthy food. I led a UK parliamentary delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union food summit conference last December at the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome. I was struck by the importance of the Codex Alimentarius jointly run for the past 50 years by the WHO and the FAO as a benchmark of the acceptability of novel foods.

Do the Government agree that that is important, and will they be represented at ministerial level at the Codex Alimentarius Commission to be held in Rome from 28 June to 3 July, when the new role of the World Trade Organisation in genetically modified foods will be debated? It is a pity that the conference this week did not reassert the primacy of the FAO and WHO in this field, or at least debate the issue.

The excellent Healthy Planet Forum, a 2,000-strong parallel conference taking place at Westminster central hall, is filling the gap by hosting an alternative food summit this Thursday. Can the Minister say whether any UK Government Minister has been able to clear his or her diary to speak at the food conference?

I am also disappointed that the issue of toxic chemicals, which appeared on the draft agenda, has been omitted from the final agenda and draft declaration. That is a critical issue for the environment. The recent scandal involving dioxins in Belgian food has served to emphasise public concern. The World Wide Fund for Nature is holding an expert panel discussion on toxic chemicals today at the NGO Healthy Planet Forum, when I understand that WWF will be making known new research in this area. I hope that the Minister will then be able to respond to the new research.

The Healthy Planet Forum will bring together NGOs, local authorities and interested people from almost all the 51 countries, and many others from outside Europe, to discuss the range of links between human health and the environment. The forum has been organised with the financial support of the UK Government, whom I thank, and the European Union and socially responsible businesses. I look forward to a lively and stimulating interaction between the civil society event and the ministerial event.

I strongly welcome the conference and its linkage of environment and health. I note that in the final sentences of its draft declaration, it mentions presenting the London declaration to be agreed this week to all member states in 2002 through the WHO and the committee on environmental policy of the UNECE. I recommend that the proposals should be presented to Earth Summit III, Rio plus 10, to be held also in 2002, so that all the nations of the earth can consider and take forward the excellent work being done this week.

12.14 am
The Minister for Public Health (Ms Tessa Jowell)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) on securing such an important and well-timed debate. The points that he raised span my ministerial responsibilities and those of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. I will ensure that the many points that my hon. Friend raised which are of specific relevance to my right hon. Friend are drawn to his attention.

The important challenge for the conference is linking the domestic and local impact of health and environmental issues with the need for global action. One reason why we are so glad that the WHO is a partner in that challenge is that the organisation has global reach. It has 191 member states and four key functions: giving worldwide guidance on health; setting global standards for health; co-operating with Governments to strengthen national health programmes; and developing and transferring appropriate health technology, information and standards.

The WHO's European region draws its membership from across the continent—from Greenland to the eastern limits of Russia, covering 51 countries and 870 million people. It therefore has a clear strategic overview of how the environment of the whole continent interacts with its population and is extremely well placed to co-ordinate work—on air pollution, for example—at a level that is simply not available to individual member states. The United Kingdom has long been a supporter of that approach to tackling trans-boundary issues.

I want to refer specifically to health inequality because it is linked directly to the disproportionate harm that can be done to people in deprived communities by environmental conditions. For example, the Department of Health's Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants published a report last year that looked at the relationship between air pollution and people's health—a link that is often described as causal in terms of ill-health.

The study concluded that air pollution hastened between 12,000 and 24,000 deaths in 1997—although, it was estimated, by only a matter of days in many cases—and brought on about the same number of hospitalisations. Most of those people were disadvantaged and vulnerable to begin with and their condition was clearly exacerbated by a polluted environment. That is an important issue on which we co-operate globally, because environmental pollution does not respect frontiers. We consider working with the WHO and member states across Europe to be the proper way to achieve progress.

Another example is water quality, which does not often affect us directly, but the central and eastern European countries suffer most acutely from lack of a decent water supply. Polluted and infected water is equally as hard to contain as poor air quality, and contaminated water brings contaminated food which may be exported across the continent. Again, we need to act internationally and together to safeguard everybody's environment and health.

The conference that begins in London tomorrow is the third such conference. The first was held in Frankfurt in 1989, and the product was the European charter that set a framework for future action and policy formulation in this area. The second was held in Helsinki in 1994, and members drew up a framework plan for improving environmental health.

The London conference is a high-profile event—the biggest political event on the environment and health ever held in Europe. Health, Environment and Transport Ministers and officials from the 51 member states of the WHO's European region will attend, together with delegates from other WHO regions, and the conference is a joint effort by the WHO and the European Union. That shared ownership, as it were, highlights the importance of the issues, and the need for an inter-country approach to tackling issues that know no national boundaries.

The conference will emphasise the importance of actions to improve health and the environment by promoting both national and international developments. Its theme is "action in partnership", and gearing that action towards mapping a strategic path towards an environment for sustainable health in the 21st century.

Conferences such as this are often criticised for excluding the people whom they affect, and for being packed with unresponsive bureaucrats inhabiting ivory towers. It is because I want us to overcome that that I so much welcome the parallel event involving nongovernmental organisations that I shall visit tomorrow. I shall address one of its sessions on Friday. We sought to involve non-governmental organisations in the drafting of the papers that we shall discuss, and have invited some of the keynote speakers. The neighbouring parallel conference, which will be attended by more than 1,000 people from across Europe, will reinforce the messages and the representative base of the 50 NGO delegates who will attend the ministerial conference.

Let me quickly go through the items on the agenda, and respond to some of the points made by my hon. Friend. Tomorrow the charter on transport, environment and health will be discussed. It will be signed by me, and by other United Kingdom Ministers: the Minister for the Environment and my noble Friend Lord Whitty, the Under-Secretary of State. The charter will cover integration of the environmental aspects of health in transport policies—including health within environmental impact assessments—transport-related health impacts, and the impact on vulnerable groups and sensitive areas. It will also establish guideline values for the health implications of transport activities, promote cycling and walking, and establish policy measures and instruments for sustainable and health-promoting transport.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Can my right hon. Friend assure us that part of that commitment will be followed by a commitment to the road traffic reduction legislation that is needed, with specific targets?

Ms Jowell

As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, that is being considered by Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's concern about the importance of traffic reduction measures is drawn to their attention; but I think that, overall, the transport charter will be seen as being complementary to the Government's integrated transport policy.

On Thursday, the protocol on water and health will be considered—a protocol to the 1992 convention on the protection and use of trans-boundary water courses and international lakes, developed jointly by the WHO and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Ministers will sign it at the London conference, and it will be legally binding. This is the first occasion on which the WHO has been involved in the development of such a legally binding protocol. It will address action on adequate drinking water and sanitation, safe water for agriculture, aquaculture and recreation, and systems for monitoring and managing risks to health. The UK Government, across Departments, have been closely involved in the negotiation of the protocol.

On Friday, we expect the London declaration, a strategic document signed on behalf of the conference by UK Ministers and structured around three themes: action, partnership and the 21st century. It will draw together key recommendations for further action from the other conference documents. It will consider the WHO's role in working with member states on health and the environment, and the role of NGOs and other enterprises.

Although those are the major strategic issues to be considered, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) has said, there are others, including the important issue of children's health and the environment, with the focus, which I particularly welcome, on the impact of environmental tobacco smoke. Progress on the implementation of national environmental health action plans will be considered. The updated report will be published shortly. I hope that he will recognise at that time that substantial progress has been achieved.

There will be an overview of local Agenda 21 projects to improve environmental health. Measures to achieve greater public participation in tackling those issues, ways of disseminating best practice in safe and healthy work places, and the effects of climate change on human health will be considered. I take my hon. Friend's point that it is important that issues in relation to sustainability and the national health service are also addressed. As a Green Minister in the Department of Health, I can assure him that we take the issues of sustainability extremely seriously.

The problem is that, at such an event, there is never time to do justice to all the issues that people want to raise and to discuss, but I hope that the range of agenda issues that will be addressed in the main conference and in the NGOs conference will stimulate debate, begin to provide some solutions and begin to establish a clear set of actions that will follow.

Mr. Colman

Would the Minister like to comment on the alternative healthy food summit, which is coming up on Thursday, and whether a Minister could be there on the platform alongside the many eminent people who are coining from throughout Europe to discuss that issue?

Ms Jowell

I understand that it is not possible for a Minister to attend the summit, but I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that I will ensure that I and the Minister with responsibility for food safety receive a report of those discussions and consider their implications for food policy in England.

By the end of the week, we will have signed a legally binding protocol on water and health, which will commit each Government to publish targets for achieving safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and proper protection of other aspects of water that impinge on people's health. In particular, each Government will have to draw up plans on how they intend to attain those targets and to monitor their progress towards them. In effect, the existing high standards that we enjoy in the UK and the rest of the European Union will be rolled out throughout the continent. That is the intention.

We will also have signed a charter on transport and health that recognises the need for sustainable policies to reduce the harmful effects that transport can have on people's health and their environment. That involves air, soil, water pollution, accidents, noise and greenhouse gas emissions. We want to encourage a healthier, more physically active approach to transport. We will work with our European partners to build on the lessons that we have learned from our integrated transport strategy.

All those represent significant gains for the people of Europe. We are determined that the big statements and big promises of an important inter-ministerial conference are translated into practical benefits for the local environment in this country and improvements in people's health.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.