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Mr. Allan: This measure, with the previous new clause, sums up the Government's approach in amending the Bill, in that the previous new clause made some minor concessions, but this one introduces a new element with a potentially significant and serious impact on asylum seekers. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) over why the measure was introduced at such a late date. The sittings of the Special Standing Committee at which evidence was taken worked well; I hope that becomes the norm rather than the exception. However, that can work well only if substantive issues are introduced at an early stage. This is a substantive issue.

The matter seems to represent the Government's contribution to the arms race that seems to be taking place between the Government and the courts over judicial review. In later parts of the Bill, the Secretary of State denies himself the power to consider preferences as to where asylum seekers want to live, in order not to be taken to judicial review over whether he exercised that discretion properly. Perhaps Ministers will increasingly become automatons, who merely make standard decisions in order to avoid judicial review as that arms race continues. The Government--and perhaps the previous Government--have adopted a fairly combative approach to the courts in the way in which judicial review is exercised.

In this context, it is important to consider what judicial review does when it is exercised in cases under the Dublin convention and those in which safe countries are involved. The Secretary of State said that there would be serious consequences if the cases of a queue of people were undergoing judicial review. The consequences for an individual who is returned to a third country and is not treated properly are incredibly serious. That is literally a matter of life and death.

The kind of cases that have been considered are, for example, those of Kosovan asylum seekers that occurred before the beginning of the conflict. The British Government have now, quite properly, decided to apply 100 per cent. recognition to cases of asylum claims from Kosovans. However, before the conflict started, an individual took a case about being returned to Germany to the Court of Appeal and won, because it was clear that there was a significant chance that the person would be returned to Kosovo from Germany. There were domestic German reasons for that, although I understand that Germany does well in taking a large number of refugees.

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However, the consequences of a return from Germany to Kosovo could have been serious. We all saw what happened to people in Kosovo before and during the conflict.

There is also the Algerian example. The Home Secretary referred to the fact that we apply provisions differently, but arguments about the wrong kind of persecution are deeply disturbing. We seem to be saying that we are quite content to send people back to the wrong kind of persecution; we are content that they should be persecuted by paramilitaries in Colombia or by Islamic militants in Algeria. As long as the state is not carrying out the persecution, we are not prepared to apply the law.

The Secretary of State says that there is a problem with the Dublin convention. I accept that; and I accept what he says about the problems over the different definitions of the 1951 convention. However, I do not want us to take the lowest common denominator, whereby we all head for a minimal definition--especially in the European states, which are among the wealthiest in the world and are more able to offer refuge to individuals who are fleeing persecution. I do not want this country to play a part in driving down standards, by saying, when reinterpreting the 1951 convention, that it is acceptable to use the margin of error and to allow people to face the wrong kind of persecution.

I hope that the Government will tell us why they have introduced the provision at this late stage, and how they intend to drag up standards, rather than drive them down. If the Government are determined to adopt the approach of having 100 per cent. confidence in safe third countries and of not wanting the courts to intervene and consider the issues of differential recognition rates at all, there is a duty incumbent on them to ensure that our European partners have standards that match our own. There is a strong Somali community in Sheffield and Somalia offers a good illustration of my argument. I understand that, because Somalia is deemed to be a civil war state rather than a case of an established Government persecuting individuals, the conflict there would not be regarded in Germany as sufficient grounds for refugee status.

I was pleased when, during the British presidency of the European Union, the Government announced that a common European approach to immigration and refugee issues would be a key matter. However, all has been quiet since then and we have dealt only with domestic legislation. I doubt that the Home Secretary will be successful in reassuring us, so we shall revisit the issue in detail in another place, where we have legal minds who will apply themselves to it. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to offer us some hope that the Government are facing up to the challenge that they set themselves during the British presidency to reach a common European approach and to make the Dublin convention work.

I also hope that the right hon. Gentleman will state that, in that effort, the Government's intention is to meet the highest possible standards, and not to go down the route of the lowest common denominator. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, some of our future EU partners will be countries in eastern Europe whose records are not entirely laudable on these matters. To go

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for the lowest common denominator would be a dangerous path and would make the new clause deeply disturbing to the Liberal Democrats.

Ms Abbott: I join colleagues from the Special Standing Committee in expressing regret that these important and highly technical new clauses were not tabled in good time, so that the Committee could take expert evidence on them and debate them properly. Despite their having the support of some Opposition Members, there is no doubt that the new clauses will have to be considered more fully in the other place.

The amendments deal with issues on which, during the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1996, Labour Members spoke at great length. Concerns still remainin respect of differential standards and differential interpretations of asylum issues within EU member states. It is not a pleasant thought that we as a Government are reduced to playing pass the parcel with asylum seekers. It is difficult to comment on these technical new clauses, having had only a few days in which to study them, but one cannot lose sight of the suspicion that the convenience of Home Office officials is being elevated above the rights of asylum seekers. My hon. Friends have raised serious questions about the new clauses and I hope that Ministers will be able to answer them--if not in the minutes remaining, then when we resume the debate tomorrow.

Mr. Straw: In the closing minutes of the debate this evening, I hope to deal with some of the questions raised. My hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) all asked why the Government were not able to table the amendments and the new clause at an earlier stage in the Bill's passage. I wish that we had been able to do so. They were not an afterthought--the issues they deal with were flagged up in the White Paper published in July, and, if they had wanted to do so, it was open to the non-governmental organisations that gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee to anticipate that we might make a change--

It being Twelve o'clock, the debate stood adjourned, pursuant to Order [this day].

Debate to be resumed this day.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Constitutional Law

Question agreed to.

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WHO Environment and Health Conference

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.

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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.

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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 thedraft 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-KyotoCO 2 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.

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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.

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