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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.

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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 non- governmental 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

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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 coming 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

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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.

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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.

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