The Government has been urged to increase its funding for water and sanitation programmes overseas by a Bradford peer.

Using his maiden speech in the House of Lords, Lord Patel of Bradford urged Ministers to focus on sustainable international development to help the world's poorest children.

The former Bradford social worker who became a lord in June, said his speech was triggered by a UNICEF discussion he attended in September about its international development activities on water, sanitation and hygiene, known as its WASH programme.

He said: "Sanitation problems in the world are so bad and that really stuck a chord with me.

"I thought, I have to bring this to the Government's attention, and the best way for me to do this was to make it the focus of my maiden speech in the House of Lords."

In some countries, unsafe drinking water and poor hygiene claim the lives of 1.5 million children under five every year and more than 125 million children live in households without access to an improved drinking water source.

Lord Patel said he was heartened by the Government's response to water projects but urged it to think more about sustainability. He said: "We want to give these people an exit strategy, to help them to help themselves and make sure they have the resources to do it for themselves.

"With regards to sanitation goals, we are miles behind the UN's millennium goals. This is a real crisis and one we must do something about. Thousands of children are dying."

Lord Patel has extensive experience of helping people in England with drugs and mental health issues and now wants to extend his help to people overseas.

Born in Nairobi, Lord Patel moved to Bradford at the age of one. He became a social worker in Keighley and managed the Bradford-based Bridge Project, helping drug users. He has devoted most of his life to addressing racial inequality in mental health care.

He has an OBE for services to ethnic minority health issues and is national director for the Black and Minority Ethnic Mental Health Programme.

He is also head of the Centre for Ethnicity and Health at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, a research centre supporting mental health care organisations nationwide.

Lord Patel admitted he was nervous about the speech. He said: "Even though I do conferences nearly every week, I was full of nerves.

"The House of Lords is a hallowed place and it is a daunting experience. You've got former prime ministers and people who have huge experience of running the country. But thankfully a lot of people were very positive about my speech."