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Australian Bushfires

– in the House of Commons at 12:15 pm on 9th January 2020.

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Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:15 pm, 9th January 2020

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you returned as first Deputy Chair of Ways and Means. With your permission, I will update the House on the bushfires in Australia.

In the past four months, bushfires in Australia have killed at least 25 people and displaced thousands more, with over 1,900 homes destroyed. Millions more people have been affected by poor air quality as a result of fire smoke, with 10 million acres of land burnt. Meteorologists predict that the fires will get worse before they get better, as peak summer temperatures are yet to come. This crisis has been devastating and our hearts go out to the Australian people.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Commonwealth, the UN and South Asia, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, have been in contact with their Australian counterparts to offer our condolences and stress our readiness to help in whatever way they need. Furthermore, our high commission and consulates general are in close contact with Australian authorities at federal and state level, exploring how the UK can support them and what assistance they would find most useful.

The Australian Government have agreed an offer by the Foreign Secretary to deploy an expert support and assessment team of specialists from defence, health and fire. We have deployed this team to meet Australian officials, and they will be on site in the coming days. The team will include a senior member of the UK fire and rescue service, a medical specialist in trauma and mental health, and a military liaison officer. The team will work with Australian colleagues to establish the types, extent and duration of support that will be of most use to Australian emergency responders, and ensure that such contributions are fully integrated with Australian efforts. The specialists will liaise with regional co-ordinators as well as with the central Australian Government. The important point is that the help we are giving is the help we have been asked for.

Such is the nature of our close relationship that co-operation between the UK and Australia is taking place all the time. Across the globe, UK forces are deployed alongside Australian counterparts. The recent radio interview with Lieutenant Grimmer, a Royal Navy pilot on exchange to the Royal Australian Navy who has been working on evacuation operations, demonstrates how we are already helping through our established relationships. The close ties between the UK and Australia are of course mirrored across families and friends in both countries, which makes this a very personal tragedy.

As ever, our greatest and most immediate concern is the security of British citizens. We are grateful to the Australian authorities for the timely and professional advice they are providing to help keep British visitors to Australia safe. We also pay tribute to the heroism and professionalism of Australia’s emergency services, many of whom are volunteers, and some of whom have lost their lives as they tackle an unprecedented level of bushfire destruction. I am sure that the whole House will join me in extending our sympathies to the people of Australia, given what they are going through. The stories of valour that are coming out of Australia, which we have seen in the media and on an individual level, have been deeply moving.

As my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt has pointed out on social media, fighting sustained crises is exhausting and we should support one of closest allies at this time. She has also rightly drawn attention to the impact on Australia’s unique wildlife, including koalas. The Government recognise that the environmental and agricultural impact of the bushfires is staggering. Almost half a billion animals are thought to have perished, and there are concerns that some species found only in certain areas of Australia may have been wiped out altogether. We stand ready to support Australian authorities to address the ecological damage in due course, and this is something that our support and assessment team will cover.

Australia is one of our most valued allies, partners and friends. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the people of Australia and are ready to help in whatever way they need. The UK deployment this week reflects our measured approach, which will ensure that any assistance is appropriate and meets Australia’s specific needs, but the UK support is ongoing and long-term, reflecting the deep ties between our countries. The Australian authorities, from the Foreign Minister to Emergency Management Australia, have expressed how welcome our enduring assistance remains. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 12:20 pm, 9th January 2020

Like all colleagues, let me welcome you to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker, following your unopposed election as Deputy Speaker. I also thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. I am grateful for her assurance that support is being given to any British nationals and tourists who have been affected, and that support has also been offered to the Australian authorities. However, like her, my thoughts are with our Australian cousins who have lost their homes, jobs, communities and, in some tragic cases, their lives as a result of the fires. Like her, I applaud the astonishing efforts of the Australian firefighters and other emergency services who have been trying to tackle this crisis, and I applaud too all those ordinary Australians who have so movingly and selflessly risked their own lives to save koala bears and other creatures whose populations have suffered such devastation as their natural habitat has been devoured by the flames. I understand that to date up to 1 billion animals may have perished.

What we have seen in recent weeks has been nothing short of a catastrophe, for not just Australia but the whole world, and I wholeheartedly share the Minister’s words of sympathy and solidarity with our close friends for what they are going through at the moment. But when the fires are finally extinguished, it would be remiss of us if we did not discuss the underlying causes of these unprecedented events; 2019 was the second hottest year on record, and the past five years fill the top five positions as the hottest years on record. Any group of individuals who can look at those figures and continue to deny that global warming and climate change are real issues are equivalent to those people who still insist that the world is flat. Yet, sadly, such individuals include the current President of the United States, Donald Trump; the current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro; and— I say this with great regret, given what his country is currently experiencing—the current Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison. There is something bitterly sad about the fact that those three leaders have all seen raging wildfires in their countries over the past year—in California, in the Amazon and now on the eastern coast of Australia.

So the question we all face is how we address the challenge of climate change, how we keep the Paris agreement on track and how we stop our world reaching the point of no return on global warming, where events such as those we are currently seeing in Australia become the new normal. Facing a challenge of that scale, we have to recognise one thing—that what we do alone in the UK will make not a jot of difference to the global problems we all face.

What we need instead is what my right friend the shadow Foreign Secretary called for a year ago:

“the globalisation of the green new deal”.

The proposition is that we help every country in the world, and indeed use our weight at the UN to oblige every country to use the natural resources at their disposal, whether it be wind power, tidal power or solar power, to move rapidly towards a zero-carbon economy, in the process creating millions of new jobs. Britain led the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. We are in a very good position to lead this green revolution, and I urge the Government to take that lead.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for that. We are grateful to him for laying out his thoughts. I do not think he actually asked me a specific question, and I am grateful to him for that as well.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Of course, the hon. Member asked about climate change. On that, the most important thing is that we are going to be chairing COP26, so we have ambitious climate change targets for all countries going forward. When I go on trips to other countries, I am looking forward to asking all of them how ambitious they are going to be. On money, specifically, we are increasing our international climate finance offer from £8.5 billion between 2016 and 2020 to £11.6 billion over the period 2021 to 2025, in order to help developing countries take action.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

It is a great pleasure to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the Minister’s statement and I am very grateful that the Prime Minister has made the offer to his opposite number Scott Morrison. I also welcome the partnership the Minister has spoken of, but is there more we could do? I ask that because the Foreign Office has such excellent links with the Australian Administration—indeed, we were one and the same until about the 1960s. We have several members of the Commonwealth of Australia sitting on these Benches, and it is a pleasure to have them here. Can we look at co-operating with regional partners, bringing together an alliance of others not just to engage in Australia but to deal with the forest fires we are seeing around the world?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is perhaps soon again to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. [Interruption.] I said “perhaps”. One thing that was really helpful when Lord Ahmad was out in Australia was the fact that we hold the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth at the moment. One thing we are doing as part of the Commonwealth is getting member states to work together on this matter, through initiatives such as the Blue Charter and the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. So we are there as a group promoting environmental protection across the world.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. It has been very hard watching Australia burn in the past few weeks. I am fortunate, in that most of my friends and family are concentrated in the west and so are suffering less, but my thoughts, my love and my heart go out to all of those who are in harm’s way across the continent. It is difficult for most people here to appreciate the size of the fires and to appreciate the size of Australia to begin with. These fires have covered an area twice the size of Wales. The fire front in one state, New South Wales, is thousands of miles long. There is always a bushfire season, but not like this. As has been pointed out by others today, Australia is not alone; 4 million hectares of Siberian forest burned a few months ago, and there were fires in Greenland, Alaska and Canada too. Again, fires in the Arctic are normal, but not on this scale, and now the ground itself is starting to burn. In both hemispheres, climate change is driving this. Philip Higuera from the University of Montana describes it is a switch: reach the tipping point and Arctic tundra burns. So although kind words and support for those battling the fires are very moving and of course greatly appreciated, they are just one thing—action to address this climate emergency is another.

There will not be any slowdown in burn rates unless we reverse the causes, so I must ask: when will we see real action from this Government on the climate emergency? The Environment Bill that flickered briefly in the last Parliament missed and hit the wall. Will we see something of substance in this Parliament? The science is 250 years old, the term “greenhouse effect” was coined nearly a century ago, even Thatcher called for climate action and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us of the dangers repeatedly, yet the UK stands virtually still on this issue. That must change. There must be no more woolly words and no more waffle—it is time for real climate action. When will we see a ban on fracking, incentives for renewable energy production and a roll-out of electric vehicle charging stations? Where is the support for electric aviation and VAT exemptions for home insulation—not a reduced rate but exemptions? Why are we not seeing urgent action? In short, if the Government want to do something about the fires in Australia, in the Arctic and on England’s moors in years to come, they must do something now about the climate emergency.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Lady: our hearts go out to her friends and family in Australia. Sometimes in the Chamber, speeches and questions are quite difficult to make and ask, but it is great that she is here to give that extra oomph.

We have the chair of COP 26 with Italy, so we are absolutely taking climate change as the No. 1 priority. In every embassy around the world, every ambassador and every high commissioner has it as their No.1 priority to talk to other Governments and encourage greater and more ambitious targets for those countries. In particular, we will continue with the Paris agreement and make sure that those commitments are guaranteed going forward. President Claire O’Neill, late of this parish as the Member for Devizes, recently met other energy Ministers at COP25 in Madrid to bang the drum and make clear that this is our No.1 priority.

In respect of any changes to financial matters, I am afraid the hon. Lady will have to wait for the Chancellor’s Budget, but that is not very far away in March.

On the roll-out of electric charging points, I am proud to have two charging points in Swadlincote in South Derbyshire, and £4 million has been put to one side for councils to bid for so that they can have charging points.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Would the Minister like to say how many Britons have been killed or otherwise caught up in this emergency?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am really pleased to say that no UK nationals have been killed and we are not aware of any who have been injured. In fact, only one British national has been in touch to ask for advice and support. We ask everybody—visitors and people living there—to pay close attention to the updated advice from local authorities.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

When the fires are extinguished, there is going to have to be a moment for learning lessons and drawing the links between these incidents and climate change. Our Government should take a leading role, but we would be better able to do so if we had not ourselves just announced that a review of the net zero carbon target had been put off until autumn. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Treasury about bringing that review forward?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I will of course do that.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North

It is a pleasure to see you back in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

What has been obvious from constituents in Romsey and Southampton North is the outpouring of affection and support that they are expressing for our friends and allies in Australia. I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend’s comments about the practical support that the Government are giving, but my constituents’ question is about what they can do as individuals. I would be delighted to hear what advice my hon. Friend can give them.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my right hon. Friend—who is a very good friend—for that question. Interestingly, sometimes in times of adversity really nasty people come out of the woodwork. I do not want any help that the British people give via charities in Australia or whatever other method to be affected by scammers, so if British citizens want to give or help in any way, will they please double-check that any charity they give money to is registered with the Australian Charity Commission? It would be a tragedy if the good will of people in this country was abused.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I was really quite shocked that in her statement the Minister did not mention climate change once; it is surely the context in which all this is happening. When my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton did raise the issue very eloquently, the Minister had to rummage in her folder to find something to say. The fact is that Australia is the largest emitter per capita of any major nation, yet its Government are still not committed to decarbonisation. The COP25 talks were a complete failure, and we have not even had a written ministerial statement on them. When are the Government going to step up to the plate, show leadership, talk to Australia and say that it has to get with the agenda?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Please forgive me for suggesting that talk is cheap. Australia is a signatory to the Paris agreement and is committed to a 26% to 28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on 2005 levels by 2030. In addition—because there are intelligent people in this room—a number of Australian states have already committed to net zero by 2050. Ahead of COP 26, we will look forward to working with all Paris agreement signatories to increase global climate ambition in line with that agreement.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

I welcome you back to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Does the Minister agree that this is the time not to be criticising Australia but to be helping them? Does she agree that we need to see close allies such as ourselves, the Americans, the Canadians and the New Zealanders coming together to give Australia the package of help that it desperately needs? Does she also agree that individual citizens who want to help can look at the appeals by the Salvation Army in Australia and by the Australian rural fire service, and make donations to them rather than the sort of dubious organisations that may emerge?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I could not agree more with my right hon. and learned Friend. My constituent Helen Jackson is raising funds for koala care, and I have made it clear to her that she must send the money she raises to the appropriate people, exactly as my right hon. and learned Friend has outlined.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and direct my remarks to you in the Chair, because with these difficult long-term issues there is a real role for Parliaments. Greta Thunberg came to our Parliament and it is this gathering that has taken up the mission and is leading it on; it is not just about the Executive Government. The all-party group on Australia, of which my friend Deidre Brock and I are members, along with the chairs, Andrew Rosindell and John Spellar, has come together to encourage all Parliaments around the world —the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is clearly a key friend—to take some responsibility for keeping this on the agenda, because in the end Executive Governments change, but we remain. I hope we can keep that in our thoughts. May I also thank the Speaker’s Office for contacting the Australian Parliament? I know from parliamentarians there just how much that meant to them.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

It is great to hear of how much work is going on behind the scenes in Parliament, but I stress again that is a No.1 Government priority and all our embassies are on it. It is a great honour to host COP 26 with our Italian friends, and it will be the success that it needs to be.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I welcome you back to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We should remember that on new year’s day National Grid announced that this country just had the first ever year in which the energy from zero-carbon sources exceeded fossil fuels—it is the first time in our history—so we are doing our bit. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not be lecturing Australia when it is in the middle of a national emergency if it is not yet doing the same? As she rightly says, we should be giving it all the support we can. Will she confirm that if the fires worsen, we stand ready to provide whatever help is needed, should the Australians request it?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Those are wise words from my hon. Friend. The UK policy on climate change has been dramatic: we are setting out legally binding targets to eliminate climate change by 2050; we have been the fastest in the G20 to decarbonise since 2000; and since 1990 we have reduced our emissions by more than 40% while growing our economy by two thirds. We can get the message out to other countries that it can be done and it does not affect the economy. Exactly as my hon. Friend said, National Grid’s use of energy from renewable sources is leading the way as a great example to others.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The suffering in Australia is almost unimaginable. Scott Morrison has finally committed around AU$2 billion for bushfire recovery, but that is dwarfed by the AU$29 billion that the Australian Government spend on fossil fuel subsidies every year. Public money is in essence being spent to turbocharge the climate emergency. We do it here in the UK, too: we spent around £10 billion on fossil fuel subsidies last year. Will the Minister agree that it is time to stop throwing money on the fire? Will she commit to ending public financial support for the fossil fuel industry?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is asking the wrong person that question.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

It is good to see you back in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The upcoming foreign policy review is important. Can the Minister confirm that climate change will feature in that review? If it is not going to, may I suggest that the Foreign and Commonwealth Officer consider it as part of its global review?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend—a candidate to be Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—for that interesting question. As I have tried to stress and am more than happy to say again, climate change is the No. 1 priority for all our embassies across the world, and is part of our plans now and going forward.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Labour, Cardiff North

I welcome you back to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The huge scale of the fires must leave us in absolutely no doubt of the urgent and radical action that is needed on climate change, so I was also absolutely shocked that I did not hear the Minister even mention the words “climate change” in her statement. Yet, behind the scenes, UK Export Finance schemes are handing out billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to develop fossil fuel projects, locking countries into high-carbon energy for decades to come. Will this Government put their money where their mouth is and end UK Export Finance’s support for fossil fuels?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Lady asks a very intelligent question. The answer is that I cannot give her that assurance right now. We have green finance deals and ocean deals. We are so committed to helping countries around the world to move on to renewable energy projects, and I think that is the way forward.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Congratulations on your return to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I strongly welcome the UK Government’s enduring commitment to support Australia, but will my hon. Friend tell us for specifically how long the experts who are currently there plan to remain in the country?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

It is my pleasure to try to answer my hon. Friend. They are there for a five-day period, meeting all the experts in the region with three sessions covering the three different areas that they are visiting. They will then do a rapid assessment of the assistance that Australia is asking for, and we are ready to assist in any way we can.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Congratulations on being re-elected, Madam Deputy Speaker; we are very pleased to see you in the Chair.

I thank the Minister for her statement on the Australian wildfires. If the area of land that has been burning was imprinted on the United Kingdom mainland map it would reach from Newcastle straight across and halfway down, as far as London—a vast area. Soil will need to be resown, trees replanted, animals replaced and farms restocked. What help can the United Kingdom Government give Australia, given that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has great expertise in abundance?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. We know that of the animals affected a number are cows that produce milk. That will obviously affect Australia’s economy and is an absolute tragedy for the local farmers. We do have expertise in this area; whatever help Australia asks for in which we have expertise, we will help if we can.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

It is great to see you back as part of the Speaker’s team, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Would the Minister and her Department work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association? Prime Ministers come and go—as we know in this country—but, as Catherine West said, parliamentarians tend not to. Could we urge the CPA to work closely with Australian Members of Parliament to make them much more aware of the problems of climate change in their country, as well as in the world?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend—my Derbyshire friend—makes an interesting suggestion. We have great ties with the CPA. Lord Tariq Ahmad in the other place looks after the Commonwealth side of things, and I am sure he will gladly take her suggestion forward.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

You will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, how thrilled I am to see you back in the Chair—your rightful place in this House.

I am grateful to the Minister for her statement. I speak as someone whose mother grew up in Western Australia. I have family living in Victoria and in New South Wales, so I feel the pain of that country maybe as much as other Members of this House. The reality is that when friends speak, they also speak with some honesty. Prime Minister Morrison has ignored the climate issue for a number of years, as other Members have pointed out. The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is coming up later this year. I accept that it is not part of the Minister’s responsibility, but may I ask her to make representations to the relevant Minister, the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister to prioritise climate change as part of that meeting? We must learn lessons. The situation in Australia should be a warning that the world is burning, and the Commonwealth must play a much more significant role in tackling the impact and realities of climate change.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman—I hope I may also call him my friend—for his question. Interestingly, because the UK is chair in office at the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth has actually been a long-standing champion for environmental protection and climate action since its first official mention in the Commonwealth Langkawi declaration on the environment in 1989. We will take this matter seriously and it will be on the agenda for CHOGM.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I welcome you to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

May I offer my deepest sympathy at all those in Australia affected by this terrible fire? I spent a year and a half out there as a much younger man and experienced the intense heat myself, working out in the bush. Can the Minister help us understand how these fires started? Arson plays a role. Does she have any evidence or feedback from the Australian Government on how the fires physically started?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Very regrettably, it is widely reported on social media that 75% of the fires were started by arsonists.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is a real pleasure to see you back in your rightful place, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I spent one of the happiest years of my life living in Melbourne, and would be the last person to criticise Australia. However, my friends who live in Australia are very concerned about the current Government’s lack of appreciation of the impact of climate change on the disaster they are now facing. What can the Minister and the Government do to persuade their sister party in Australia to take the science of climate change seriously?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My sympathies are with the hon. and learned Lady’s friends who are out there right now. It is without doubt clear that the UK and Australia have their own approaches to climate change. As chair of COP 26, the UK looks forward to continued discussions in the run-up to that conference. We hope to work with Australia and others to increase their ambition in line with the Paris principles. I stress again that, because of Australia’s federal system, there is a really interesting dynamic there right now, whereby states are already saying that they will be decarbonise by 2050—the same as us—so all is not necessarily painted as black as we think.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Congratulations on your re-election, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Australia is a vast country that is suffering a terrible tragedy, and I have two nephews who live in different parts of that country. Large numbers of UK citizens will go on tours of Australia over the coming weeks and months that might be disrupted because they might be going to areas of danger. Will the Minister update the House on what advice the FCO is giving to travel companies and individuals?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I hope that my hon. Friend’s nephews in different parts of Australia stay safe. I am glad he asks his question. UK nationals should follow the FCO travel advice. It was updated on 30 December and we will continue to keep it under review. We have not advised against going to Australia for tourism, to visit family or for business, but we do request that visitors pay close attention to the updated advice from local authorities. One of the great things that has happened through our connections with all the different groups, as well as the embassy and the consulate general, is that really good local advice is being offered. We ask people to keep abreast of that advice as well as with the FCO’s advice.

Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Labour, Bristol North West

Welcome back to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. I declare my interest as set out in the register, not least my personal connection by marriage to Australia, with many friends and family members across that continent. I echo comments from colleagues across the House and send our prayers to those fighting, suffering and surviving the heartbreaking events on the continent of Australia.

Does the Minister agree that in the year that the UK hosts COP26, we need to re-embolden our climate diplomacy? One practical suggestion might be about coupling industrial strategy with climate diplomacy on decarbonising power generation, because in Australia 75% of power generation is still dependent on coal. Indeed, when I was in Australia for my honeymoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was waving coal around in its House of Commons. Can we share our expertise and lessons learned in the UK?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s wife’s family are safe. I am sure he is in constant contact.

The hon. Gentleman makes a really interesting suggestion. Interestingly, DFID official development assistance money is being used particularly in Brazil to look at decarbonising its energy production. We cannot use ODA money for Australia because obviously it is a first-world nation, but perhaps we can find another way through the prosperity fund or something like that. We will take that idea away. We are always happy to receive good ideas.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

Congratulations, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your re-election to the Chair.

I was in Victoria last week, and I was very moved by the remarkable resilience of our friends and family, the Australian people, in dealing with the bushfire crisis, which is awful, as we know, with many lives and homes lost, but also up to 500 million animals—farm animals and indigenous creatures as well. What particular assistance can the United Kingdom give in terms of ecological, and perhaps veterinary, support to help with the natural disaster that has happened?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his up-to-date information, he having visited so recently. I have asked the same question myself, particularly about veterinary support but also agricultural support afterwards. Part of the brief for our specialists on the team that has been deployed is to ask what Australia would like us to do.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

May I, too, congratulate you on your re-election, Madam Deputy Speaker?

As others have said, these devastating bush fires have been exacerbated in both extent and intensity by the consequences of global warming. The Minister has already intimated this, but could she confirm that in the light of this catastrophe, UK foreign policy will make international co-operation on efforts on decarbonisation its highest priority?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

That is absolutely key. As has been alluded to, COP25 was perhaps not as successful as it might have been—[Interruption.] Well, we have to be kind. We therefore have every incentive to make COP26 a success. Part of that will be using the expertise that we have in emerging countries to help them to make the step change to renewable energies and decarbonising. It is a really exciting time for this country to take those measures to help other countries. Exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, this is the No. 1 priority for all our embassies around the world.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

I welcome the news that the Minister has given. Having also lived in Melbourne in Australia and having friends who are still living out there, this has been a great concern to me and also to residents in Meon Valley. What medical assistance are we providing to the Australians, both now and in future, with smoke inhalation and other issues that might have been caused by the smoke?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I know that a number of my hon. Friend’s constituents have written to her, and they will have a reply from me specifically. As regards medical expertise, some of our rapid deployment team were medical experts. We were perhaps initially concentrating on mental health issues arising afterwards. However, the five-day deployment team will ask the questions of Australia, and if there are specialisms that we have in this country that it needs extra help with, perhaps regarding people who suffer from asthma, I am sure we will oblige, if it asks us to do so.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Congratulations on your election, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that your generosity to Northern Ireland Members will be unmatched by anyone else who takes the Chair, so thank you very much indeed.

I welcome the statement by the Minister. Indeed, I spoke yesterday, and before then, to the authorities at Australia House, who have also welcomed the immediate support that the United Kingdom Government have given to, as she rightly said, our closest friend, Australia. That is very important. Following on from the questions about lessons learned, surely action must be taken to help Australia with the reforestation of its wonderful land and protection of species in future. We must go on to ensure that any expert help that can be given from these islands is given and that Australia is encouraged to redevelop and regrow in areas that have been burned.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Absolutely. I cannot thank the hon. Gentleman enough for that very good question. We all know that we need to have that canopy of trees to help with decarbonising for the whole of the world, so it is important to give any assistance we can with that. I am sure that my civil servants are now going to blanch, because he has given me a good idea. We have great relationships with Kew, which has world experts in planting, seeds and whatever else might be needed. I will to ask to see what connections and suggestions Kew might have, subject to Australia asking for such help. That was a great question and I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Robert Alexander Courts Robert Alexander Courts Conservative, Witney

May I add my welcome and congratulations to you on resuming your post, Madam Deputy Speaker?

The Singapore air force has offered support with two Chinooks, and the New Zealanders have offered some troops as well, but the Royal Air Force has the lion’s share of Europe’s strategic air lift capability. Will the Minister undertake to see whether there is any aviation assistance that we can supply?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend asks a question that I asked my officials earlier, so it is clearly one of the best questions that has been asked today. Most importantly, one of the deployment team is from military liaison. I am not sure whether we have equipment anywhere nearby at the moment, but if, not so much even acting with Chinooks right now, we can find a way to back-fill other areas of the Australian armed forces, that might be the way forward. Again, when Australia asks we will fulfil its requests.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I thank the Minister for her statement and commend the support that we are offering to our allies. I agree with Mrs Latham and my hon. Friend Catherine West about the vital role of Parliaments and parliamentary engagement, especially around the issue of climate diplomacy. Might the Minister want to say to all new hon. Members that joining the CPA and getting involved in having those relationships with parliamentarians not just in Australia, but across the Commonwealth, would be a very good idea?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am so delighted that the hon. Lady has been made a dame in the new year’s honours—quite right too. We once had a really interesting trip to Jordan. She acted as a lady then and she is a dame now, so that is very good.

On the hon. Lady’s point about joining in with the CPA, there is actually the Inter-Parliamentary Union as well. We have lots of new Members and there may be opportunities for the majority for a bit of slipping and pairing—you never know. Yes, I would encourage all Members, particularly new ones, to find out about opportunities with the CPA and the IPU. I am sure that those teams would welcome some new blood coming through as well.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

Congratulations on your re-election, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Like so many, I have family members who live in Australia, and over Christmas I was with my daughter in Melbourne, so I really appreciate the statement and the expressions of support for Australia today. Australia is likely to face more out-of-control blazes tomorrow, and there is a prospect of entire ecosystems being lost. The support being given at the moment is hugely important, but when the fires die down, will the Government have talks with Scott Morrison and the Government of Australia about the environment and how we can help in future, for the good of not only Australia but the rest of the world?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point; if she will forgive me, I will face the Chair. If I have not said it enough, I stress that this is the beginning of the help that we are offering Australia. We realise that the bushfire season is only just beginning, so this will go on for some time, and then there will be the pressing issues of the regeneration of trees, forest and the scrub that the cows and sheep need to eat. Whatever technical and professional assistance Australia asks us for, we stand ready to help.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Welcome back, Madam Deputy Speaker.

While we sympathise with those caught in this environmental disaster, we know that this is a climate change emergency issue. The last six years have been the six hottest on record, which underpins the problem we have. In the 2020 climate change performance index, Australia is ranked bottom, with the US ranked second from bottom. We know that the US has pulled out of the Paris agreement. We keep hearing about the new global UK, so can the Minister advise what influence she has in those two countries and what climate change policy changes the UK is pushing for with them?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He has moved to where one of the microphones is, so I heard his question, which is great. With regard to the conversations we have been having, our embassy and our consuls general are talking all the time to the Australian state and the federal states, some of which are already declaring that they will decarbonise by 2050. I think that we are pushing at an open door. Australia has not resiled from the Paris agreement. We will keep them there, and we will ask them to be more ambitious. On every visit that I make as Minister for Asia and the Pacific, whether it be to Singapore or Seoul, it is part of my brief to ask the country to be more ambitious.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling

We have heard much about the scale of the fires in Australia. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the bravery shown by the Australian firefighters in trying to tackle them?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome him to this place. I will indeed join him. The stories that we have heard about the huge valour and the trauma that the firefighters—so many of them reserve firefighters, just looking after their villages and townships—have been quite incredible, and our hearts and love go out to those brave people.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch

We are a nation of animal lovers. Our first concern, of course, is always the impact on people and their properties, and I thank the Minister for what she is doing on that, but will she join me in thanking Redditch Pets at Home, which is leading on an initiative to donate up to £100,000 nationally to the World Wide Fund for Nature, enabling local people in Redditch to play their part and help with the devastating loss of animal life?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Indeed. Having mentioned my constituent Helen Jackson, I am very grateful to the constituents of Redditch and Pets at Home for that initiative, but I again ask everybody to ensure that, whatever donations they make, they please check that it is to an organisation registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. I would not want this tragedy to be made worse by scammers getting involved and making money out of it.