Sustainable Development Goals in the UK Contents


44.The benefits of implementing the Goals are multifaceted. They can help governments to adopt more “integrated” and “holistic” sustainable development governance frameworks.123 They can be “nationalised” to take account of an individual country’s specific context, they can help to prioritise specific issues following assessment against the Goals, and they serve as a “floor” rather than a “ceiling” to drive up ambition in all the areas covered by the Goals.124 They also promote “partnerships” between different groups to support meeting the Goals.125

45.The Government has said that it “is firmly committed to implementing the Goals both internationally and domestically”.126 It also claimed that “the UK has already met, or is on track to meeting, many of the targets”. However, the IDC and respondents to this inquiry were not convinced that the Government has shown much, if any, evidence to support these statements.127 A key issue was the lack of transparency around leadership, ambition and the governance arrangements to ensure the Goals are integrated across Government and specific actions to ensure the Goals and targets are met.

Providing leadership

46.Nienke Palstra from UNICEF UK said that “what we want to see is leadership and that is one of the things we have been missing. The tone from the top really matters and we have not seen many public statements that refer to the [Goals]”.128 When asked about this, DFID Minister, James Wharton, said that “the Prime Minister has reaffirmed the UK’s commitment and her commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals”.129 He pointed to a speech she gave at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2016, where she mentioned the Goals twice, and one newspaper article where the Goals were mentioned once in relation to modern slavery.130 On 17 February 2017, the Prime Minister wrote in response to an open letter from leading businesses as part of UKSSD stating that it was her “firm belief that that we, as governments, international institutions, businesses and individuals, need to do more to respond to the concerns of those who feel that the modern world has left them behind”. The Prime Minister also said that it was the responsibility of Government departments to deliver their own commitments related to the Goals and stated her belief that the Government’s proposed Industrial Strategy will have a “significant positive impact” across many of the Goals.131

47.James Wharton also told us that “it is undoubtedly the case that the Secretary of State for DFID in particular has overall responsibility for oversight of the Sustainable Development Goals”.132 We were, therefore, disappointed that she was not willing to appear before us to discuss the issues raised during our inquiry.133 This represented a break from the past where Cabinet-level Ministers have represented the Government in front of this Committee on the issue of sustainable development and the Goals in particular.134

48.DFID taking overall responsibility for domestic implementation was something the IDC, the Women and Equalities Committee and respondents to our inquiry raised as a concern because of its international focus and limited ability to ensure coordination between departments.135 Both the IDC and Women and Equalities Committee recommended that responsibility for the Goals should sit within the Cabinet Office, not the Department for International Development.136 Nienke Palstra told us “it does raise questions about whether this is seen as simply an international agenda as opposed to a domestic one”.137 DFID Minister, James Wharton, acknowledged this problem telling us “the challenge that exists, of course, is that DFID is primarily an outward-looking Department. We have relatively few, if any, domestic levers […]”.138

49.James Wharton said that this was why DFID was “working closely with the Cabinet Office to ensure that the Goals are incorporated throughout Government structures”.139 We learnt that, in practice, the role of the Cabinet Office was to ensure that the Goals were integrated into departments’ Single Departmental Plans.140 It became clear that DFID and the Cabinet Office’s responsibility for the Goals were limited to putting in place governance arrangements and not for ensuring the Goals are actually met. When asked about specific policy areas in relation to, for example, malnutrition in the elderly, Cabinet Office Minister, Chris Skidmore, said:

When it comes to looking at the goal, which is to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, obviously that is a wide goal. I am sure DFID can set out where we are in terms of some of the policy specifics. […] When it comes to elderly people, obviously there is a key issue of ensuring that we have a sustainable state pension and that we give greater security, choice and dignity in retirement for elderly people.141 […]

I am not going to get into a debate about individual Departments’ responsibilities; it is up to individual Departments. You are welcome to bring the relevant Departments to the Committee and look at their policies. I am here to talk about the implementation of a framework by which Government as a whole can ensure that the [Goals] are established, and that is the supporting role that the Cabinet Office plays.142

We believe it is the Minister’s job to co-ordinate cross-government working, not the role of this Committee.

Raising ambition

50.Elizabeth Stuart from ODI told us that the Goals were “designed to be starting from the point of where a country is and as a tool to ratchet up ambition”.143 In order to identify an appropriate level of ambition, several respondents suggested that a country should undertake a transparent and evidence-based assessment of its performance against the Goals (the practicalities of which we discussed in the previous chapter).144 This would enable the Government to identify, in partnership with other interested parties, strategic areas where it was already doing well and areas where more effort was required.145 Dr Graham Long from Newcastle University, described how the SDG targets could help to identify “hidden pockets” or unexpected areas which required attention.146 As examples of this, Dr Long highlighted figures which showed that three million people in the UK are malnourished, of which 1.3 million are elderly,147 the regional difference between 16–24 year olds not in education, employment or training, which is 10.7% in the South East of England and 18.9% in the North East of England,148 and the fact that a third of rented homes in England do not meet the Government’s Decent Homes Standard.149 Undertaking such an analysis in the UK would, respondents argued, help the Government to prioritise its efforts to tackle the Goals while avoiding accusations of “cherry-picking” the issues which it believes would be the easiest to tackle.150 The evidence to support such an analysis could come from existing as well as new data and information.151

51.To our surprise and disappointment, the Government appears not to have adopted this approach. Ministers told us that the Conservative Party’s Manifesto for the 2015 election (published five months before the Goals were agreed and limited in time to 2020, the end of this Parliament) “sets out the policy areas through which the UK will make its contribution to implementation of the Goals.”152 We find this to be an extraordinary statement. The Government’s written evidence highlighted the Government’s “strong starting point” and set out a number of things it was doing to meet the Goals, from conserving seas and planting trees to fighting forced marriage and female genital mutilation.153 While these are worthy pursuits, the Government was unable to provide any substantive evidence of how the Global Goals has informed its approach to tackling these issues or what they have done differently as a result of the Goals.154 We need to see from the Government a clear understanding of, and commitment to, the role of the Goals in trying to ensure a more ambitious policy agenda across the board, rather than simply more of the same.

52.Dominic White from WWF told us that “what would be so helpful would be a Government plan for domestication of this agenda […]”.155 We heard that this approach has been adopted in other countries such as Germany, Finland and Colombia.156 During our meeting with Colombian officials, we heard that Colombia has integrated the Goals and its peace process as, in its view, the peace process was intimately linked with the three pillars of sustainable development.

53.A national plan could provide transparency on the Government’s ambition beyond its 2020 Manifesto. It would help to ensure a strategic, policy-coherent approach was used for implementing the Goals to make sure the policies of one department do not undermine the policies of another.157 It could also set out “stepping-stones” between now and 2030 against which progress could be measured.158 In its report, the IDC said that such a plan should constitute a “substantive cross-government plan for implementation of the [Goals]”.159 The Women and Equalities Committee similarly recommended that ‘the Government should take greater leadership by bringing together the elements of Single Departmental Plans that support the Goals in a co-ordinated National Implementation Plan’.160 NGOs and businesses alike stressed that a plan from Government would help their sectors get behind the Goals. Geoff Lane from PwC said “if you give business people a plan, then they can get on and do things”.161 Nienke Palstra said:

I think what we would want to see is a strategy that […] makes clear that this is a cross-Government agenda and that there are clear lines of accountability and specific departments will be responsible for delivering on the agenda. By having a strategy, this will go a long way to creating a domestic accountability agenda as well where civil society and the public will know what the UK Government sets out to do on this agenda and can hold them to account for that. In the absence of having one, we do not have clarity on how they intend to take this forward.162

54.The Government has failed to publish such a plan.163 A year after agreeing the Goals, the Government stated in response to the IDC report that “the forthcoming report will set out a clear narrative for the Government’s approach to implementing the Goals both internationally and domestically, including key principles, flagship initiatives and expected results and further information on how the government is set up to contribute towards achievement of [the Goals]”.164 Almost two years after the Government agreed the Goals, the Government has not provided a date for publishing the report.165

Ensuring good governance

55.One of the Government’s justifications for not publishing a national implementation plan was, it argued, because its Single Departmental Plans - the existing Government infrastructure - fulfilled this function already.166 However, the Government’s current Single Departmental Plans for all departments only mention the Goals twice in passing.167 Beyond specific references to the Goals, Abigail Self from the ONS said that “it is fair to say that there are aspects that are represented in single departmental plans, purely because the Sustainable Development Goals cover pretty much everything anyway”.168 Dr Graham Long told us that it would be an interesting exercise to map the Single Departmental Plans against the Goals and “see whether the level of ambition is slightly different, which of those should be the right ones, which ones are thoroughly covered, which are not so thoroughly covered”.169

56.The Government recognised that the Single Departmental Plans needed updating and told us that we could expect to see updated versions in April 2017.170 This would help to “mainstream” the Goals and provide “accountability mechanisms”.171 Cabinet Office Minister, Chris Skidmore, sought to reassure us that they were “the highest form by which we could ensure that there is consistency across Government”; that “they are taken incredibly seriously by Departments” and will ensure that Departments are “held to account through the annual reports”.172 Civil society organisations remained concerned, however, that the Government’s focus on Single Departmental Plans meant that it has failed to understand the underlying purpose behind the Goals. These were to encourage cross-government and cross-departmental working on sustainable development. This would help to identify the interconnected nature of the issues set out in the Goals and realise the co-benefits of integrated policy-making.173

Promoting partnerships

57.The Goals encourage and promote “effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships […]”.174 The appetite for building partnerships with Government from the witnesses we spoke to - representing civil society, business, public health and local government - was strong.175 This was emphasised by UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), a multi-stakeholder network in the UK aiming to inspire and support all stakeholders to transform the UK into a sustainable society.176 It was clear that many of these organisations and networks were already trying to tackle sustainable development and/or address the Goals. The Goals also offer opportunities for public services, and the NHS’s Sustainable Development Unit told us the health service could save £180m “through the adoption of 30 interventions across the NHS”.177 For businesses in particular there were strong social and economic reasons for pursuing the Goals (discussed in chapter one).178

58.We asked the Government what it has been doing to forge partnerships to support the implementation of the Goals in the UK. The Government highlighted some good international examples - such as sharing best practice with other countries on women’s economic empowerment and supporting the work of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission - but provided no domestic examples.179 In relation to local government specifically, DFID Minister, James Wharton, said that he saw the opportunities that exist but told us:

[…] ultimately this is a matter for local government Ministers and local government itself. The Department for Communities and Local Government will be expected, like all Departments, to recognise the contribution it can make to the [Goals], and that will be written into its single departmental plan.180

59.Despite adopting the Sustainable Development Goals and committing itself to working “tirelessly for the full implementation of [the Goals] by 2030”, the Government has shown little interest in, or enthusiasm for, implementing the Goals in the UK. The Government, worryingly, seems to regard the Goals as simply the Millennium Development Goals Mark II, and shows a marked reluctance to take this forward as a domestic agenda. Since the abolition of the independent Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) in 2011, Governments have failed to prioritise sustainable development. While this Government is making big claims about what it can do to implement the Goals on the international stage our inquiry has revealed that it is doing very little at home, leaving a doughnut-shaped hole in place of efforts to implement the Goals in the UK. The fact that Cabinet-level Ministers were not willing to appear before us (a break with the past) is a worrying sign that this issue has been downgraded in Government. There is no voice at the top of Government speaking for the long-term aspirations embodied in the Goals. There is no strategy or vision to achieve the Goals in the UK. Without strong and maintained leadership from the top, the Government is unlikely to achieve the cross-government working and policy coherence that the Goals are designed to produce. To address this accountability gap the Government should appoint a Cabinet-level Minister in the Cabinet Office with strategic responsibility for implementing sustainable development, including the Goals, across Government. The Government should also assign a Minister in the Treasury to help co-ordinate national implementation of the Goals, so that economic and fiscal policy is joined-up with efforts to implement the Goals. The Treasury should assess the need to create pricing mechanisms to correct the market failures which the Goals represent.

60.The Government should keep its promise to publish a report setting out how it intends to take an integrated, cross-government and policy-coherent approach to implementing the Goals in the UK and how it will bring together the elements of the updated Single Departmental Plans that support the Goals. It should do so by summer 2017. The Prime Minister should take personal responsibility for ensuring the report is implemented. She should publically endorse timely and regular Government updates, through a Cabinet Committee set up for this purpose, on progress to achieve the Goals in the UK to Parliament and to the public in an annual report. As the UK leaves the European Union, demonstrating a deep and meaningful commitment to meeting these global commitments domestically would send a powerful signal about the Government’s ambition for a “Global Britain” in which no one is left behind.

61.In a resource constrained economy it is logical that the Government should do everything it can to support partners (government agencies, local government, civil society, business and the general public) to contribute towards delivering the Goals. Some multinational businesses, for example, are already taking a lead on tackling the Goals in areas where we might have expected Government to do so. Partnering with these organisations would increase the Government’s chances of achieving the Goals and reduce the burden on Government. However, we have seen little evidence that it is doing this in the UK. The Government should immediately establish an SDG Partnership Working Group with the Cabinet Minister responsible, representatives from business, civil society and local government and develop and publish a strategy by 2018 setting out how it will support all stakeholders to contribute towards meeting the Goals in the UK by 2030.

62.The Government has said that it wants to utilise existing government infrastructure to deliver the Goals. However, we believe there is a need for an independent scrutineer of progress made by this Government and subsequent Governments on domestic implementation of the Global Goals. The Government should establish an independent advisor on sustainable development in the form of a new statutory public body advising the responsible Minister and the Prime Minister. This should be modelled on the independent Committee on Climate Change. It should be run by a committee with members drawn from academia, business, and civil society and independently chaired. Utilising the data collected by the ONS it could produce regular audits on the progress towards achieving the Goals and provide evidence-based advice on what the Government could do to promote sustainable development and progress towards the Goals.

63.The Government should work with public institutions such as local government, the NHS and police to create partnerships to deliver the Goals. Public services such as the NHS and the police will be key to delivering the Goals, by creating a healthy society and resilient communities, respectively. The Goals offer economic opportunities for businesses, but also for public services, in particular the health service. The Government should embed the Goals into the mandate of public services, such as the NHS.

123 Q100 [Dominic White], Bioregional (SDG0016), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), WWF (SDG0027), Learning for Sustainability Scotland (SDG0028), UKSSD (SDG0034), New Economics Foundation (SDG0050), Institution of Environmental Sciences (SDG0058), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0061)

124 Q1 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q97 [Dominic White], Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), WWF (SDG0027), International Institute for Environment and Development (SDG0032), UKSSD (SDG0034), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), Derek Osborn (SDG0042), New Economics Foundation (SDG0050), Newcastle University (SDG0052)

125 Q60 [Graham Long], Q103 [Dominic White], Q124 [Carl Wright], United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1, para 39

126 Department for International Development (SDG0057)

127 As above

128 Q97 [Nienke Palstra]

129 Q156 [James Wharton]

130 Q149 [Chris Skidmore]

132 Q146 [James Wharton]

133 Q146–149 [James Wharton, Chris Skidmore]

134 We have heard from Cabinet-level Ministers in relation to sustainable development and the Global Goals on the following occasions: during our 2015 inquiry into the Government’s approach to Sustainable Development (Rt Hon Oliver Letwin, former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster); during our 2014 inquiry into the Sustainable Development Goals (Rt Hon Justine Greening, former Secretary of State for International Development); During out 2012 inquiry into Outcomes of the UN Rio+20 Earth Summit (Rt Hon Caroline Spelman, then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). In addition, the International Development Committee heard from Justine Greening, and Oliver Letwin during its 2016 inquiry into the Sustainable Development Goals; and the Liaison Committee heard from Rt Hon Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister in an oral evidence session on the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012.

135 Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (SDG0023), Food Foundation (SDG0025), WWF (SDG0027), International Institute for Environment and Development (SDG0032), UKSSD (SDG0034), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), FDSD (SDG0043), British Retail Consortium (SDG0056), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0061), International Development Committee, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, para 74

136 International Development Committee, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, para 74–77; Women and Equalities Committee, Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 in the UK, para 53

137 Q97 [Nienke Palstra]

138 Q146 [James Wharton]

139 As above

140 Q146 [James Wharton], Q152 [James Wharton], Q163 [Chris Skidmore]

141 Q187 [Chris Skidmore]

142 Q189 [Chris Skidmore]

143 Q28 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q97 [Nienke Palstra], Q98 [Dominic White, Stefano D’Errico], Q100 [Dominic White]

144 Q1 [Graham Long], Q90 [Geoff Lane], Q98 [Nienke Palstra, Stefano D’Errico], International Institute for Environment and Development (SDG0032), UKSSD (SDG0034), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), FDSD (SDG0043), Alcohol Health Alliance UK (SDG0051), Bristol Green Capital Partnership and Bristol SDG Alliance (SDG0059)

145 Q100 [Dominic White]

146 Q7 [Graham Long]

147 BAPEN, ‘Introduction to Malnutrition’, accessed March 2017

148 NEET: Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training, Standard Note SN06705, House of Commons Library, November 2016, p6

150 Q8 [Graham Long], Q24 [Abigail Self], Q28 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q29 [Graham Long], Q102 [Dominic White, Stefano D’Errico], Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), Sightsavers (SDG0030) Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), New Economics Foundation (SDG0050), Institution of Environmental Sciences (SDG0058), Fairtrade Foundation (SDG0060)

151 Q108 [Dominic White], WWF (SDG0027), UKSSD (SDG0034), Woodland Trust (SDG0036), UNICEF UK (SDG0038), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), ShareAction (SDG0046), Newcastle University (SDG0052), Society for the Environment (SDG0053), Institution of Environmental Sciences (SDG0058)

152 Qq183–185 [Chris Skidmore], Qq222–227 [James Wharton], Department for International Development (SDG0057)

153 Department for International Development (SDG0057)

154 Q185–186 [Chris Skidmore, Gwen Hines]

155 Q112 [Dominic White]

156 Q105 [Nienke Palstra], Institute of Development Studies (SDG0012), World Future Council (SDG0014), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), UNICEF UK (SDG0038), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), Rothamsted Research (SDG0041), Derek Osborn (SDG0042), FDSD (SDG0043), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0061)

157 Q102 [Stefano D’Errico], Bond SDGs Group (SDG0022), UNICEF UK (SDG0038), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (SDG0039), Newcastle University (SDG0052), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0061)

158 Q15 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q16 [Graham Long], Q165 [James Wharton]

159 International Development Committee, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, para 90

160 Women and Equalities Committee, Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 in the UK, para 53

161 Q95 [Geoff Lane]

162 Q101 [Nienke Palstra]

163 Department for International Development (SDG0057), Bond SDGs Group (SDG0061), International Development Committee, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report of Session 2016–17, para 25

164 HC Deb, 24 November 2016, col 407WH [Westminster Hall]

165 Q174 [Gwen Hines]

166 Q194 [Chris Skidmore], HC Deb, 24 November 2016, col 407WH [Westminster Hall], International Development Committee, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Government Response to the Committee’s First Report of Session 2016–17, para 25

167 Q101 [Nienke Palstra]

168 Q12 [Abigail Self]

169 Q14 [Graham Long]

170 Q169 [James Wharton]

171 Q245 [James Wharton]

172 Q193–194 [Chris Skidmore]

173 Q21 [Graham Long], Q101 [Nienke Palstra], Q102 [Dominic White, Stefano D’Errico]

174 United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1, para 17.17

175 Q18 [Elizabeth Stuart], Q32 [Abigail Self], Q60 [Graham Long], Q97 [Dominic White], Qq102–103 [Dominic White], Q124 [Carl Wright], Q133 [Carl Wright]

176 Q112 [Dominic White], UKSSD (SDG0034)

177 Sustainable Development Unit for the NHS, public health and social care system (GSD0021)

178 Q61 [Steve Waygood, Geoff Lane, Christine Chow]

179 Q62 [Steve Waygood], Q185 [Gwen Hines], Q198 [Gwen Hines]

180 Q243 [James Wharton]

20 April 2017