UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals Contents

4The UK Government’s response to the SDGs

The need for a ‘whole of government’ response

67.DFID has acknowledged that the SDGs are universal and are “expected to be implemented by all countries and be relevant to everybody”.109 Most of the evidence we received highlighted that striving to achieve the Goals will require a ‘whole of government’ response from the UK Government. As Saferworld told us:

“Other UK government departments have a vital role to play in the achievement of the SDGs. This universal framework is about more than aid—the UK government should reorient its support beyond 0.7% of GNI that makes up the aid budget to include the other 99.3% of government spending. As a universal agenda, all government departments should begin to analyse how the UK meets the SDGs domestically, how progress on all targets is being measured and if additional capacities to do this are necessary.”110

Similarly, UNICEF UK told us that:

“The breadth and universality of the SDG framework will require the involvement of many UK Government departments in their implementation. The UK Government should establish clear lines of responsibility and mechanisms for coordination between Government departments to allow for effective implementation of the entire SDG agenda, including both domestic and international efforts.”111

It is clear that a cross-government approach will be needed in order to:

(1)Implement the SDGs in the UK; and

(2)Support other countries to make progress towards the SDGs, through:

68.The need for a coherent response across Government was acknowledged by the Secretary of State, who told us:

“We were one of the countries arguing for it Agenda 2030] to be universal, so we think that that is one of the strengths of the next set of goals. We fully expect that there will be a cross-government approach to ensuring we can demonstrate that we are delivering on those goals themselves.”112

Although convinced of the importance of developing this cross-government approach, we are aware of the challenge this presents for the Government. The SDGs agenda is fundamentally different to its MDG predecessor. Creating a common understanding across Government that this agenda is universal—rather than something for developing countries alone—will require determined communication and a spread of accountability. As the Scotland Malawi Partnership told us, “a fundamental attitudinal shift is required such that the SDGs do not become the domain solely of DFID but become embedded within every department of central and local government alike.” Its evidence goes on to caution that “we should not underestimate the challenge ahead”.113

69.Although there was some uncertainty at the beginning of our inquiry, it has been clarified in recent months that the Secretary of State for International Development will be responsible for coordination of the domestic response to the SDGs, as well as support for implementation overseas. The Secretary of State will be supported in this endeavour by the Cabinet Office. As Rt Hon. Desmond Swayne MP, Minister of State at DFID, explained in a recent Westminster Hall debate:

“[…] cross-Government responsibility will be taken by the Secretary of State for International Development—that is appropriate because we are the Department that fought for the goals and we are passionate about them—and she will be supported in that role by the Cabinet Office.”114

This will require the Secretary of State to wield a huge amount of influence across Government to ensure departments, aside from DFID, are engaged and committed to achieving the SDGs, globally and in the UK.

Domestic implementation of the SDGs

70.Although Ministers from DFID and the Cabinet Office have recently expressed the opinion that the UK is broadly compliant with the Goals already,115 evidence suggests that there is a need for the UK to assess its performance. For example, areas of the agenda such as inequality (Goal 10) have been highlighted, as the UK figures on income inequality have remained well above the OECD average over the last thirty years.116 ODI identified both inequality and energy (Goal 7) as areas the Government may need to address:

“The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) needs to contextualise and evaluate the UK’s current energy mix in the backdrop of realising the relevant goal. Similarly, the Treasury and the Department of Work and Pensions, among others, will need to assess national ambition on the income inequality goal.”117

A report from the Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation, published just before the agreement of the Goals, points to a number of areas where the UK Government may fall short. It references Goals 7 and 10 but also highlights Goal 2 on improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture, citing the “high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous used in farming” and “an alarmingly high rate of obesity” in the UK.118

71.ODI emphasised that action in the domestic setting will provide credibility to the UK Government when encouraging action by other governments overseas.119 This point was reiterated by Jessica Woodroffe at the Gender and Development Network, who told us:

“DFID can and does play an extremely important leadership role in terms of gender equality, but it will only go on being able to do that if it is actively being seen to implement SDG 5 in the UK as well.”120

This point was further reinforced by Andrew Norton at IIED, who stated: “The universality theme of the SDGs implies that you need to be a leader in your domestic space, as well as in the overseas space.”121

72.DFID’s written evidence to the inquiry acknowledges the need to implement the Goals in the UK, and cited an intention to assign lead departments for the implementation of each target:

“Along with all countries, the UK will implement and comply with the SDGs domestically. HMG will have a coordinated approach, including through assignment of lead Departments for the implementation of each target, plus identification of other interested Departments.”122

In evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Rt Hon. Oliver Letwin MP, Minister for Government Policy at the Cabinet Office, similarly claimed that Secretaries of State of the various government departments would be responsible for their part in the implementation of the Goals, stating:

“The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be brought together by one poor little Minister like me. They have to be handled in a serious-minded way by great big Departments of State with Secretaries of State. You obviously then need to co-ordinate the reporting, which was being talked about earlier, and to make sure that there is monitoring of the performance of the country and so on in all these respects. That is what we are trying to do through the single departmental plans.”123

The Minister’s recognition that an individual Minister would struggle to bring SDGs implementation together serves to demonstrates the challenge ahead for the Secretary of State for International Development, who has now been made responsible for coordination of domestic implementation, in addition to supporting international SDGs implementation through DFID’s work.

73.Contrary to the Minister’s statement in December 2015, aside from DFID and the FCO, there is no mention of the SDGs in any other department’s single departmental plan. This is despite the fact that these plans were published in February 2016, two months after the Minister’s comments. When we questioned the Minister further on this, he responded:

“No, I do not think it is necessary to have it in the plans in the sense that we made a decision at the beginning of the Parliament to have a single departmental plan that governed what each Department was expected to do across the Parliament. That is what is expected to do. If by doing those things we are doing, as I think we will be able to demonstrate in the report I am talking about, what Britain can sensibly do in this period to advance domestically towards the world advancing towards the targets by 2030, Departments will be under a compulsion to do that through those single departmental plans, and that is the right process. What we do need to do is to make sure that we monitor carefully not just the achievement of the single departmental plans but the achievement of those parts of them that the report will show are needed in order to contribute to the goals, so that we are able, when reporting to the UN as a whole, to demonstrate that as a country, and we will do that.”124

This is a disappointing change of approach. It is clear that departments have not considered implementation of the SDGs at the outset or integrated them into their Single Departmental Plans (SDPs). Instead, the Government will undertake a retrospective, centralised assessment of how these predetermined SDPs might contribute, or fail to contribute, to the SDGs. Even if this analysis is used to identify additional actions needed to implement the Goals, the approach hardly represents departmental ownership, or even awareness, of the universality of the agenda and the ‘whole of government’ responsibility for meeting the SDGs.

74.The Government’s response to domestic implementation of the SDGs has so far been insufficient for a country which led on their development as being universal and applicable to all. We remain to be convinced that responsibility for domestic implementation should lie with the Secretary of State for International Development, who already faces a substantial challenge in working to support international implementation of the Goals. While passion about the SDGs and understanding of them is important in planning implementation, a high level of influence across all government departments will be vital to ensure domestic implementation is on track.

75.Engagement of government departments will be central to the success of domestic implementation, which itself has an impact on making progress on the goals globally. As such, we are particularly concerned that the SDGs have not been included in the 2015–2020 Single Departmental Plans of all government departments as was previously suggested by the Minister. Only DFID and the FCO’s plans reference the Goals. This indicates a worrying lack of engagement in, or ownership of, the SDGs by departments across Government, whose contributions will be essential to achieving the SDGs at home and overseas.

76.Departments should be assigned specific responsibilities for making progress on the SDGs—as originally indicated in DFID’s evidence—to ensure ownership and clear lines of accountability. These responsibilities should be laid out clearly in each department’s Single Departmental Plan, which should be urgently reviewed accordingly with specific references to relevant SDGs by number.

77.The Government must ensure that all Secretaries of State and government officials engage with the SDGs and fully understand the implications of the Goals on their department’s policies and programming. The Cabinet Office should lead on this work, in consultation with DFID, and we recommend that, if it has not already done so, it urgently produces a substantive and fully resourced internal communications strategy on the SDGs to ensure that all departments understand their responsibilities to deliver on the Goals.

Policy coherence for sustainable development

78.The UK Government has committed to supporting the achievement of the SDGs overseas through its aid programmes.125 It is also vital for other government departments to avoid undermining these efforts, and for UK Government policy as a whole to support progress towards Agenda 2030. This will require departments to work more closely together on issues that impact the achievement of the SDGs, far beyond the expenditure of ODA, to ensure that all government policies are aligned towards achievement of the goals, ensuring policy coherence. Much of the evidence we received highlighted that policy coherence across government would be fundamental to the UK’s response to the SDGs. For example, the Scotland Malawi Partnership told us:

“[…] we strongly encourage HMG to consider the principle of Policy Coherence for Development (PCD) as it looks to the implementation of the SDGs and turn to the International Development Committee to champion this concept. The premise of PCD, that all government departments and policies should recognise the global impact they have, is not new but is more relevant now than ever before given the universality of the SDGs.”126

79.The last OECD DAC Peer Review of the UK in 2014 highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the current approach to policy coherence for development:

“It takes a useful case-by-case approach to policy coherence for development, bringing together different parts of government to work effectively—at home and abroad—on issues of common interest. This has proven an effective approach to anti-corruption, climate change and trade, areas where the Cabinet has engaged strategically, and where the Department for International Development (DFID) has successfully promoted deeper joint efforts with other departments. […] However, the lack of a comprehensive approach to ensuring its development efforts are not undermined by other government policies means potential incoherence in other policy areas can be overlooked […] a more systematic approach would help the UK to tap positive synergies across policy agendas, as it has started to do with trade and development.”127

During the negotiation of the SDGs, there was an attempt to bring departments together. As DFID told us, they led that process, “which has included inter-ministerial discussions, four cross-Whitehall write-rounds […] and frequent cross-Whitehall Directors’ meetings to agree the UK’s negotiating position and approach. This has been a whole of government effort.”128 Periodic director-level interdepartmental meetings are now convened to discuss implementation, but these are at official level rather than involving ministers. This seems unlikely to encourage the political leadership and buy-in from across government that would be necessary to ensure continued efforts towards a coherent approach to the SDGs.

80.Evidence from CAFOD suggested that the creation of a specific mechanism of government was necessary to ensure coherent implementation and integration of the SDGs agenda. They told us the Government should:

“Create a cross-Whitehall SDG coordination group via a Cabinet sub-committee with DFID oversight and representation in each department to embed policy coherence across government.”129

This call was repeated in Bond Beyond 2015’s evidence, which stated that cross-government implementation “could be driven forward by the Cabinet Committee or an Implementation Taskforce”.130

81.When questioned in January 2016 on whether such a mechanism would be put in place, Justine Greening told us, “We are in discussion with the Cabinet Office about how to now make sure that the cross-government response to the SDGs is in place”.131 However, when we questioned the Minister for Government Policy in April 2016, he stated clearly: “There will not be a group of Ministers sitting around trying to discuss this agenda as opposed to the overall programme”.132 The Minister’s comments make it clear that there is no plan to create a new piece of government machinery to ensure an effective and comprehensive response to the SDGs. Although the Minister told us that some cross-government agendas, such as FGM, have fallen under the remit of the National Security Council (NSC),133 he did not go on to clarify whether this will be the approach they take for the SDGs. The lack of will to consider, let alone create, any sort of machinery of government to facilitate this process shows a fundamental absence of commitment to the coherent implementation of the SDGs across government.

82.Provision for reporting on policy coherence for sustainable development also remains insufficient. The International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006 requires the Secretary of State to:

“include in each annual report such general or specific observations as he thinks appropriate on the effects of policies and programmes pursued by Government departments on—

(a) the promotion of sustainable development in countries outside the United Kingdom,

(b) the reduction of poverty in such countries.”134

In practice, in its latest Annual Report 2014–2015 (the best example of reporting on policy coherence to date) DFID merely produced a limited list of areas where there is cross-government cooperation.135 This reflects the UK’s ‘case-by-case’ approach to policy coherence, but does not provide a comprehensive analysis of where the policies of other government departments are either complementing or undermining the UK’s international development policy. In evidence to our predecessor committee for the ‘Beyond Aid’ inquiry in late 2014, the Secretary of State admitted that policy coherence would, “need to become a bigger part of that annual report […] because it is now a much bigger part of what we do”.136 We have yet to see that happen. Evidence from the Fairtrade Foundation suggested the creation of an annual report on PCD. They told us:

“DFID should review the effectiveness of measures for policy coherence for development (PCD) across government, and consider ways to strengthen PCD. This could include an annual report on PCD, as undertaken by the European Commission, and regular independent review of government performance in this area.”137

The European Commission in fact produces a two-yearly, rather than annual, report on policy coherence for development (PCD), which seems reasonable for such a comprehensive piece of work. The UK already produces survey data on PCD for these EU-wide reports, which could be enhanced in a more comprehensive UK Government report.

83.It is clear from the evidence that policy coherence across Government will be crucial to SDG implementation. Although there are some good examples of policy coherence being addressed on a case-by-case basis by the Government, such as FGM (female genital mutilation), this approach is insufficient for tackling the universal SDGs agenda. We are deeply concerned at the lack of a strategic and comprehensive approach to implementation of the Goals. Without this, it is likely that areas of deep incoherence across government policy could develop and progress made by certain departments could be easily undermined by the policies and actions of others. It also reflects a worrying absence of commitment to ensure proper implementation of the SDGs across-government.

84.The Government should identify a formal mechanism for relevant Secretaries of State or responsible Ministers to come together regularly to discuss the implementation of the SDGs across Government. Such a forum would ensure engagement from all departments at the highest political level. It should be used initially to discuss how the SDGs can be implemented coherently across Government, but could develop into a forum for discussion of particular areas of the agenda at regular, and defined, intervals. This would enable areas of policy incoherence to be flagged at an early stage, and dealt with at the highest level. We ask that the Government outline in their response the form that this mechanism will take.

85.Reporting on policy coherence must be strengthened to ensure a more comprehensive approach. Current provisions under the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006 are insufficient and place the full burden of reporting on DFID, rather than making it a cross-government responsibility. The Government should commit to producing a biennial report on policy coherence for sustainable development.

Box 3: Examples of Government Responses to the SDGs


In February 2015, before the SDGs were even agreed, the President of Colombia approved the creation of an Inter-Agency Commission for the Preparation and Effective Implementation of the Post- 2015 Development Agenda and the SDGs. A report on Colombia’s response states, “The Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Environment and Sustainable Development, and Finance, as well as the Department for Social Prosperity, the National Administrative Department of Statistics, and the National Planning Department, all form part of the Commission. These entities can only be represented on the Commission by their ministers/directors or vice ministers/deputy directors, which points to a high level of commitment to the implementation of the SDGs.”138

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic’s response to a UN regional survey on SDG implementation states that, “The Government Office has the leading role in the implementation process, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Environment. The Government Council for Sustainable Development, chaired by the Prime Minister, will serve as a coordination body to ensure that all key stakeholders are involved and informed about the process.”139


The Federal Chancellery is currently leading the process to revise and adapt its current National Sustainable Development Strategy to reflect the 2030 Agenda. Responsibility has been given to the Chancellery, rather than one of the ministries, as “sustainable development is a guiding principle of any policy of the German government”. The existing National Sustainable Development Strategy will “be structured along the 17 SDGs in a comprehensive manner. It will cover national implementation measures with both internal and external effects as well as measures aiming at progress at international level”.140


The Nigerian Presidency produced a report in October 2015, ‘Nigeria’s Road to the SDGs’, which made a number of recommendations on how the Nigerian Government would integrate the SDGs into its national plans.141 These included the creation of a Presidential Committee on the SDGs and new mechanisms for collaboration between the National Planning Committee, headed by a Government Minister, and the Office of the Senior Special Adviser to the President on the SDGs. In March 2016, President Buhari appointed a new Senior Special Adviser to take this process forward.142


In January 2016, the Swiss Government published its Sustainable Development Strategy 2016–2019. The Strategy states: “The 2030 Agenda is not legally binding, but provides an important reference framework for Switzerland. The Federal Council takes it very seriously, and is committed on both the national and international levels to the Agenda’s implementation. One of the ways in which this will happen at national level is through the specific targets defined in this Sustainable Development Strategy, which is based on the SDG and will help to achieve them […] The aim in the future is to align the Strategy as comprehensively as possible with the 2030 Agenda to secure Switzerland’s contribution to achieving the SDG by 2030”.143

A national implementation plan

86.In order to bring the cross-government response together, we received evidence from a number of sources, including Jamie Drummond at ONE,144 UNDP145 and WWF,146 which advocated for the Government to produce a national implementation plan for the SDGs. Bond Beyond 2015 UK’s evidence states:

“The UK needs to develop and budget for a high-level cross Government plan for implementation, follow up and review. The implementation plan should embed the SDGs in UK policy and planning and ensure coordination between departments.”147

87.Despite previous assertions from the Secretary of State that “the action plan we have is actually delivering on the manifesto”,148 in April 2016 the Minister for Government Policy told us that the Government would be producing a report to outline their approach:

“[…] having listened to the conversation about these goals since the Prime Minister first took action to try to promote them internationally, and not least through the line of inquiry of the Committee when it interviewed Justine Greening not long ago, we have had various discussions internally, and have come to the conclusion that it would make sense for us to produce a report in due course outlining our approach, both internationally and domestically. That will help to identify more specifically what we are intending to do in both domains over the course of this Parliament to advance the achievement of the targets.”149

When questioned on whether the report would be a ‘national implementation plan’, however, the Minister replied, “The answer to that is I do not know.”150 The Minister was also unsure of the timescale for such a report, stating:

“I cannot give you a date. I had hoped maybe I could but I cannot. I do not know how long it will take us to do, but we will certainly aim to do it during the course of this year. It is not a never-never. As the targets have only recently been agreed it will take a little time and we need to do this properly.”151

88.During this inquiry we have been concerned by the reluctance of the Secretary of State for International Development and the Minister for Government Policy to provide a cross-Government plan for implementation of the SDGs. Previous assertions that the manifesto equates to an action plan on the SDGs do not adequately reflect the commitment to which the Government signed up in September 2015.

89.We welcome the Minister’s announcement that the Government will produce a report outlining the international and domestic approach to implementation of the SDGs by the end of the year but are disappointed at the apparent reluctance to call it an implementation plan and at the impression of a lack of urgency on this issue which has been conveyed, bearing in mind that the Government signed up to the SDGs well over six months ago. We welcome the reference to the Sustainable Development Goals, by name, in the Queen’s speech on 18 May 2016 and hope that this indicates a strong commitment to Government action to take forward implementation of the Goals in this parliamentary session.

90.The forthcoming Government report on the UK Implementation of the SDGs should be urgently produced and must equate to a substantive cross-government plan for implementation of the SDGs. It must include clear lines of responsibility for each government department for domestic and international implementation of the SDGs. It must also clearly outline exactly how the Government will ensure policy coherence across the SDGs agenda.

109 DFID (SDG0062) para 10(i)

110 Saferworld (SDG0043) para 16

111 UNICEF UK (SDG0005) para 5.1

112 Q154

113 Scotland Malawi Partnership (SDG0004) para 4.2

114 HC Deb, 13 April 2016, col 166WH [Westminster Hall]

115 HC Deb, 13 April 2016, col 166WH [Westminster Hall] and Q194

117 ODI (SDG0056) p. 12

119 Ibid

120 Q149

121 Q138

122 DFID (SDG0062) para 28

123 Oral evidence taken before the Environmental Audit Committee on 9 December 2015, HC (2015–16) 388, Q46 [Mr Letwin]

124 Q203

125 See DFID’s Single Departmental Plan, accessed 26 May 2016, and HM Treasury, UK Aid: Tackling Global Challenges in the National Interest, Cm 9163, November 2015

126 Scotland Malawi Partnership (SDG0004) para 4.4

128 DFID (SDG0062) para 6

129 CAFOD (SDG0045) p. 1

130 Bond Beyond 2015 UK (SDG0099) para 8

131 Q154

132 Q219

133 Q216

134 International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006, Clause 5(1)

136 International Development Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2014–15, The Future of Development Co-operation: Phase 2: Beyond Aid, HC663, para 44

137 Fairtrade Foundation (SDG0023) para 17

141 Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on MDGs, Nigeria’s Road to SDGs: Country Transition Strategy (October 2015)

143 Swiss Federal Council, Sustainable Development Strategy 2016–2019 (2016)

144 Q13

145 UNDP (SDG0021) p.3

146 WWF (SDG0104) para 1

147 Bond Beyond 2015 UK (SDG0046) para 30

148 Q152

149 Q194

150 Q226

151 Q217

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2 June 2016