Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 in the UK Contents

2Government leadership

23.This chapter examines how the Government has allocated responsibility for domestic achievement of SDG 5, actions it has taken to date, and levels of domestic political leadership. It also looks at how other, similar countries are allocating responsibility for the SDGs within government and considers whether the UK would benefit from submitting to a UN assessment of its progress.

Responsibility for the SDGs

24.The question of which government department is responsible for action to achieve the SDGs has been raised in previous inquiries. The International Development Committee recommended in its report that “the Cabinet Office should lead on this work, in consultation with the Department for International Development (DFID).”18 In response, the Government said it believed that

Agenda 2030 should continue to sit under the leadership of the Secretary of State for International Development as DFID is well placed to oversee the agenda in its entirety, having played a key role in negotiating the goals, which have poverty reduction as one of their primary objectives. 19

The Government also noted the role of the Minister for the Cabinet Office to “support the domestic implementation of Agenda 2030”.20

25.In written evidence to this inquiry, the Government reiterated its position that the “primary purpose” of the SDGs is to eradicate global poverty, and therefore it is appropriate for DFID to retain “policy oversight” of them. It also noted that the “Cabinet Office supports DFID by coordinating across the departments.” 21

26.When asked for clarification of the respective roles of the Cabinet Office and DFID, the Minister for International Development told us that:

Our Secretary of State will play a co-ordinating role in ensuring that people understand what the policy is and what the intention is behind it, because we have that institutional knowledge built up over time. It is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to then report to the Cabinet Office.22

27.The Minister for International Development further explained that, with regard to the SDGs, his Department was not “a lead department in a traditional sense.” He said that DFID would lead on the SDGs and make sure the policy was understood, with co-ordination being done by the Cabinet Office. He also noted that within this structure, “the Cabinet Office have their traditional role of scrutinising the single departmental plans” to ensure that SDG commitments are being met.23

28.In respect of SDG 5, the Government stated that the Government Equalities Office (GEO) “will lead on reporting for government in terms of domestic implementation of Goal 5, in a similar [ … ] way that GEO does for the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).”24 The Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years told us that:

the GEO’s role really is liaising with other Government departments in the implementation of SDG 5 in particular and being available to support and advise other Government departments on that particular aspect of it and how we do all the gender equality aspects.25

Recommendations for change

29.A variety of suggestions have been made to improve how the Government manages the SDGs. Jessica Woodroffe of the Gender and Development Network said that leadership from the very top of government could drive action:

We need the Prime Minister to play a leading role in this, in the way that her predecessor did. This is about whole-government action, and this shuffling around about who is doing what is clearly not working.26

The Minister for International Development argued that leadership on the SDGs was, in fact, coming from the very top of government. He said that, “The Prime Minister is obviously key in this as leading this.”27

30.In its 2016 report, the International Development Committee recommended that the Cabinet Office should lead on this work, in consultation with DFID. The UN Women National Committee UK also suggested that “the Cabinet Office report [ … ] to parliament each year on the progress made across government departments and agencies in the implementation of SDG.”28

31.Other recommendations we heard for improving the effectiveness of government responsibility for the SDGs included that:

Awareness of the SDGs in the UK

32.Whilst there are high levels of awareness of the Government’s work on FGM, domestic violence, and broader equality issues, the lack of a plan and domestic political leadership on SDG 5 have been cited as reasons for low levels of awareness of the SDGs amongst business and civil society in the UK. Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson told us that no-one in her network of women’s organisations in the West Midlands had heard of SDG 5. She commented that

There has not been the leadership to say, “This is an important thing we have signed up to. We have led the way globally on this, and now we are going to deliver domestically”, which has made organisations start getting involved, pushing on their bit and identifying issues. That mechanism needs to be in place for engagement, in order to create the pressure that is one of the key things for leadership to happen.33

33.This view was backed up by British Council research. That research found that awareness of the SDGs was fairly low among organisations that had a predominantly domestic focus and agenda, while much higher among NGOs engaging in international development, for example members of the Gender and Development Network. The British Council interpreted this as an indication that “the universality of the goals and the significance of Goal 5 have not been taken on board by the majority of organisations and experts focusing on gender equality in the UK”.34

34.Lynn Everson, owner of a small business and representative of the Business and Professional Women’s Network, noted a similarly low level of SDG knowledge amongst businesses:

Some commentators translate the SDGs as “Senseless, Dreamy and Garbled” and they are conspicuous by their absence in business circles in the UK. Indeed the British Chambers of Commerce makes no reference to the SDGs on its website. The concept and title are complex and seem remote whereas they should be taken as a blueprint of commercial best practice for all sizes of company and organisation, so they must be better publicised and mainstreamed.35

35.In response to questions about the Government’s plans to publicise the SDGs, the Minister for International Development expressed a hope that the Government’s forthcoming report on Agenda 2030 would bring some publicity to the issue.36

Government action on the SDGs

Review of Single Departmental Plans

36.In its response to the inquiry, and in evidence to other select committees, the Government has focused on its forthcoming review of Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) as central to its work on the SDGs domestically. The Government initially rejected the International Development Committee’s recommendation that “each department’s Single Departmental Plan, [ … ] should be urgently reviewed [ … ] with specific references to relevant SDGs by number.”37 The Government responded that the Conservative Party general election manifesto “sets out the policy areas through which the UK will make its contribution to implementation of the goals.”38 However, in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on 17 January 2017, Cabinet Office Minister Chris Skidmore said that a “refresh” of Single Departmental Plans was taking place with the results to be published by the end of April 2017, and that this would “ensure that SDGs are fully referenced in all SDPs in every Department.”39

37.The Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years told us that this refresh of the SDPs is central to the Government’s plan for implementation, and that the plans

will encapsulate how this is mainstreamed throughout Government. They will hopefully reassure stakeholders and organisations that do not feel that we are taking this seriously that every aspect of Government does have to take a view on this and pay reference to the goal. 40

38.The importance of each SDG target having clear “departmental ownership” was acknowledged by the Minister for International Development who explained that the “targets, obligations and indicators” included within SDPs were a priority at almost every departmental board. He noted that each SDG indicator “will be owned by a department and each departmental organisation will meet and be very much focused on delivering those indicators.” The Minister said he expected this system would “drive quite a lot of activity and suggestions as to how we make better progress if we are falling behind.”41

39.We asked the Ministers who is responsible for oversight of this process. The Minister for International Development’s answer again focused on a division of responsibility between his Department and the Cabinet Office:

If there is an indicator that we are falling behind on, a target we are not meeting or a goal that is inadequately covered, [DFID] would spot that and, in our policy overview role, highlight it. However, we would highlight it in partnership with the Cabinet Office to the department for it to take action rather than necessarily stipulating what that action should be.42

Publication of a report on Agenda 2030

40.In its response to the International Development Committee’s report, the Government said it would publish a report setting out a clear narrative for the Government’s approach to implementing the SDGs internationally and domestically. This would include “key principles, flagship initiatives and expected results and further information on how the government is set up to contribute towards achievement of Agenda 2030.”43

41.The Minister for International Development told us that this report would “go through goal by goal and identify the areas that [the Government is] going to focus on” in both an international and domestic context.44 The Minister confirmed that this report was likely to be published in March or April 2017.

Lessons from other countries

42.While the UK has yet to publish its plan for domestic achievement of the SDGs, some other European countries have already set out their strategies in this area. Marianne Haslegrave of the Commonwealth Medical Trust was among several witness to criticise what she saw as the UK’s relative lack of strategic plan on the SDGs.45 She argued that

While the UK played a leading role in the development of the SDGs and 2030 Agenda, it is now in danger of being left behind in comparison with many other European countries, in implementation, follow up and review.46

43.Other countries cited as examples of good practice included the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland. All three are cited in the International Development Committee’s report.47

Box 1: How other countries have set out their plans to implement the SDGs


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.”

In Germany the Federal Chancellery is currently leading the process to revise and adapt its 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”.

The Swiss Government published its Sustainable Development Strategy for 2016–2019 in January 2016. 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”.

Source: International Development Committee, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals

44.Norway’s approach to the SDGs was also given as an example of good practice by Bond/GADN in their written evidence to our inquiry. In some ways it is similar to the UK Government’s plans for single departmental plans, with each of the 17 SDGs being allocated a co-ordinating ministry responsible for implementation, in consultation with other ministries involved in the targets. A key difference is the existence of a report from each ministry “on the status of follow-up for its respective goal(s) in its budget proposal.” These proposals are then brought together by the Ministry of Finance in a national budget white paper and presented to the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) annually, along with the state budget.48

45.Finland was also pointed to as an example for the UK to follow. Womankind Worldwide recommended that the UK follow its example of creating “high-level leadership [to] ensure that the SDGs are implemented as a universal agenda”. Womankind Worldwide explained that, from 1 January 2016, the government of Finland transferred the coordinating secretariat of the Commission on Sustainable Development from the Ministry of the Environment to the Prime Minister’s office. The aim was to strengthen “policy coherence for the implementation of the various dimensions of sustainable development”.49

46.Through its examination of a variety of approaches to implementing the SDGs, Bond/GADN suggested that:

Bond/GADN concluded that “so far the UK Government has not delivered any of the above.”51 It remains to be seen how far the forthcoming report from the Department for International Development and the refresh of Single Departmental Plans will address these issues.

High Level Political Forum

47.A specific action taken by some of the countries cited as being good examples for the UK to follow is participation in the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF). This is a voluntary process that takes place every July. At the HLPF a country delivers a report on its progress, successes and challenges, and will have this discussed by other states and stakeholders. The frequency with which countries are obliged to submit to these reviews has not yet been decided.

48.The UK has not yet submitted a review and has not signed up to do so in 2017. A number of stakeholders, including the Commonwealth Medical Trust and the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO), have suggested that the UK should commit to participating in the national review process at HLPF in 2018 “and take a leadership role, rather than being left behind.”52 Jessica Woodroffe of GADN told us that, although scrutiny provided by participating in the Forum would be brief, the process of producing the report itself would “spur on action.”53 She also pointed out that:

The lesson both from the [Millennium Development Goals] and from what other countries have so far done on the SDGs suggests that committing to voluntary national reporting is going to be key. Having an annual review, with a high level of stakeholder consultation, will also be key.54

49.Bond/GADN recommended that the UK should submit “at least three national reviews by 2030” and spelt out how such a review should be managed:

The process for preparing the report should be open, inclusive and participatory, supporting the active and meaningful engagement of citizens, with particular efforts to include marginalised groups.55

NAWO suggested the UK follow the example of Finland, which developed its report to the HLPF in 2016 with the full involvement of civil society who were also involved in the report’s presentation to the UN. 56

50.When questioned on whether the Government would participate in the 2018 review, the Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years said:

We want to see what comes out of the Single Departmental Plans, when they come out later on in the year. We want to see what comes out of the ONS project and consultation. [ … ] It would be foolish for us to plough on and go and report to the High-level Group without that knowledge in our arsenal. However, we do not shy away from reporting.57

The Minister also told us that “On average, only about six countries can report each year anyway.”58 However, 22 countries reported in 2016,59 and as of February 2017, a further 43 countries had committed to reporting in 2017.60

51.We welcome the Government’s refresh of Single Departmental Plans to incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This demonstrates a clear commitment to the goals and their domestic implementation. However, the UK is lagging behind many of its OECD counterparts in terms of outlining a clear plan for the achievement of the SDGs. This stands in stark contrast to the UK’s leadership role in formulating the SDGs, and in championing the inclusion of a standalone gender goal. It is regrettable that the UK has already missed opportunities to submit data to the UN and to participate in the High Level Political Forum in 2017. The Government must take the opportunity that the refreshed Single Departmental Plans provide, and use this to raise awareness of the SDGs, and SDG 5 in particular, across the UK.

52.In order to achieve this, our main recommendation is that:

Leadership on the SDGs should come from the top of Government. The Government should domestically publicise its commitment to the achievement of the SDGs in the UK. It should immediately commit to reporting to the UN’s High Level Political Forum in 2018.

53.In addition to this,

We support the International Development Committee’s recommendation that responsibility for the SDGs should sit within the Cabinet Office and not the Department for International Development. The Government should take greater leadership by bringing together the elements of Single Departmental Plans that support the SDGs in a co-ordinated National Implementation Plan, to be led by the Cabinet Office.

54.We urge the Government to publish its report examining the domestic implementation of the SDGs, as promised to the International Development Committee in September 2016, without further delay.


18 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, HC 103, para 77

19 International Development Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Government response, HC 673

20 International Development Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Government response, HC 673

22 Q177

23 Q175

25 Q210

26 Q34

27 Q176

28 UN Women (SDG0009), para 2

29 UKSSD (SDG0032), para 6

30 Plan International UK (SGG0018), para 6

31 UN Women (SDG0009)

32 Agenda (SDG0004), para 10

33 Q46

34 British Council (SDG0019), para 4.1

36 Q169

37 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, HC 103, para 77

38 International Development Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Government response, HC 673

40 Q164

41 Q211

42 Q219

43 International Development Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Government response, HC 673

44 Q187

45 See also Q36 [Sam Smethers], Q54 [Jessica Woodroffe] and Q4 [Dr Helen Mott].

46 Commonwealth Medical Trust (SDG0011), para 2

47 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, HC 103

48 Bond/GADN (SDG0028), para 32

49 Womankind Worldwide (SDG0020), para 9

50 Bond/GADN (SDG0028), para 37

51 Bond/GADN (SDG0028), para 37

52 Commonwealth Medical Trust (SDG0011), para 9

53 Q48 [Jessica Woodroffe]

54 Q56 [Jessica Woodroffe]

55 Bond/GADN (SDG0028), para 5

57 Q171 [Caroline Dinenage]

58 Q170

60 UN, SDGs in Action newsletter (February 2017)




10 March 2017