55.The UK is a global leader on equality policies and law, and SDG 5 can help drive further improvement in empowering all women and girls in the UK. This chapter will outline actions that are needed to ensure the successful achievement of SDG 5 in the UK. It begins by assessing the Single Departmental Plans (SDPs), as these are the key mechanism through which the Government proposes to embed SDG targets in domestic policy-making. We will examine which specific targets should be included in departmental plans in order to achieve SDG 5, and outline some of the barriers that stand in their way. We will also examine how the core SDG principle of ‘leaving no-one behind’ can be incorporated within departmental plans.
56.Recommendations for other actions that could be used to support the domestic implementation of SDG 5 will then be assessed; these include using existing domestic legislation and international obligations as well as a broader focus on gender equality across government departments. Finally, we will examine some of the issues that must be addressed to ensure that SDG 5 is effectively implemented across the UK, including within the devolved administrations.
57.In chapter 2, we noted that the Government’s refresh of Single Departmental Plans (SDPs) to include specific references to the SDGs demonstrates a commitment to domestic implementation of the goals. It is not just the fact of these refreshed plans which is important, however, but the extent to which they explicitly cover and allocate responsibility for all of the targets attached to the goals.
58.The Minister for International Development told us that the forthcoming Government report on the SDGs will not detail exactly how the goals are allocated across departments. However, he stated that this will be included in the Single Departmental Plans which:
will go down to the granular level of detail with each of the indicators that are set about how we are going to go about implementing them and measuring them.
59.The GEO’s Single Departmental Plan targets are incorporated within the Department for Education’s plan. The aims relevant to SDG 5 currently included in the GEO section of that plan are those related to reducing the gender pay gap, increasing women’s representation on boards and promoting female leadership in the media, charitable and education sectors. The plan states that GEO is:
60.The relevant performance metrics are the percentage difference between the average earnings of men and women and the proportion of FTSE 350 board positions that are held by women.
61.The following SDG 5 targets, which are highly relevant to the UK, are currently not included in any department’s Single Departmental Plan:
A further target within Goal 5 calls for ensuring “women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.” Although the GEO’s current plan does include taking steps to achieve increased participation by women in public and economic leadership (through its work on women and boards), there is nothing within the plan referring to women’s political leadership or participation in political life.
62.The target on unpaid caring was raised as an example of a target which could deliver significant change, but which also raises questions about where SDGs sit and how they are measured.
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson observed:
It does not fit anywhere neatly. Some of it has impact on women’s poverty in old age: the surest route to poverty in old age is to be a woman and look after other people for nothing. That shows how we value unpaid work, if the price you pay for it in retirement is poverty. It does not fit neatly into any Department, so there is a gap there.
63.Dr Graham Long also pointed out that measuring the target on unpaid caring led to “an incredibly tough question that is worth asking: what kind of form should valuing unpaid or domestic work take?” He explained that the UN does give some suggestions of ways to measure the target, for example, through the provision of public services, infrastructure, social protection policies, and promotion of shared responsibility in the family. However, he noted that these were “only suggestions that we do not have to take.”
64.The Fawcett Society set out detailed suggestions for UK indicators for each target in SDG 5 in its written evidence to us, together with actions needed to achieve them. Its suggestion for the target on unpaid leave provides a starting point for considering some of the issues raised above.
Box 2: An example of how action and indicators could be developed under the target on valuing unpaid care
Action required: Introduction of a parental leave system that presumes equality of responsibility for caring for children (e.g. Swedish “daddy month” system with high level of pay close to replacement rate); a requirement on employers to advertise all jobs as flexible working jobs unless there is a strong business case not to; employment practices which lead to pregnancy discrimination regarded as undermining business performance, taken seriously and managed or disciplined appropriately. Abolition of employment tribunal fees.
Outcomes: Equalisation of time spent caring for children in the early years and other unpaid work in the home; all jobs advertised on a flexible working basis unless there is a strong business reason not to; senior roles available on a part-time basis; men as likely as women to work flexibly; an end to pregnancy discrimination; barriers to individual women fighting discrimination claims are removed.
Source: Fawcett Society
65.In addition to the challenge of incorporating hard to measure targets within Single Departmental Plans, governments must also adhere to the principle of ‘leaving no-one behind’ throughout their implementation of the SDGs. This requires a focus on reaching the most vulnerable and marginalised and is an integral part of the SDG agenda: in signing up to the SDGs, the UK has committed to achieving this. The Declaration to the SDGs states:
As we embark on this great collective journey, we pledge that no-one will be left behind. Recognizing that the dignity of the human person is fundamental, we wish to see the goals and targets met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society. And we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.
66.Evidence to this inquiry suggests that the theme of ‘leaving no-one behind’ has particular relevance to SDG 5 because of the inequality experienced by women across a range of issues. For example, on average, women are more likely to live in poverty than men because of lower incomes and assets over their lifetimes. Women make up 65 per cent of pensioners living at risk of poverty. A higher proportion of women than men in England and Wales report being a victim of domestic violence, with those aged 16 to 19, White women, disabled women and women in low-income households particularly vulnerable. And, as our report on Women in the House of Commons after the 2020 election noted, the UK ranks only 48th globally for representation of women in the lower or single legislative chamber, having fallen from 25th place in 1999.
67.Katharine Sacks-Jones, Director of the Agenda Alliance, said the SDGs offered an opportunity to focus on marginalised women “for whom services do not really work and who are particularly excluded within society.” She said it was important to recognise that
at the moment in the UK a lot of women are left behind. From a gender perspective, some women face multiple disadvantage: extensive abuse and violence, both as children and adults, on and off across their lives, combined with inequality and poverty.
68.The UN has raised concerns that women experiencing the multiple disadvantages outlined above are not protected adequately by UK equality laws. The Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) said in its Concluding Observations on the UK in 2013 that it was concerned that the Public Sector Equality Duty in England “does not adequately protect women against multiple discrimination.”
69.The SDGs’ emphasis on leaving no-one behind fits well with the Government’s current focus on addressing disadvantage. This was reflected in the Prime Minister’s first speech as she entered 10 Downing Street, when she spoke about:
fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor you will die, on average, nine years earlier than others [ … ]. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.
70.The refresh of Single Departmental Plans to incorporate the SDGs offers an opportunity to ensure that the theme of ‘leaving no-one behind’ is embedded in every Department’s work. We asked the Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years whether her Department would incorporate that principle into its plan. She told us she hoped it would, and added that within the Department for Education there was ongoing work “to tackle some of the individual concerns such as FGM, forced marriage and early marriage.”
71.Whilst the refresh of Single Departmental Plans offers a crucial opportunity to embed steps towards the achievement of SDG 5, it is not the only mechanism available to support its delivery. We heard a number of suggestions for other actions that could support effective progress towards the targets in Goal 5. These included use of domestic legislation, such as the Public Sector Equality Duty, existing obligations under international duties and conventions, and embedding cross-governmental action on gender equality.
72.In its evidence to this inquiry, the Government explicitly referred to the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) as relevant to the implementation of SDG 5, noting that the PSED “requires all Departments to consider the impact of their policies on groups with protected characteristics, including gender.”
73.The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) also referred to the potential of the Public Sector Equality Duty to ensure that gender is accounted for in policy-making, in accordance with SDG 5. It argued that adopting “gender-responsive budgeting” is essential for achieving SDG 5: this is the process by which all policies are assessed according to their different effects on men and women. The WBG noted that the effects of policies can “differ substantially because of men’s and women’s different situations, needs and priorities”, and pointed out that policies which might appear gender-neutral on the surface could nonetheless have different effects on men and women and thus “may not work in the way they were intended [to].”
74.However, although the Women’s Budget Group recognised that the Public Sector Equality Duty contains principles that allow for gender-sensitive policy-making, it argued that in its current form the duty “has insufficient teeth to succeed in getting a government to carry out gender-responsive budgeting, or even to produce proper gender impact assessment of its measures when they are announced.”
75.Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick, said her research had found that the replacement of the Gender Equality Duty with the Public Sector Equality Duty in 2010 had led to “a loss of focus on gender within public bodies.” She found that under the PSED only 25 per cent of English local authorities have an equality objective that relates to gender. Dr Stephenson suggested that this could be addressed through “a requirement on public bodies to have due regard to SDG 5 as one of the specific duties for the Public Sector Equality Duty.”
76.Another existing mechanism that could be used to support the implementation of SDG 5 is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This convention was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and ratified by the UK in 1986. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and establishes an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. Governments are required to report to the CEDAW Committee every four years on their progress towards implementation and the recommendations made by the CEDAW Committee (through ‘concluding observations’) in previous years. In the UK, overall responsibility for CEDAW lies with the Government Equalities Office (GEO).
77.The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) stated that CEDAW is highly relevant to SDG 5 and noted its similarities to the SDG framework. Target 5.1, “End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere,” mirrors articles 1 and 2 of CEDAW. The EHRC outlined further crossovers between SDG 5 targets and CEDAW in its written evidence to us and suggested that the two instruments could reinforce one another. It also noted that working on SDG 5 alongside CEDAW would allow for “an efficient coordination approach for GEO.”
78.The need for ‘gender mainstreaming’ has been cited as central to achieving SDG 5. This has been defined by Agenda as ensuring that women’s specific experiences and needs are considered by government departments in policy design and service development. Despite evidence from the GEO that gender mainstreaming is central to its work, Agenda argued that “gender equality appears only to be thought about in isolated pockets, for example, around gender-based violence or political participation, rather than across the piece.” It suggested that the Government needs to recognise that there is a need for “a great number of policy tools across government departments [that] could be used to advance gender equality.”
79.The British Council called on the Government to develop and implement a cross-departmental equality strategy to support more effective co-ordination of gender equality policies. It suggested that “a more strategic approach towards UK gender equality policy” based on the SDGs and running across local government, the devolved administrations, and national government “would deliver strong co-ordinated action.”
80.When the CEDAW Committee examined the UK in 2008 it called for a unified national strategy to implement CEDAW across the UK. In its 2013 examination, it recommended that the Government ensure that the Government Equalities Office have a dedicated team to coordinate work on gender equality across the UK, and that it develop a comprehensive UK-wide strategy to put CEDAW into practice.
81.We heard positive evidence of the value of a strategic approach where this has been applied. Dr Helen Mott told us that the Home Office’s work on violence against women and girls (VAWG) could provide a model for other departments to follow. The Home Office VAWG strategy includes an inter-ministerial group working across different government departments, mechanisms for regular stakeholder input, and an annual action plan which measures progress towards clear targets.
82.Delivery of the SDGs can only be achieved in partnership with the devolved administrations. We heard from Lesley Irving about the Scottish Government’s creation of frameworks which could be used effectively to deliver SDG 5. However, there is one particular area where the position of a devolved administration stands in contradiction to the SDG targets; in relation to target 5.6, ‘Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights’.
83.The Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland and health policy and criminal law are transferred matters that fall within the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Executive. In 2013, the CEDAW Committee restated its 2008 recommendation that:
The State party [UK Government] should expedite the amendment of the anti-abortion law in Northern Ireland with a view to decriminalise abortion.
In the UK’s state reports to the CEDAW Committee, the Government has repeatedly stated that this is a devolved matter.
84.A number of written submissions to this inquiry have noted that lack of access to abortion in Northern Ireland jeopardises the UK’s achievement of Goal 5.6. The Family Planning Association (FPA) argued that the situation is not consistent with the aims of SDG 5. The FPA recommended that we:
call on the Northern Ireland Office (which holds responsibility for protecting human rights in Northern Ireland) to proactively engage with the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to extend reproductive rights.
85.The difficulties raised by this issue are acknowledged by the UK Government. The Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years told us:
You are right to raise that as an issue. [ … ] I do not think it will necessarily be something that would fall under the Government Equalities Office, but somebody will need to take ownership of issues such as that.
86.In subsequent correspondence, the Minister clarified that responsibility for target 5.6 sits with the Department for Health and said that the Government would use its regular discussions with the devolved administrations “to raise awareness of the SDGs and ensure that the administrations are aware of the commitments to which they are party.”
87.The review of the Department for Education’s Single Departmental Plan to incorporate the SDG targets is welcome and presents an opportunity for the Government to act on SDG 5. The review of all Single Departmental Plans will also allow departments to embed the principle of ‘leaving no-one behind’ in all their work. This is consistent with Government policy and the Prime Minister’s strategic focus on tackling inequality. This priority must be clearly reflected within the Single Departmental Plans.
88.Whilst action by individual departments is helpful, it is important to remember that achievement of SDG 5 requires cross-departmental working. Successful implementation of work towards the SDGs requires a cross-departmental equality strategy. We reiterate the recommendation made in our report on Ensuring strong equalities legislation after the EU exit that the Government adopt such a strategy.
89.We recommend that the Government Equalities Office ensure that the key SDG principle of ‘leave no-one behind’ is fully embedded in its revised Single Departmental Plan. That revision should be carried out in consultation with organisations with expertise in this area.
90.The Minister for Women and Equalities should take personal responsibility for ensuring action to achieve SDG 5 across government, with the full support of the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretary to ensure cross-departmental action.
91.The Department for International Development should ensure that the following SDG targets are included within a named department’s Single Departmental Plan: valuing of unpaid caring and promotion of shared responsibility for it within the household and the family; and ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels political and public life. The SDG 5 target to ensure “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in the Beijing Platform for Action” must be included within the Department for Health’s plan.
92.When all the refreshed Single Departmental Plans are published, the Government should make it clear how all the SDG 5 indicators have been incorporated. If choices are made not to incorporate some of the indicators, it must be clear which are not included and what the rationale for their exclusion is.
93.We note concerns that have been expressed to us about compliance of devolved administrations with SDG 5. We would welcome further discussion with the Government Equalities Office and representatives of devolved administrations and assemblies on how harmonisation of women’s rights across the UK can be achieved.
62 Department for Education, , accessed 28 February 2017
63 UN, , accessed 20 February 2017
64 Q38 [Jessica Woodroffe]
68 UN, (2015)
69 LSE Gender Institute, (2015)
70 Office for National Statistics, (February 2015)
71 Women and Equalities Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 630
74 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, , para 16
75 Prime Minister’s Office, (July 2016)
82 UN Women,
87 (SDG0019), para 5.2
88 Equality and Human Rights Commission, p 50
91 CEDAW (July 2013)
92 UN, (2014)
93 (SDG0017), (SDG0023), , (SDG0015), (SDG0024), (SDG0014)
10 March 2017