12th Report - UK progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Voluntary National Review Contents

1The Voluntary National Review Process

The Sustainable Development Goals

1.In September 2015, 193 UN Member States—including the UK—adopted a new global development framework: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The seventeen SDGs, or ‘Global Goals’, set out a comprehensive and transformative global agenda on issues such as climate change, gender equality and economic development (see Box 1). The Goals are universal and apply to developed and developing countries alike. As Emily Auckland, co-Chair of UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) told us:

The Sustainable Development Goals have been called the closest thing the world has to a strategy for the future. Together, they provide us with an ambitious plan for a future that is fairer, safer, healthier and in better balance with nature. They resonate with every aspect of life in the UK. They are relevant to individuals, to households, to communities, to business and to government.1

2.Our predecessor International Development Committee was at the forefront of parliamentary scrutiny of this agenda in the UK and published a Report on UK Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals on 8 June 2016.2 The Report expressed significant concern with the Government’s early approach to the implementation of the SDGs in the UK, including:

The Report also asked the Government to develop a national implementation plan, and to commit to monitor, and report on, its contribution to the Goals at home and overseas on an annual basis.

3.Although some progress has been made since 2016, the majority of our predecessor’s concerns on implementation still stand. For example, although some effort has been made to map the SDGs on to the Government’s single departmental plans (which detail each department’s objectives and how they will achieve them), this does not equate to a comprehensive implementation plan or full integration of the Goals across the Government’s programme. Crucially, there remains an absence of leadership at the top of Government on the SDGs and a lack of political will, and administrative means, to put them firmly at the heart of government policy. As Rt Hon Rory Stewart OBE MP, the current Secretary of State for International Development, told us during this inquiry:

[…] if you had a Prime Minister who made this central to their domestic agenda. That is what would really transform this. If they did make it central to their domestic agenda, they could do it in a whole series of ways. They could make it absolutely central to the Cabinet Office.3

In the coming months there will be an opportunity for a new Prime Minister to use the UK’s first Voluntary National Review (VNR) as a launchpad for greater action on the SDGs, and to use them as a blueprint for domestic and international policy to 2030.

Box 1: The Sustainable Development Goals

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Source: UN, Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (September 2015)

Voluntary National Reviews

4.In order to review progress towards the SDGs, the UN encourages member states to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven”.4 The 2030 Agenda clearly states that these reviews should:

draw on contributions from indigenous peoples, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders, in line with national circumstances, policies and priorities. National parliaments as well as other institutions can also support these processes.5

These Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) form the basis for the annual reviews of progress on the SDGs conducted by the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), held at the UN Headquarters in New York each July. To date, 111 countries have presented their VNRs to the HLPF. In 2019, an additional 47 countries will report; seven of those for the second time since the Goals were adopted in 2015. The UK is amongst those reporting for the first time and will present its Voluntary National Review to the HLPF on 16 July 2019, almost four years after the Goals were adopted. The Voluntary National Review is the focus of this first report by the Committee into UK Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, with a further Report on implementation of the Goals to be published later in the year.

The UK Voluntary National Review Process

5.The presentation of the UK’s first Voluntary National Review (VNR) this year is significant. It is a moment for the UK to: reaffirm its commitment to the SDGs (role-modelling its approach to reporting), assess its contribution to their achievement at home and overseas, identify gaps in implementation, and make changes to enable greater progress on the 2030 Agenda. It is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of people around the UK striving to achieve the Goals, to assess honestly the UK Government’s successes and shortcomings in relation to the SDGs, and to raise awareness of the Goals amongst the general public.

6.It is worth stating at the outset that we are aware this is the first time the UK has prepared a VNR on the SDGs and, as such, it is a learning experience for everyone involved. However, there are many areas where we feel the Government could have done better. In delaying the creation of its first VNR beyond many other OECD nations, who have reported at least once over the last four years, there were also many lessons that could have been learned from others. The purpose of this Report is to scrutinise this first VNR process and to lay out recommendations for future such reviews. As the Secretary of State said himself just a few weeks ago:

It has definitely been an imperfect process. It is a process. This is our first VNR. We are learning from it. I think it will grow and strengthen.6


7.Despite being one of the countries at the forefront of the 2030 Agenda during the negotiation and agreement of the SDGs,7 the UK has lagged behind many OECD nations in committing to producing its first Voluntary National Review. France and Germany published their first VNRs in 2016, Sweden and Denmark in 2017 and Ireland in 2018. Some countries, such as Switzerland, have already published two VNRs since 2015. In evidence, Secretary of State Rory Stewart told the Committee that there was “a lot of nervousness” around the Government “marking our own homework domestically”:

People thought this was completely crazy and totally inappropriate, and all we were doing was providing for more Opposition and Backbench Business Committee debates on our head.8

8.The Government did eventually commit, in November 2017, to presenting the UK’s first VNR in 2019.9 This gave the Government 19 months to complete and submit the final VNR to the UN and 20 months to prepare for its presentation. As Emily Auckland of UKSSD told us, “there was absolutely plenty of time”.10 Despite early interventions from civil society,11 DFID’s initial consultations on the VNR did not start until August 2018, and substantive work to push the VNR forward did not begin until October 2018 (see Box 2: Government Timeframe for the VNR). Departmental ‘Champions’—described by DFID as “responsible for supporting production of the review”—were not appointed until late October 2018 and were then given very short time-frames within which to produce contributions to an ‘Emerging Findings and Future Engagement’ document, which was used at subsequent stakeholder engagement events.12 As one of the ‘Champions’, Sam Lister, Director General at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told us:

The original deadline for it was 16 November and, clearly, we were appointed on 22 October, so the timeframe was fairly narrow. That deadline then stretched, so it allowed for a couple more weeks of being able to input into it.13

Box 2: Government Timeframe for the VNR

Key activities and deadlines for the UK’s Voluntary National Review:

  • Ongoing engagement to inform initial drafting between October and December [2018]
  • Case studies of how people and organisations are contributing to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals through the Voluntary National Review website
  • Engagement events with different groups of stakeholders on emerging messages and key findings in the new year [2019]
  • Submission of a main messages document to the UN by 17 May 2019
  • Submission of the full report to the UN by 14 June 2019
  • Presentation of the Voluntary National Review at the ministerial meeting of the UN High Level Political Forum from 16–18 July 2019
  • The first Head of Government-level review of the Sustainable Development Goals at the UN General Assembly in September 2019

Source: ’About the Voluntary National Review’, Gov.uk

9.The IDC Chair, Stephen Twigg MP, wrote on behalf of the Committee to the then Secretary of State for International Development, Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, in April 2019, to outline our concerns with the constricted timeline for completing the VNR:

The Government has known about the VNR process since its inception in 2015. It will have had a period of over eighteen months since committing to its first VNR by the deadline for presentation at the UN in July 2019. It is clear that this time could have been used much more effectively, and that the vast majority of purposeful activity has been squeezed into the final eight months before submission.14

This compressed timeline has been clearly evidenced by the almost two-week delay in delivering the UK’s final Review to the UN. The final VNR was due to be submitted on 14 June, but instead was delivered and published on Wednesday 26 June. Although delays are not uncommon in the VNR process, a large number of countries—including many DFID partners, such as Ghana, Tanzania and Sierra Leone—managed to deliver their Reviews on time. The Secretary of State told us the delay was because the devolved administrations—who had “… a lot of justified pride in what they have done in relation to the SDGs and the SDGs frameworks”—did not quite manage to deliver their submissions to “… our desk in the time that we required in order to submit”. We assume that the discussions—described by Rory Stewart as “not easy”—over the presentation of a “UK story”, versus tales from England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland, also contributed to the delay.15

10.When the Government adopted the SDGs in September 2015, they were aware that they would be required to report on progress. The Office of National Statistics has been working hard since then to build up the data to report against the Goals.16 What seems to be missing is a mechanism within Government to use this data and contributions from all government departments and the devolved administrations to systematically track and report SDG implementation and progress. There was an opportunity to put such mechanisms in place as soon as the Goals were adopted, and to avoid this rather rushed and panicked process, which has resulted in a delay to the UK’s final VNR submission. There appears to be a compelling case for the Government to put in place a formal mechanism to align measurement, reporting and action towards the SDGs (making future VNRs far easier to produce). A further Committee Report on future implementation of the SDGs, to be published later this year, will cover this in more depth.

11.The Government should have given more time to the Voluntary National Review (VNR) process. A plan to take the process forward should have been agreed soon after the commitment to produce the VNR was made, in November 2017, and shared with all relevant stakeholders. This would have allowed more time and space for DFID officials to engage other government departments in the process, and to coordinate with the devolved administrations, clarifying the details on timelines and presentation of the final Review.

12.Allowing more time for the VNR process may have enabled the UK to keep to the timescale set by the UN, as so many other countries did. This Review was an enormous undertaking that included every government department. We appreciate that this is the first time the UK has conducted a VNR process, but these are lessons that must be learned before the UK embarks on its next VNR.

13.When embarking on future VNRs, the Government should produce a detailed, publicly available timeline at least 18 months before presentation of the Review, including the main deliverables and deadlines. This would help to focus minds across Government and the devolved administrations and enable stakeholders to engage more effectively with the process. This timeline should be realistic and allow adequate time for contributions to be prepared and consolidated, and for meaningful stakeholder engagement to take place. It should also provide time for meaningful and collaborative discussions between all the UK’s administrations about taking account of different approaches and priorities.

Stakeholder Engagement

14.Stakeholder engagement is a central part of voluntary national reporting on the SDGs. The UN Secretary General’s reporting guidelines for VNRs emphasise that reviews should be “open, inclusive, participatory and transparent for all people and will support reporting by all relevant stakeholders.”17 The Handbook for the Preparation of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) states that countries should consider developing a stakeholder engagement plan. This would:

Identify key stakeholders, methods of engagement and consider online and other means through which stakeholder contributions could be gathered. All sectors and levels of government, civil society, private sector, trade unions, members of parliament and national human rights institutions, should be considered. The identification of a focal point to liaise with stakeholders can facilitate communication and follow up.18

15.During our inquiry, it has become clear that stakeholders feel let down by the UK’s VNR process and disappointed that they were not able to contribute in a meaningful way. Although the Government has engaged stakeholders during the process, it failed to draw up a substantive stakeholder engagement plan in advance or to coordinate appropriately the activities of different government departments. In a recent submission to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), UKSSD highlighted that, “Efforts have been taken by DFID and other departments to engage stakeholders in the production of the VNR, but this has been limited and selective.”19 Similar criticism of DFID’s approach to stakeholder engagement was received from, amongst others, WWF UK, Commonwealth Medical Trust, Restless Development, and NASUWT—the Teachers Union.20

16.The former Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt, was keen to cite examples of engagement events held across Government when she appeared before us in March.21 Whilst we are pleased these events took place, they have been criticised for being “last minute”, “ad hoc” with “as little as three days” notice. As a result, “stakeholder attendance has been limited”.22 UKSSD included further details of the events held by different government departments, including methods of engagement, in an appendix to their recent evidence to the EAC on the VNR.23 It is included here as an Appendix to this Report. It demonstrates clearly the difference in approach between government departments and the failure to coordinate these efforts centrally. Lord Bates insisted to us that this was a conscious decision:

we said that it is down to that Government Department to consult with its stakeholders on the goals for which it is responsible. That is clearly going to be a longer process, it is going to require more energy and drive and it will be less universally consistent as to who performs in which way.24

We are not, however, convinced this was the right decision or a method that should be replicated with future VNRs. Many of these events were also not publicly advertised, meaning that those who were not party to the information (those outside the usual suspects) were “not seeing that and being given an opportunity” to engage.25

17.A large number of engagement events—including those coordinated by DFID—also took place towards the end of the VNR process, in mid-March 2019, just three months before the final Review was due to be submitted to the UN. Despite this, stakeholders were not provided with comprehensive materials, such as a draft VNR, in advance of these events. Their ability to influence the VNR was therefore limited. The depth of expertise on, and commitment to, the SDGs amongst UK stakeholders is shown clearly in the publication of the two ‘shadow’ reports on the UK’s progress on the SDGs in the past two years: UKSSD’s 2018 report on domestic performance and Bond’s 2019 report on its international contribution.26 This expertise has not been fully taken advantage of by the Government during this process.

18.One of the main methods of engagement used by the Government during the VNR process was the collection of case studies via an online portal. This enabled the Government to collect 270 case studies of activity from “a wide range of groups, including organisations that are not within the remit of government”.27 The results of this exercise usefully demonstrate the range of activities that are going on across the UK to promote and contribute to the achievement of the Goals. However, as UKSSD expressed in evidence to us, the collection of case studies is “not… a sufficiently meaningful approach to yield a rigorous VNR”.28 The portal only served to capture snapshots of activity, rather than using the expertise and perspectives of those delivering the Goals around the UK to meaningfully track progress and gaps in implementation. The online portal was a good initiative, but needed to be complemented by more substantive stakeholder engagement with the Review.

Parliamentary Engagement

19.As parliamentarians, we have been similarly disappointed at the Government’s failure to engage us fully in the Review process. When we launched this inquiry in December 2018, a commitment had been made to involve parliamentarians in the VNR process,29 but we had no idea what this engagement would look like. As a result, our Chair wrote to Lord Bates on 12 December 2018 to emphasise that stakeholder consultation on the VNR should “be substantive and meaningful”. It also laid out a series of criteria for parliamentary consultation, including sufficient notice and “an advance copy of the draft VNR/main messages for Members to look at and seek advice about”.30 We were pleased that DFID adhered to the vast majority of our requests on parliamentary consultation. However, the document circulated for comment before the initial parliamentary engagement event in March 2019 was not a draft VNR, nor the main messages. Instead, it was an Emerging Findings and Further Engagement (EFFE) document, which provided a mere snapshot of activities and data relevant to each Goal.31 UKSSD described the document as giving “a very limited indication of what the final VNR will contain and therefore how the Government assesses the UK’s progress on the SDGs.”32 We agree with this statement.

20.During the meeting (held under Chatham House rules), parliamentarians expressed concern at the cherry-picking of information presented in this document and the lack of any systematic analysis of progress against the SDG targets and indicators. When asked by the Committee about the content of the EFFE document in evidence the following day, the then Secretary of State said:

The purpose of this initial document—which is not a draft; it is just a method of engaging people—is to scoop in others who are currently not living, breathing and getting out of bed in the morning for the global goals and particular aspects of them.33

The fact that parliamentarians were only provided with a document intended to be “a method of engaging people”, when they are clearly an engaged constituency with much to say on this agenda, meant that the meeting had little value in terms of substantively engaging with the VNR. The event did provide an opportunity for parliamentarians to lay out their expectations for the final Review, and to make it clear that, unlike the EFFE document, they expected it to include a comprehensive assessment of the UK’s performance against each individual Goal, target and indicator. However, the Government could have gained much more substantive and constructive feedback from parliamentarians if they had provided them with a draft VNR document, or something that was at least representative of the content of the final Review.

21.Likewise, the parliamentary debate on the SDGs—scheduled in Government time at the request of the Chairs of the International Development and Environmental Audit Committees—could have been much more useful if MPs had received a draft VNR in advance. The debate was scheduled for 11 June 2019, just days before the final Review was due to be submitted to the UN, and so there should have been some substantive material for interested parliamentarians to see at that point in time. The debate provided a useful opportunity for MPs to, once again, highlight what they would like to see in the final report, but it was not a method for constructive feedback on the final document.34

22.When asked how Members’ contributions from this debate fed into the final Review, the current Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, told us:

The lesson I am taking forward, both in what I will present to New York and in what we have done, is that… people are looking for much more reassurance on stakeholder engagement, consultation and the formal structures… through which that happens.35

He also highlighted that he had expected the VNR to “become a stick to attack us on domestic policy issues” in the debate, but that this was not actually the case.36 However, given MPs were not able to see the VNR in advance of the debate, it is not surprising that they were unable to comment on the Government’s performance against the Goals.

23.Throughout the VNR process, Members of Parliament have had to push to be included. If it were not for the persistence of interested MPs and Peers, including members of the International Development, and Environmental Audit, committees and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the SDGs, we are not confident that even this level of parliamentary consultation would have taken place. Here, the UK experience compares unfavourably with countries like Poland, where we were told, the VNR was “published in draft form and taken through Parliament”.37

Leaving no one behind

24.Despite the SDGs’ focus on “leaving no one behind”, there is little evidence that the Government engaged marginalised groups in the VNR process. Emily Auckland of UKSSD told us:

“this process could have provided an opportunity… to reach out to those that represent marginalised communities or disadvantaged groups, as well as those that are on the ground delivering some of the activities that are necessary for the SDGs, who maybe are not engaged in the goals as a framework themselves. That opportunity has not been taken advantage of.38

There was some acknowledgment of this from the former Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt, who told us she wants more people “on the street” to know what the Global Goals are.39 She emphasised:

Unless that happens, we are not going to have entrepreneurs engaged; we are not going to have business engaged; we are not going to have the innovators, people putting their savings into global goal ISAs, et cetera. […] Stakeholders close to these issues are already engaged. We need to open this out much more to get to people who could be contributing by what they are doing but do not know about the goals yet. That is what we need to be doing.40

25.We welcome the attempts made by DFID to engage with stakeholders outside of London by hosting some regional events, and to reach out to a wider audience through social media campaigning with the #myglobalgoal campaign. However, these attempts were, at best insufficient and, at worst, tokenistic. The SDG Network Scotland told us:

SDG Network Scotland and other organisations in Scotland were only made aware of DFID-led VNR stakeholder meetings in London through word of mouth, and there has been no clear, visible communications and engagement plan from the UK Government to mobilise civil society and other major stakeholders across England or the devolved nations.41

26.Unfortunately, it is unlikely that people who were not previously engaged in the SDGs have become so as a result of the VNR process, and that is a real opportunity missed for the Government. Given sufficient time and resources, government officials could have done far more to reach out to marginalised groups during this process. The Government needs to be doing far more to ensure that more people are engaged in the SDGs agenda, reaching beyond traditional stakeholders to hard-to-reach communities and regions across the UK.

Looking ahead

27.In the VNR, the Government commits to developing “an effective mechanism… to enhance stakeholder engagement and cooperation with government in the domestic sphere”.42 We welcome the acknowledgement by Government that a specific mechanism for stakeholder engagement on domestic implementation, and the commitment to create it, is required. However, we would have liked to see the Government commit to a similar mechanism for engagement on the UK’s contribution to the SDGs overseas.

28.Stakeholder engagement throughout the VNR process has been inadequate and disappointing. Leaving each government department to carry out its own engagement with stakeholders has led to ‘ad hoc’ arrangements which differed wildly across Government and a lack of coordination, making it difficult for interested parties to participate meaningfully in the process. Where engagement events were organised, they took place late in the process, were largely superficial and, aside from a two-page document attached to the VNR, it is hard to see how this engagement has influenced the final Review.

29.In its response, the Government should provide further details on its plans to develop a formal mechanism for stakeholder engagement on domestic implementation of the SDGs, including:

a)when it will be established;

b)who will be involved (and how marginalised and hard-to-reach communities will be engaged);

c)which government department will coordinate it;

d)what its terms of reference will be; and

e)proposed methods of engagement.

Parliamentarians must be included as key stakeholders in this process going forward.

30.Whilst we welcome the commitment to create a mechanism for stakeholder engagement on domestic implementation of the SDGs, we recommend that the Government commits to establishing a similar mechanism focused on the UK’s global contribution to the SDGs and would welcome its commitment to do so in the response to this Report.

Cross-Government Coordination

DFID Leadership

31.As the department leading on the implementation of the SDGs, DFID was responsible for coordinating the VNR process across Government.43 Andrew Griffiths, Co-Chair of the Bond SDGs Group, told us that this is not a typical approach:

In most countries, you would say that it is a planning Ministry that takes the role in terms of developing the voluntary national review and there is either Prime Ministerial or Presidential leadership; they take the responsibility for it. The UK is probably quite an outlier when it comes to giving the responsibility to an internationally-focused arm.44

Mr Griffiths also shared his concerns about DFID being the lead on both international and domestic implementation of the Goals, telling us: “the risk is that DFID is not able and does not have the resources to do both.”45

32.Our predecessor Committee stated clearly in 2016:

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.46

Similar concerns were expressed by the Environmental Audit, and Women and Equalities, committees in subsequent reports.47 The view that DFID should not be the lead department on the SDGs prevails across the evidence to this inquiry.48 Instead, given the Cabinet Office’s responsibility for “supporting collective government, helping to ensure the effective development, coordination and implementation of policy”, it seems right that they should take the lead on this cross-government agenda, including the coordination of future VNRs.49 This applies to the process of gathering information to present a progress report; but it applies doubly to the process of improving awareness, alignment and coordination that could be achieved by the effective embedding of the SDGs within key. government processes such as the single departmental plans, comprehensive spending reviews and budget and estimates documentation.

33.The VNR process has necessitated a greater understanding of the SDGs across Government and this is a positive development. However, we have started from a very low bar, with departments having little to no knowledge of the agenda at all. We welcome the Prime Minister putting the Global Goals on the agenda for Cabinet,50 which ensured that all Cabinet Ministers had a basic understanding of the agenda and the Voluntary National Review process. We hope that the next Prime Minister will follow up on this progress by ensuring that the new Cabinet understands the importance of the SDGs agenda when it is formed.

34.Placing the responsibility for implementation of the SDGs—and by extension the Voluntary National Review—in an internationally-focused department where Ministers have previously said they have “relatively few, if any, domestic levers” is not the right decision.51 The view prevails, on this Committee, as in the evidence received to this inquiry, that the VNR—and UK implementation of the SDGs more generally—should be the responsibility of the Cabinet Office.52 Unfortunately the Cabinet Office’s Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden MP, declined our invitation to give oral evidence to this inquiry so we were unable to put this matter to him.

Engaging other Government Departments

35.Given its limited influence across Government, engaging other departments in the SDGs has been a challenge for DFID officials, particularly when many of these departments had little to no awareness of the agenda before the Review process began. When asked whether other departments had come late to the table on this agenda, Donna Ward, Director of Children, Families and Disadvantage at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told us:

Yes, I think so. […] I was chief analyst in DfE [Department for Education] before this. It might be my failing, but I knew a lot about poverty and I knew a lot about the Child Poverty Act and the whole history of that. I did not know about these goals until the process of the review.53

It is concerning that over three years after the SDGs were first adopted, many departments were learning about the agenda for the first time as they began to prepare the VNR. This has undoubtedly made DFID’s job coordinating the Review even harder, as have the numerous changes in Secretaries of State at DFID (three since the SDGs were adopted in 2015) and Ministers (most recently, portfolio responsibility for the agenda was shifted from Lord Bates to Baroness Sugg after the former Minister’s resignation).

36.A number of mechanisms were put in place to engage other departments, outside of DFID, with this agenda and to bring together the final Review:

i)Government departments were given specific responsibility for coordinating one or more Goals/chapters in the VNR. (see table 1);

ii)Each department had one or more nominated SDG Champions “whose responsibility is to promote the SDGs and the Voluntary National Review in their department”;54

iii)Senior Responsible Officers (SROs) also appear to have been appointed for specific Goals/chapters in some departments, e.g. Donna Ward from DWP was the SRO for Goal 1;

iv)The pre-existing cross-Whitehall Group on the SDGs, co-chaired by DFID and the Cabinet Office, which “governed” the process.55

Whilst we welcome these efforts to engage other departments, there are some key limitations to these mechanisms, which we will explore below.

Lead Departments

37.The distribution of Goals/VNR chapters amongst the different government departments was very uneven. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was responsible for five Goals, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for three Goals, and the Government Equalities Office (GEO) for two Goals. DFID, Home Office, HM Treasury and the Departments for Work and Pensions (DWP), Health and Social Care, Education, and Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG), were each responsible for one Goal. This meant that DEFRA, BEIS and GEO had a very large VNR-related workload, whilst a number of departments did not have any primary responsibility (although they may have contributed to relevant chapters). The allocation of departments was, of course, done according to where the work on each particular Goal is focused: it makes sense that chapters on water and sanitation, life on land, and under water were led by DEFRA. However, it does lead us to question whether those departments which were not directly responsible for a chapter/Goal (e.g. the Ministry of Justice and the Department for International Trade) really engaged with the SDGs during this process and therefore whether there is really awareness of the Goals in every government department.

38.UKSSD also expressed concern, in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, that “The assignment of the Goals to individual departments has resulted in an inconsistent approach to stakeholder engagement and risks missing the interlinkages between the Goals and between policy areas”.56 Donna Ward from DWP certainly confirmed that the chapters, at least initially, were being drafted in isolation: “When we drafted the first chapter, it was in a vacuum, not knowing how other people were drafting theirs”.57 With different departments leading on different Goals, it is unclear how much space there was for cross-fertilisation of ideas, making links between the Goals and assessing policy coherence. Certainly, the latter seems largely absent from the final Review. (see chapter 2)

Table 1: Lead Government Departments for the purposes of the Voluntary National Review

Sustainable Development Goal

Lead Government Department

Goal 1: No Poverty

Department for Work and Pensions

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being

Department of Health and Social Care

Goal 4: Quality Education

Department for Education

Goal 5: Gender Equality

Government Equalities Office

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

HM Treasury

Goal 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities

Government Equalities Office

Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Goal 13: Climate Action

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Goal 14: Life Below Water

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Goal 15: Life on Land

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Home Office

Goal 17: Partnership for the Goals

Department for International Development

Source: DFID, UK’s Voluntary National Review on the Global Goals: Emerging Findings and Further Engagement, 4 March 2019

SDG Champions, Senior Responsible Officers and Cross-Whitehall Leads

39.We have already noted how late SDG ‘Champions’ were put in place, only receiving notification of their position in the latter half of October 2018, for a VNR that was due to be submitted in June 2019. There also seems to be disparity between departments on what it meant to be a ‘Champion’. In DWP, Donna Ward was appointed Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) for Goal 1 on poverty—the first chapter of the VNR—whilst the ‘Champion’ role sat elsewhere, in their central strategy team. In BEIS, there were three Senior Responsible Officers (one for each Goal/chapter they were responsible for within the VNR) who also considered themselves “policy champions”. However, Sam Lister from BEIS also referred to a “process champion” sitting in their central team.58 The ‘Champion’ role, although a positive innovation to encourage engagement from senior officials in other government departments, appears to have been poorly defined. There were also no additional resources allocated to ‘Champions’ to enable them to carry out this function, in addition to their already busy workloads. Donna Ward told us: “I have no additional resources for this particular exercise… For the champion role inside strategy, that has been absorbed as part of their business as usual”.59

40.DFID stated that the VNR process was governed by a “pre-existing official-level cross-Whitehall Group on the SDGs… co-chaired by DFID and Cabinet Office.”60 However, the role of these officials, their connection to Champions, SROs and the VNR team in DFID, and the percentage of their time, day-to-day, allocated to the implementation of the SDGs, remains unclear. The only evidence we saw of the cross-Whitehall Group during this inquiry was their attendance at the parliamentary stakeholder event on the VNR in early March. In its response to this inquiry, we would be grateful if the Government could provide some further detail on this Group including its membership, terms of reference and outputs since 2015.

41.We urge the Government to retain the Director-level SDG Champion roles in all government departments, to continue to communicate, and encourage progress towards, the Goals beyond the VNR. However, the roles should be better defined. In its response to this Report, we would like to see the Government commit to retaining ‘Champions’ in all government departments and set out a clear job description for the role. Champions should be provided with appropriate resources, in terms of staff and budget, to enable them to continue to raise awareness of the 2030 Agenda in their departments beyond the 2019 HLPF.

Resources allocated to the VNR

42.Emily Auckland of UKSSD told us, “The issue about departmental engagement has very much been the lack of resource… We know that they have had issues engaging with this process, because of other demands and priorities”.61 In terms of government resources allocated to the VNR, Lord Bates told us:

Within DFID, there are about nine people working specifically on the global goals and the voluntary national review. There are three or four who are working very effectively across Whitehall with some of the key lead Departments that have a lot of the key goals, such as Defra and BEIS, which we need to work with. There are about 12 people there. They were set up and, if I was pinning a date—at this point I was hoping there might be some inspiration shouted from behind me, as they are here—our Agenda 2030 was published at the end of March 2017. That was when we put it forward as to how we were going to implement this plan and then gradually the resources have built. The resources have grown as we have been delivering the voluntary national review. The voluntary national review has been going on for about six months, this process of consultation.62

The vast majority of staff with a dedicated focus on the SDGs sit within DFID, rather than in the Cabinet Office or in other government departments. Whilst we welcome the number of staff working that were assigned to the VNR and the SDGs within DFID, to ensure buy-in from other government departments, similar resources should have been allocated across Whitehall to support the creation of the VNR.

43.It is important to note that DFID officials have been complimented in evidence for doing the best job they can with limited resources and leadership. Sam Lister from BEIS praised DFID for providing “support [they] really needed” on stakeholder engagement.63

Coordination with the devolved administrations

44.The Secretary of State told us that the reason for the delay in submitting the final VNR to the UN was the late submission of contributions from the devolved administrations.64 However, in its evidence to the Committee, submitted in February, Scotland’s International Development Alliance questioned the UK Government’s methods for exchanging information with the devolved governments:

The UK Government should develop a more systematic information exchange mechanism that improves both vertical and horizontal coordination across and within different levels of government, including the countries with devolved government. By doing so, it would be easier to communicate and coordinate a transparent road-map for VNR development.65

45.For future VNRs, it is essential that an appropriate mechanism is created—at the heart of Government, in the Cabinet Office—to lead on communication and implementation of the SDGs. If such a mechanism had been in place, bringing together the VNR would have been much more straightforward. Instead, the process was incredibly fragmented, with chapters of the VNR drafted, at least initially, in isolation, by different departments. The process to bring all of the sections of the report together was then very complex, and was made more difficult by the coordinating department, DFID, having limited influence across government departments and the devolved administrations.

46.Coordination with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, for the purposes of the VNR, could also be improved. We recommend early communication between the UK Government and the devolved administrations, and agreement of a common style, structure and reporting framework, well in advance of the next VNR.

1 Q1

2 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, HC103

4 UN, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015, para 79

5 UN, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015, para 79

7 The then UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, was a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel of eminent persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which helped develop the SDGs

9 Letter from Lord Bates to Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, 15 November 2017

10 Q8

12 DFID written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry, ‘Sustainable Development Goals in the UK Follow Up’ (SDF0029); Q53

14 Letter from the Chair of the International Development Committee to the Secretary of State for International Development, 2 April 2019

15 Q199 and Q209

16 The ONS has sourced data to report against 74% of the SDG indicators in the UK. These can be found at its SDGs reporting platform.

19 Written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into ‘Voluntary National Review of UK progress against the Sustainable Development Goals’ (VNR0010)

20 WWF UK (SDG0037); Commonwealth Medical Trust (SDG0031); Restless Development (SDG0026); NASUWT - The Teachers’ Union (SDG0032)

22 Written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into ‘Voluntary National Review of UK progress against the Sustainable Development Goals’ (VNR0010)

23 Ibid

25 Q8

28 UKSSD (SDG0029)

30 Letter from the Chair to Lord Bates regarding the Voluntary National Review, 12 December 2018

32 Written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into ‘Voluntary National Review of UK progress against the Sustainable Development Goals’ (VNR0010)

34 HC Deb, 11 June 2019, col 592–624 [Commons Chamber]

38 Q8

40 Ibid

41 SDG Network Scotland (SDG0020)

43 Department for International Development (SDG0017)

46 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, HC103, Para 74

47 Environmental Audit Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2016–17, Sustainable Development Goals in the UK, HC596; Women and Equalities Committee, Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 in the UK, HC885

48 See Bond (SDG0018) para 5, Overseas Development Institute (SDG0027) para 1 & 2, UKSSD (SDG0029) para 9, WWF UK (SDG0037) para 3, SDG Network Scotland (SDG0020) para 6 & 7

49 Gov.uk, Cabinet Office: About Us (accessed 3 July 2019)

51 Evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into Sustainable Development Goals in the UK, Q146 [James Wharton]

52 See UKSSD (SDG0029) para 9, Overseas Development Institute (SDG0027) para 2, WWF UK (SDG0037) para 3, Aviva (SDG0044), SDG Network Scotland (SDG0020) para 6 & 7

54 Department for International Development (SDG0017)

55 Department for International Development (SDG0017)

56 UKSSD, Evidence to Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the Voluntary National Review (VNR0010)

60 Department for International Development (SDG0017)

61 Q8

65 Scotland’s International Development Alliance (SDG0042)

Published: 16 July 2019