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

Conclusions and recommendations

The Voluntary National Review Process

1.The Government should have given more time to the 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. (Paragraph 11)

2.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. (Paragraph 12)

3.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. (Paragraph 13)

4.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 nation. (Paragraph 26)

5.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. (Paragraph 28)

6.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. (Paragraph 29)

7.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. (Paragraph 30)

8.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, 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. (Paragraph 33)

9.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. 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. 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. (Paragraph 34)

10.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.” 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. (Paragraph 40)

11.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. (Paragraph 41)

12.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. (Paragraph 45)

13.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. (Paragraph 46)

The Voluntary National Review

14.This section of the Report assesses the content of the UK VNR in terms of these criteria and purposes. Overall, it finds inconsistent adherence to these standards—strong in some respects, and weak in others. (Paragraph 47)

15.The UK’s first Voluntary National Review (VNR) was a welcome but ultimately disappointing review of the UK’s progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We found that despite some strengths, too often the VNR lacked coherence, depth and breadth of analysis. It was also overly focused on “cherry picked” data and case studies at the expense of challenges that remain to be tackled in the UK and around the world. (Paragraph 97)

16.For its next VNR, the Government should be more ambitious and rigorous in its review of the UK’s progress along the trajectories indicated by the Sustainable Development Goals, especially in those areas we highlight above. We hope that the Government will also provide in future VNRs more contextualised data, and analyses, showing trends and comparisons with other countries to illuminate the UK’s performance against SDG targets, including the variations across the four UK nations. (Paragraph 98)

17.The 2019 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) presents an opportunity for the UK to reaffirm its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on the international stage and to once again show leadership on this vital agenda. We hope that the UK’s presentation will include a wide range of stakeholders involved in implementation of the SDGs across the UK, including young people and civil society representatives. (Paragraph 100)

18.The Government should use this year’s HLPF to commit to producing its next Voluntary National Review (VNR) in three years’ time: in the summer of 2022. (Paragraph 101)

19.It is also vital that the next Prime Minister attends the SDGs Summit at the United Nations General Assembly in September, to speak to the UK’s progress on the SDGs and its first VNR. It is crucial that the UK reinforces its commitment to this transformative global agenda, supports the push - by Project Everyone and others - to deliver the SDGs by 2030, and demonstrates that the country remains a force for good on the international stage. (Paragraph 102)

What next?

20.To make up for the limited and hasty consultation during preparation of the Voluntary National Review (VNR), and to allow for detailed scrutiny of the Review (so that a more neutral baseline for future assessments can emerge), the Government should commit at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) to a process of public review meetings on the VNR with UK stakeholders. The meetings should include: devolved administrations; human rights institutions; trades unions; NGOs; Parliamentarians, and UK academia and should take place during the autumn. This review should aim at learning lessons from the VNR and supplementing the limited review of progress and performance contained within it. It should address both domestic and overseas implementation, and have a component addressing the UK’s Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. Key points and recommendations could be summarised, appended to the VNR and submitted to the UN at next year’s HLPF. (Paragraph 104)

21.This process would allow the Government to raise awareness of the Goals by launching a national conversation about the VNR alongside these meetings. It would also ensure an accurate and comprehensive baseline for future reporting. (Paragraph 105)

22.In a spirit of peer learning and global engagement, the Government should assemble a peer review panel comprised of experts from global partner countries, both developed and developing, to provide input to this domestic review process. This process would be two-way, also allowing for key learning from the detail of the UK’s VNR to be drawn out and applied elsewhere. In the absence of leadership by Government, this process could be taken forward by Parliament (Paragraph 106)

23.This national review process would kickstart implementation, but also aim to establish an ongoing process of inclusive national review of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals with parliament at its core, as outlined in the 2030 Agenda. This mechanism would be a powerful legacy of the VNR. (Paragraph 107)

Published: 16 July 2019