Stephen opens the Sustainable Development Goals Debate

Below is the text of Stephen's opening speech from the Sustainable Development Goals debate on Thursday 24th November 2016. You can also watch the speech here:

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the First Report of the International Development Committee, UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, HC 103, and the Government response, HC 673.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this report, and to see present so many Members from different parties. There is a particularly great turnout from fellow members of the Select Committee on International Development. I welcome my fellow Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

In 2000, the United Nations adopted eight goals that shaped the subsequent international development agenda. The millennium development goals were ambitious, and included the aims of eliminating extreme poverty; achieving universal primary education; reducing child mortality; and promoting gender equality. Their impact was significant. According to the UN, extreme poverty around the world was reduced by more than half; global child mortality rates were halved; primary school enrolments in the developing world increased to their highest ever level; and, through a mixture of vaccination and education, the deaths of more than 6 million from malaria were prevented.

Despite that significant progress, though, the MDGs were not achieved in their entirety, so when the programme came to an end last year, UN member states embarked on a more ambitious and wide-ranging set of goals: the sustainable development goals, often described as the “global goals”. There are 17 goals and 169 associated targets, covering some of the greatest challenges the world faces, including poverty, inequality, the impact of climate change, justice, industrialisation, education, good governance and health. Unlike the MDGs, the sustainable development goals are universal, so they apply as much to us here in the United Kingdom as they do in Nigeria, Bangladesh, China or Brazil. That means that over the coming 15 years, the Government need to be doing all they can to ensure that the UK achieves the goals and their associated targets.

The process by which the global goals were agreed was extensive, involving all members of the United Nations, as well as global civil society and the private sector. The goals will be achieved only if there is global co-operation, so it is right that every country has had the opportunity to influence them. The results will be measured against a total of 231 universal indicators, and each country will then create its own national indicators. Global progress on the goals will be reported annually through the high-level political forum at the UN, which meets every year in July.

I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom played an important role in the formation of the goals. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was appointed by Ban Ki-moon to co-chair the high-level panel of eminent persons on the post-2015 development agenda, which began the work that led to the global goals. The UK Government played a vital role in fighting for the inclusion of some goals that were resisted by other countries. For example, the UK fought hard for the inclusion in goal No. 5, on gender equality, of targets on female genital mutilation, early and forced marriages, and sexual and reproductive health. We can be proud of that.

During the negotiation of the goals, the UK rightly emphasised that the agenda was about leaving no one behind. Such an agenda recognises the importance of closing the gaps between different social groups and ensuring real progress for the most marginalised. There is, therefore, an emphasis on tackling inequality as well as poverty. I commend the Government on the role they played in shaping the future of the global development agenda, as well as on their continued commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on international development; however, we now need to see how those commitments are being translated into action.

The global goals aim to solve common problems found in every country to secure gains for everyone. Although they are not legally binding, there is a moral imperative for action to reach the targets they set out. Those targets include eradicating extreme poverty; ensuring equality of opportunity; reducing inequalities of outcome; integrating climate change measures into national policies; and promoting the rule of law. We have a duty to ensure that we are tackling the goals globally and acting as a global leader in their implementation.

In June this year, the International Development Committee released our report on the UK implementation of the goals. The report is the biggest we have published so far in this Parliament. We took extensive written and oral evidence from civil society, non-governmental organisations, academics, the private sector and, of course, the Government. We made a number of recommendations to the Government, but our central finding was that despite the UK’s strong leadership during the negotiation and agreement of the goals, the Government’s response to implementation since their adoption had been insufficient, particularly at the domestic level. There are several reasons for that.

First, it is unclear which Department has lead responsibility for the domestic implementation of the SDGs. Today, the Secretary of State for International Development has written to me to explain matters further, and I am grateful for her letter. She has told me that she and the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General have agreed that Departments will report progress towards the goals through their single departmental plans. The Cabinet Office will continue to have a role in co-ordinating the domestic delivery of the goals through the single departmental plans process.

I welcome that clarification from the Secretary of State, but I have two issues for the Minister to address when he responds at the end of the debate. First, it is still unclear whether the overall responsibility for leading on the reporting of domestic progress lies with the Department for International Development or the Cabinet Office. Secondly, how will whichever of those Departments s leading ensure that every Department addresses the global goals in their single departmental plans? My understanding is that the majority of Government Departments do not mention the sustainable development goals in their departmental plans. The Select Committee outlined clearly in our report that we believe the UK can be successful in implementing the goals only if there is a coherent and comprehensive cross-Government response.

Secondly, we were told in the Government’s response earlier this year that the forthcoming report on UK implementation of the goals

“will set out a clear narrative for the Government’s approach to implementing the Goals both internationally and domestically, including key principles, flagship initiatives and expected results and further information on how the government is set up to contribute towards achievement of Agenda 2030.”

The Select Committee recommended that the report should be produced urgently, and must equate to a substantive cross-Government plan for implementation, with clear lines of responsibility for each Government Department.

As the SDGs were agreed more than a year ago, it is deeply worrying that the Government have still not published the report. In her letter today, the Secretary of State says:

“We are currently working on report setting out the UK approach to Agenda 2030. I look forward to sharing this with you once it has been finalised.”

I have three questions for the Minister that arise from that. When do the Government expect the report to be finalised? Can he give us a sense of what the report will look like—how substantive will it be and how much detail will it have? Will it outline a clear cross-Government strategy for the implementation of the SDGs? Of the other countries around the world, 22 have now submitted voluntary national reviews to the UN, and a further 30—including China, France, Germany and Turkey—have already volunteered to produce a national report by 2017. There is a real risk that we have moved so slowly that we will fall behind other countries.

The third challenge is this: for the SDGs to achieve success both domestically and internationally, clearly we need to work with a wide range of partners. For example, our report recommended that the Government enter into discussions with the London Stock Exchange and the City to discuss how they might create incentives for sustainable development in the capital markets. We also recommended that the Government engage with the private sector and, through CDC and the Prosperity Fund, align their work with the SDGs to ensure that they support progress overseas. I welcome the extra information on those issues that the Secretary of State has provided in her letter today.

Civil society has a crucial role to play, both in communicating and implementing the goals in developing countries, and in holding Governments both here and in other countries to account on their implementation. Therefore, the Committee was particularly disappointed that the recent civil society partnership review from DFID did not mention the SDGs. We expect the multilateral and bilateral aid reviews from the Government very soon, and I hope that they will use the opportunity that those reviews provide to lay out exactly how they will ork with civil society here and in other countries, as well as with multilateral organisations, to support the achievement of the global goals.

We can learn from the progress that some other countries have made since New York last year. For example, in Germany Chancellor Merkel has initiated a national consultation on the global goals, to develop a national sustainable development strategy. She has also set up a ministerial committee on sustainable development, with politicians, business representatives, academia and civil society, to ensure that all of the Government in Germany is making progress towards achieving the goals. In Norway, Ministries have specific responsibilities for the implementation of individual goals and each Ministry has to report on progress towards the SDGs in their annual budget, which is then scrutinised by Parliament. Finland has committed to producing a comprehensive national implementation plan by the end of this year, led by the Prime Minister’s office, and China has established a domestic co-ordination mechanism, comprising 43 Government Departments, to deliver on the SDGs. These countries are pulling ahead of us in their plans for domestic implementation of the goals. I say to the Minister that the Government need to act swiftly and decisively, so that we do not lose our credibility.

For the International Development Committee, the SDGs will be a thread through all our work in this Parliament and we encourage the Government to think of them in that way. For example, we have recently launched a major inquiry into DFID’s work on education, in which we will focus on SDG 4, which is on education and access to quality education for all. In this inquiry, the interplay between the different SDGs has already become clear. For example, an estimated 50% of children of primary school age who are not in school live in conflict-affected areas. So, to successfully achieve SDG 4 on education, we need to examine how we can ensure that children get a good education regardless of their circumstances, including addressing SDG 16, on peace, justice and strong institutions, which was one of the goals for which the UK Government fought very hard.

Our inquiry on education will concentrate on DFID’s work in three key areas. The first is access—making sure that the most marginalised children are getting to school. The second is quality—ensuring that children receive a high standard of education at primary and secondary level and beyond, with good learning outcomes. Finally and very importantly, there is lifelong learning, which includes good quality tertiary education that has a technical and practical focus, so that children and young people in some of the poorest countries of the world are being prepared for the jobs and livelihoods of tomorrow. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact is conducting its own performance review of DFID’s support to marginalised girls in basic education, which will feed into our broader inquiry.

DFID’s spending on education constitutes 7.7% of its overall budget; it is the Department’s fourth biggest area of expenditure, after health, disasters, and government and civil society. Globally, education has seen a steady decline in its proportion of overseas development assistance funding in recent years, both via bilateral and multilateral donors. At a time when conflict is a major threat, it is imperative that ODA money is spent, and spent wisely, to ensure that children get a good education, and in articular to ensure that children affected by conflict and those who are displaced either internally or as refugees have access to good education.

Let me finish by saying something about the role of Parliament in the implementation of the SDGs, because this House and the other place have an important role to play in ensuring UK implementation. I welcome the close interest that the Environmental Audit Committee has taken in the SDGs and if she catches your eye, Mr Stringer, I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, who is the Committee’s Chair, during the debate this afternoon. I also welcome the interest that has been shown by the Women and Equalities Committee; the commitment to gender equality and indeed to other strands of equality within the goals is absolutely crucial.

I also pay tribute to the all-party group on the United Nations global goals for sustainable development, which is co-chaired by a very active member of the IDC, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), and Lord Jack McConnell. The work that the all-party group has done in raising awareness of the SDGs in both Houses has been exemplary. The continued support for, and interest in, both the domestic and international implementation of the global goals is clear across Parliament, and I hope that it has been noted by the Government.

I also think that it is in the interests of other departmental Select Committees to engage with the goals, in order to assess any potential gaps in progress against the SDGs for which their Department is responsible. For example, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions should address some of the issues of poverty and inequality in our own country, which I hope will enable the other Select Committees to push for ambitious national indicators in a broad range of areas, and to hold the Government to account on any area where there is a risk that we may fall short domestically over that 15-year period.

In our report, the IDC recommended that all House of Commons departmental Select Committees should engage with the SDGs, particularly those goals and targets that are most relevant to their Department. We encourage other Committees to push for ambitious national indicators against the goals; to monitor departmental progress against these indicators; and to use the data produced by the Office for National Statistics annually to hold Departments to account on their performance. In light of the letter from the Secretary of State today, departmental Select Committees now have a particular role to ask questions of their Departments about the inclusion of the SDGs in the single departmental plans. Ideally, this scrutiny would culminate in an annual session with the relevant Secretary of State in advance of the high-level political forum on global SDG progress each July, enabling an alignment between the domestic consideration of the goals and the UK’s reporting at the high-level forum of the UN in July. We also raised the possibility that the Liaison Committee might wish to question the Prime Minister annually on progress.

For the rest of this Parliament and hopefully all the way through to 2030, the IDC will scrutinise the Government’s implementation of the SDGs. Rightly, our focus will be on global implementation and the role that the UK, through DFID and other Government Departments, plays in overseas development assistance and other forms of development work.

As I have said and as our report set out in detail, so far we are disappointed, particularly with the domestic response. I welcome the clarification that the Secretary of State has provided today, but I encourage the Minister to go further in his response this afternoon. As one of the countries that played a leading role in the development of the global goals, it would be shameful if we failed to meet the goals in our own country. The UK Government need to act, and act quickly, to produce a plan for both domestic and international implementation of the goals. We now have less than 14 years to achieve this momentous agenda. There is no time to waste, and I look forward to listening to colleagues from all parties in the House during our debate this afternoon, and in particular to the Minister, because I think there is a desire to work together to ensure that the great opportunities that the global goals provide are realised, both at home and abroad.