Universal Sustainable Developments Goals - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:32 pm on 22nd November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development 1:32 pm, 22nd November 2018

My Lords, I join others in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for securing this debate. It is an important contribution to meeting the objectives of the SDGs and the voluntary national review—namely, that there should be consultation with parliaments. I thank her on behalf of the Government for making her time available for that purpose in this debate.

The noble Baroness referred to certain critical areas where she urged further action, although she recognised that the UK is respected as a global leader in development—a view that was widely shared in many of the contributions. We can be proud of that: UK aid is a badge of hope around the world. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, highlighted the contribution made by David Cameron at the high-level panel in drawing up the goals—a point made also by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan.

The efforts of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, in this area as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sustainable Development Goals have been hugely influential in placing the goals in context. He made a significant point about the Addis summit on financing for development. Several noble Lords mentioned that this is not something that Governments can do alone; as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, it has to be done in collaboration with civil society, private companies and other Governments.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, recognised that we could learn a great deal from each other. In fact, I came to this debate from an excellent meeting at The Oval cricket ground with the Commonwealth heads of statistics, who have come together to share expertise and knowledge on how better to collect and use data for measuring the SDGs. There were some fascinating contributions on what is being done, particularly from some of the small island states such as Samoa. Also highlighted at that meeting was a point made by the noble Lord, which is the contribution of our expertise. In that context, he was referring to the Met Office, as I know personally from the work that it has done and continues to do in the Caribbean in forecasting major disasters. However, in this context, it is the incredible work done by the Office for National Statistics, which is at the heart of producing data in this area. Its expertise is a real prize for this country.

Before I turn to the many specific questions raised in the debate, perhaps I may follow the model of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and explain a little of the rationale behind the SDGs. We were all left with choices about what to do when the SDGs were drawn up. Some countries decided to dedicate a department to look after them and to appoint one person to be responsible for them. However, the SDGs cover a great breadth and touch every aspect of our political, economic and social life, as many speakers have said. Therefore, our judgment, which we set out in our agenda 2030, published at the beginning of this process, was that, rather than having SDGs as the responsibility of one department, with other departments perhaps shuffling their responsibilities on to that department, it would be better to ensure that all government departments were responsible for meeting the goals and targets in their specific area. We felt that the effort should be co-ordinated in a domestic setting by the Cabinet Office. Oliver Dowden, with whom I work very closely, has been responsible for this, and in fact we are both giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Select Committee for its report on this issue. Oliver Dowden is responsible for co-ordinating the work at the Cabinet Office, but the policy leadership sits within DfID.

I take on board some of the criticism about whether I am the right Minister to respond to this debate. Having had the week that I have had, I would have been thrilled to make way for other Ministers who wanted to respond. However, as the DfID Minister with responsibility for supporting our Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt, on this issue in the department, and as the spokesman on Treasury matters in your Lordships’ House, I hope that I can respond to some of these issues.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, referred to Penny Mordaunt’s position and I would like to press that a little further. I was pleased that he remarked on how persuasive, powerful and passionate she was at the all-party parliamentary group event on 13 November. While I was at this Dispatch Box responding to the Budget debate, she was speaking at that event along with Richard Curtis. He does a tremendous amount to raise awareness of the goals internationally and in urging us to do more domestically.

Penny Mordaunt has been asked by the Prime Minister to be the Cabinet lead on the sustainable development goals, and it is right that we have a policy lead and a Cabinet-level voice. In addition to being Secretary of State for the Department for International Development, she is also the Minister for Women and Equalities. Many noble Lords touched on that important point about equality, and gender equality in particular. Therefore, she has a double role, which makes her the ideal person to ensure that government departments live up to their commitments.

Let me be clear about what those commitments are. The first thing that government departments have to do is to identify ownership within the department of the specific goals that fall within their policy remit. They must then report on progress towards those goals in their annual report and accounts. Responses from the annual report and accounts—the high-level summaries—are collated by the Cabinet Office and published. Then, crucially in terms of government, is how they work. Government effectively works through two mechanisms—two levers. One is the spending review, which will take place next year. The other is the single departmental plan, which is the strategy. The strategy must set out how the department will achieve the declared ambition of the Prime Minister and of this Government to meet their obligations under the sustainable development goals.

The process by which we will undertake this review is that we have been consulting with external stakeholders already. I pay tribute to the work of business in particular, and the work of organisations such as the UK branch of the UN Global Compact, whose events I have spoken at. There was a road show around the UK encouraging businesses to hardwire this into their planning. That was a useful exercise. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, which is now beginning to hardwire into its thinking—out of enlightened self-interest, I suggest—the need to adhere to those goals.

I will return to the contribution of the noble Baroness, which was significant in a number of regards. It highlighted the interconnectedness and the interlinkages to which she and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred between different goals. She talked about climate, which trips across goals 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. Some people say it should actually be all of them, but those deal specifically with the environment. They of course will have cross-government responsibility. You cannot say that Defra alone is responsible for meeting our climate ambitions, although it leads on that along with BEIS. It is something that touches every aspect of government. Therefore, the goals in the single departmental plan must reflect that from each of the domestic departments.

On the voluntary national review, a website is available which I have highlighted. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, “Not just electronically”, but there are many mechanisms by which people can feed into this review and tell us what they are doing—because it is not just about what the Government are doing.

I will make one further contextual point. I felt this very strongly at the excellent event at which the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development presented its report on measuring up. There are two ways that we can approach this. On the one hand, the Government can do their standard thing, which is to defend to the hilt their record on meeting every single objective, target and measure. They will have an argument for it, and we have skilled civil servants who can do that. Or we can say, “Listen. This is going to be done by more than one Government. This is long term. We are talking about 15 or 25 years for a lot of these targets. There will be lots of different political compositions”. Already, within the UK, it is not just a Conservative Government. There are devolved Administrations, local authorities and trade unions of different complexions as well. Therefore, if we are to address this, we need to go into it with a slightly more grown-up approach. We should say that we believe passionately that the SDGs represent a template for a good society that has been agreed internationally by all 193 member states of the UN General Assembly, and that we will work towards their implementation domestically and internationally.

If we take that approach, if someone wants to produce a score card and tell us that we are succeeding in one area such as access to clean water but we are not doing as well in another area—the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, mentioned housing—so be it. That is the benefit of having a measure. Before we had the SDGs we did not have any coherent measures. Therefore, we should not be afraid but should try to keep the debate at that level, where it seeks to recognise that this is a template that, I hope, successive Governments in this country and around the world will commit themselves to seeking to implement.

I always enjoy the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in this House. Often I am too busy listening to him to take note of his remarks. But I noted one particular point that he made when he began. He challenged us to persuade him and the House that there is a culture and spirit of determination to get things done in these areas. I have tried to set out what our approach is on that. He also made a great comment that echoed something said by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, which was to remind us that the excluded must be central. At the heart of this, what made these goals different was the statement that no one would be left behind.

I am very proud of what the Government have done over the past year under the leadership of our Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt. She came to the department with a passion that those with disabilities should not be on the fringes of our consideration but central. One manifestation of this was an outstanding global disability summit, which we hosted in July. Many noble Lords were able to attend that. We simply brought to bear the convening power of the UK to draw attention to that issue, which was an important point.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, also reminded us that, while we have a lot of work to do, a lot of good work has been done. He talked about the Bribery Act being a gold standard internationally. If we are to have good governance in peaceful and inclusive societies—he mentioned in that context SDG 16 in particular—it is clear that we must have transparency. People in a country should be able to see where the money that comes into the country has been spent—money that is meant for them. Transparency and tackling of bribery is very important.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, touched on that again when he said that there was a responsibility not just on us but on individual leaders within those countries to do all that they can to ensure that the SDGs are met. He also mentioned the Equality Act and the Modern Slavery Act. When my time on the Front Bench is done, what I will be most proud of is working with our now Prime Minister on taking what is now the Modern Slavery Act through your Lordships’ House with the incredible amount of work that went on, done by many people in this House, to shape the legislation into its ground-breaking form.

Many noble Lords mentioned climate, particularly the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Sheehan, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The voluntary national review findings will be presented to the UN high-level panel by Penny Mordaunt next year, so it makes sense that she continues her leadership through that process. There will be a submission of the main messages to the UN by 17 May; submission of the full report to the UN on 14 June; presentation of the voluntary national review at the high-level political forum between 16 and 18 July; and then the first heads of government level review of the sustainable development goals at the UN General Assembly in September. I should also point out that the Prime Minister has been asked to be the climate resilience champion at the UN Secretary-General’s climate summit next year. That will be a moment to raise this issue up the international agenda.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked us to learn from others, and I have referenced some of those points. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, talked about the importance of setting an example, and we are conscious of that. As we go into the voluntary national review, we are trying to do things that are slightly different. What that needs to contain has been set out for us—the five goals that will be the particular focus of next year. That changes from year to year, and we will address that. One difference about the way the UK is doing this, as well as the volumes of data and statistics that come with this issue, is that we want to demonstrate an inclusive approach whereby we capture not just what the Government or even the devolved Administrations are doing but what is happening in civil society. That is crucial to delivering on these targets.

Therefore, I am happy that the government website we opened for feedback on UK sustainable development goals, which is easily accessible, has had 36 responses from civil society organisations so far. They include the Salvation Army and Stonewall, and academic institutions such as the University of Wolverhampton. Some really good responses have come in. The time to review the responses from civil society was going to conclude in November, but we have managed to move it to January. Until 11 January 2019, organisations can let us know what they are doing and what impact they are having in this area. That will give more time for engagement.

I am happy to give an undertaking that trade unions are an important part of our national life and should be consulted. The specific way in which we have gone about that is for the government departments responsible for specific goals to reach out to their stakeholders, including of course trade unions, and seek their opinion on what more they should be doing to reach the targets.

I hope that, in that brief summary of what has been an excellent debate and contribution to the voluntary national review process, a number of things have come out. The first is that it is not the responsibility of one party or one Government, but the responsibility of us all. Also central to this is the ambition that we not only achieve these goals but, in so doing, leave no one behind. That is a pledge which we continue to be committed to and will continue to work with others towards, and I know that all noble Lords who contributed to this debate agree with it as well. I thank again the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for giving us the opportunity to make those comments.