I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Sustainable Development Goals.
It is a great privilege to speak on the sustainable development goals, and it is a very unusual one for the International Development Secretary because this afternoon I will be speaking about the UK’s performance at home, not abroad. The global goals apply not just to other people’s countries, but to our own. This is a fundamental principle—a fundamental principle about being honest with ourselves, but also about learning some humility and learning, through doing it in our own country, about some of the struggles that other people are going through in their own countries.
We will be reporting in a formal report to the UN after this debate in Parliament, and I hope this debate in Parliament will help inform some of the report we send. This is the result of 350 organisations having contributed so far, with 35 events, 200 case studies and now this parliamentary debate. I really believe that the single guiding principle of the Department for International Development, which is of leaving no one behind, should guide our approach to thinking about Britain.
In presenting my brief remarks to the House, I am reminded of another thing I have learned through this process about dealing with opposite numbers in countries abroad. It is the necessary balance between pointing out problems in our own country and balancing it with our pride in and our optimism about our own country. This would be true for a development Minister in Nepal or in Rwanda. They, too, often feel—as I must, a little bit, at this Dispatch Box—the necessity of balancing talking about the negatives with talking about the things that we are genuinely proud of as a Government.
The starting point is that this is, for all the flaws and all the things we grumble about, a truly extraordinary country. Quite literally and quite technically, this country has never been so healthy and it has never been so educated. Development in this country, if it is compared with development elsewhere in the world, has been quite staggering. In the mid-19th century, life expectancy in this country hovered around 40; it is nearly twice that today. In other words, in the mid-19th century, life expectancy in this country was roughly comparable to that of rural Afghanistan. Even relatively recently, we have seen a halving in infant mortality in this country since 1985. Well within our own lifetimes, we have halved infant mortality.
This is of course true across the world; it is not just Britain. In 1980, 41% of the people in the world were living in extreme poverty. Today, only 9% of the population of the world is living in extreme poverty. For all the criticisms we make, the story across the world is one of progress. In comparing Britain with other countries, it is important to remember that we are not comparing like with like; there is an apples and oranges issue. Here we have a significant issue with relative poverty, but that is quite different from the type of absolute poverty we are talking about in somewhere like eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I welcome the opportunity of today’s debate, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. Is he able to confirm that, when the UK makes its submission to the UN, we will make reference to every single one of the goals, targets and indicators for both domestic and international implementation?
Yes, I am able to confirm that. I hope my distinguished colleague the Chair of the International Development Committee will also feel that we have been quite rigorous and quite tough on ourselves, and have set quite high standards. This is a very open society, and there is no point for us as a Government in trying to hide. The statistics are out there in public, and people can see them from the Office for National Statistics, so we have tried to be as fair and frank as possible about the challenges we face and what we have achieved.
The Secretary of State will know that the UN special rapporteur described the levels of poverty in the UK recently as “systemic” and “tragic”—I think those were the words—and that seems to have been rather glibly dismissed by some of his colleagues. Of the five goals on which the UK is focusing when it comes to the voluntary national review, why is goal 2—ending hunger—not in there when we know that the extent of food poverty, particularly childhood food poverty, in this country is so extreme?
That is a good challenge, which I think will come up again and again in these debates and in the response to the reviews. We have significant problems in our country—people will refer to, for example, food banks. I recently had a conversation that got to the heart of the matter with a Nigerian pastor who has just begun his ministry in Croydon. He was reflecting on his experience of poverty in Britain and in Nigeria. He said that there was definitely poverty in both contexts, but that it was very different. His brother had just died in hospital in Nigeria because he was unable to access basic healthcare. Of course, in Croydon, he deals with people who have significant problems, particularly with income. He talked about women who are struggling to afford sanitary products and about food banks. However, he also said that it was worth bearing in mind that those people have completely free access to healthcare and education, a water supply and shelter, so we come back time and again to the relationship between absolute and relative poverty.
Following on from the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made, in any city in this country there will be areas where life expectancy is lower than in other parts of that city. We still have disparities in wealth and poverty, particularly in the north, but also in the midlands and the south. There is a lot of work to be done. Although we have a national health service and the third world does not have such things—I agree with the Secretary of State about that and that it is a matter of balance—I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will draw attention at the United Nations to some of the progress we have made.
That is the right tone in approaching the subject. There is an important fundamental issue: when we think about other people’s countries, we often forget about politics. We often talk as though development in somebody else’s country is simply a matter of experts from the World Bank sitting down with a piece of paper. Yet development in any country is deeply political. People who drive development in other countries are politicians—members of political parties—and there are Oppositions who challenge them. Many of the problems in development—defensiveness, cover-ups, lack of transparency and progress—stem from the fact that we do not understand the politics well enough. The debate is therefore a good way of understanding some of the challenges in, for example, eastern DRC. People might believe that the issue around Ebola is just a technical question of getting the vaccines on the ground, but the basic issue is that the area is controlled by Opposition insurgency groups, which have a big problem with the capital. Politics is at the heart of all that.
For this country, I will move quickly through the global goals, looking at them essentially through the lens of five Ps—people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership—and trying in every case to give examples of where we are doing well, where we are doing badly and the strengths that we have to build on. Looking at the UK as a whole is well beyond my brain and that of anyone in the House—and I am well aware that there are many experts in the House who know far more about individual areas of domestic policy than I do. I will attempt to present now what we will present to the United Nations as a way of trying to take a snapshot of Britain in 2019.
There have been significant improvements in healthcare even relatively recently. For example, stillbirths in this country have reduced by 18.8% since 2010. However, on the negative side, we need to do a great deal more on particular forms of cancer, on heart attacks and on stroke, where we do not achieve the results of some comparator developed countries. We have a strength to build on—the NHS, which is a truly remarkable organisation. It is very difficult to think of equivalents elsewhere in the world that have that key point of being free at the point of access. There are countries that have done better than us on cancer survival rates where healthcare is bankrupting for a family. It can mean the destruction of a family and the absence of health insurance can drive people to the wall.
We have reached the extraordinary stage where nearly half our population now goes to university compared with only 3% when my mother went to university. That is a big change since my mother was young. However, we can do much more in education. We are not doing as well as we can on basic numeracy and literacy and technical education compared with some of our comparators. We are also perhaps not thinking hard enough about the effect that robotics and AI will have on the world of work. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies and we need to have bursaries for people in mid-life to retrain for a new world of work. However, to come back to the basic point of building on strengths, in our country, as hon. Members will have heard again and again from the Dispatch Box, 85% of children are in good or outstanding schools.
We have heard about equality, on which we have very significant challenges. In addition to the question raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), there are other areas in this country that we do not talk about enough—for example, the elderly poor. This area can genuinely be shocking. I feel that in my constituency if I see an 88-year-old woman looking after a 92-year-old doubly incontinent man, having to wake up every two hours through the night. That is a genuinely shocking thing.
I sometimes feel, coming back from Nepal or the Congo, that our family and community support structures for the elderly are not necessarily what they are in some other, much poorer developing countries. On the other hand, on the positive side, we can point out that in this country income inequality has, unusually among advanced countries, declined.
On the planet, there is a balance between three things. Yes, we are very proud that we have gone 300 hours without coal-fired power and that we have reduced our carbon emissions more than many comparable advanced countries, but nobody can get around the fact that we are facing a huge climate planet emergency. There is an enormous amount to do and there is simply no point being complacent or talking about our achievements in the past. There is a huge amount more that Britain can be doing on technology and research and development. For example, to stop China building another 300 gigawatt coal-fired power station, we should be developing solar technology, light spectrum technology and solar film to drive down the marginal costs. That is why, as the Secretary of State for DFID, I want to double the amount we spend within our budget on climate and the environment.
On prosperity, we are leading the world in certain sectors. We are doing very, very well in financial services and technology—I have been astonished by some of the robotics and AI companies I have seen recently—but we have a big problem with productivity. There is a big challenge in northern England in particular, where we really need to get infrastructure on the ground. We have not yet unleashed the potential that could come from, for example, properly connecting Newcastle, Carlisle and Glasgow, or properly connecting Leeds and Manchester, which is the huge opportunity.
There are, however, strengths we can build on. The most obvious is that, if one looks at the elections in the 1970s, the great issue in this country was of course unemployment. With all the challenges we have in our country, the achievements on employment have been quite remarkable. In particular, compared with 2015, 700,000 more people with disabilities are now in employment. There has also been a slight reduction—not a big enough reduction, but a slight reduction in that period—in the gender pay gap.
On peace—the penultimate issue on which we are measuring ourselves—crime has been falling. At the same time, however, we have a serious problem around knife crime. We have an enormous amount to learn from Glasgow’s public health approach to knife crime. We have lost only two soldiers on active service since 2014. We live in a much more peaceful world in relation to Britain’s activities overseas. That would have been almost unimaginable for a Minister to say from this Dispatch Box at any time, probably, in the past millennium—if this Dispatch Box had been around for a millennium.
Finally, on partnership, this country has an incredible voluntary sector and an astonishing civil society. We all feel that in all of our constituencies—I feel that in my constituency, as all hon. Members will in theirs—but we are still not harnessing it properly. Amazing community schemes on community land trusts, community broadband and community planning are not being properly reinforced and followed up.
There are a lot of things that we could address. In recent meetings, for example, people have pointed out that if your mother lives in Middlesbrough and you live in London, could we not have a situation whereby somebody whose mother lives in London while they live in Middlesbrough visited your mother while you visited their mother? A lot of people would like to do that sort of thing, but as a society we are simply not good enough at tapping that kind of voluntary energy and bringing it together.
Given that I am often accused of being too gentle with those on the Opposition Benches, I am going to provoke them by saying that there is an example of partnership from which we can learn. I am going to pick possibly the most unpopular subject for those on the Opposition Benches: the privatised water industry. The extraordinary thing about the privatised water industry since 1980 is that by privatising water we have brought in £78 billion of investment that would not have otherwise come in. Water quality in this country is now at 99.6% and we are five times less likely to have an outage on our water. That is at a cost to the person of £1 a day for your water, in and out—an extraordinary achievement.
I think the right hon. Gentleman was watching Margaret Thatcher’s speech on privatisation last night and is trying to imitate her here today.
That is the greatest compliment I could receive as a leadership candidate in this House—thank you very much.
In conclusion, we in this country, as all parties and all nations, have together achieved an incredible amount over the last 100 years. In my constituency, when my predecessor’s predecessor, Willie Whitelaw, was the Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border, a third of my constituents had no indoor lavatories and a third had no mains electricity in their homes. We have moved completely away from that world since the second world war. We are in a very different world but it should not be one of complacency; it should be a world of us all working together to make things much better. The biggest challenge in this country, as I will indicate in my foreword to the UN, is adult social care.
I began with the thesis that one of the problems in development is politics. If the House wants a classic example of the way in which a good, technocratic solution to a problem in this country has been hampered by politics, just as good solutions are hampered in other countries by politics, take adult social care. There have been dozens of White Papers and Green Papers over decades, royal commissions in and out and parties in and out proposing solutions, and we still do not have the solution in place. What I shall be saying is that we need to show some humility. We need to learn from this. We need to reach across the House and work with other parties to solve the great unfinished revolution of our society, which began with the NHS dealing with people who are ill but did not properly deal with the vulnerable, the frail and the elderly. If we can tap that together, Britain can go back to the world not arrogant, preening or presenting itself as a model to the world, but presenting itself as a partner with the world.
The Secretary of State is giving a characteristically thoughtful speech. I do not want to cast any doubt on what he is saying—I agree about the need to cross party boundaries when we try to find solutions to these issues—but I wonder whether it is really possible for him to do it from the Department for International Development, as opposed to, say, the Cabinet Office, leading on the domestic delivery of the sustainable development goals. Will he say a bit about how he can persuade his perhaps less thoughtful colleagues to come to the table?
The hon. Lady has put her finger on a very important point. In the end, it is all very well setting these kinds of goals, wearing the kind of badge that I am wearing and signing up to the things that we believe in, but this is about leadership right the way through Government. It is about people sharing a vision of the kind of world we want to live in and of what sustainable development means, feeling in our bones and sinews the connection between our contribution to poverty and the environment and how cities, communities, clean water, clean air, gender equality, productivity and employment all come together not only to provide a society that we are proud of, but perhaps above all—as Britain continues as a partner with the world—a world that we can proud of: a world that is greener, fairer, more united.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who I think has an important engagement in around two hours’ time—perhaps talking about saving the world is a pretty good warm-up act for talking about how to save the Tory party in his meeting later today.
The sustainable development goals set out an ambitious vision for the world: a world that is free from hunger and poverty, where men and women have equality, where everyone, regardless of income, can realise their right to health, education, water, energy an decent work and where peace, justice and climate action are top of the agenda. It is a vision that no one could disagree with. The crucial thing about the SDGs is that they are universal. Unlike their predecessors, the millennium development goals, the SDGs have to be realised by all countries, including our own.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to raise one concern. In last Thursday’s business statement, the Leader of the House announced a
“general debate on the UK voluntary national review on the sustainable development goals.”—[Official Report, 6 June 2019; Vol. 661, c. 271.]
Today’s debate was meant to focus on the UK’s own voluntary national review process. I accept that the Secretary of State did his best to talk about the UK’s report, but let us bear in mind that the report is meant to go to the UN in less than three days.
A further question to be answered is why responsibility for the UK’s voluntary national review should sit with DFID: an entirely outward, international-facing Department. It is clear, and has been stated on the record, that the domestic delivery of the SDGs is a function for the whole Government. The Cabinet Office should be co-ordinating the process.
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Government did a VNR only at the end of the cycle? The Netherlands has already done one and is embarking on a second. The Government should consider doing a domestic VNR and an international VNR as separate processes. Donor countries do only a domestic VNR, but we are a country that both gives and has to look at what we are doing ourselves. We should probably do that as two separate processes involving different stake- holders and people.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come to some of the criticisms of the Government’s handling of the process.
Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), some months ago a United Nations report was critical of poverty in this country. I would like to hear more about how the Government will address that. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that should also be a top priority?
Absolutely. I will come to the special rapporteur’s report in a few moments.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that one of the reasons for the conflation is that there are still Conservative Members who would love to remove the 0.7% contribution of our national income towards foreign aid? It has already been diluted. Does he worry that that is in play according to some of the leadership candidates?
My hon. Friend is right. The previous International Development Secretary looked at ways to water down the 0.7% commitment, although this Secretary of State committed to it at International Development questions last week. I asked whether he would call on his opponents in the Tory leadership race to make the same commitment, but I do not think we have heard much from them. It is certainly a worry throughout the sector.
As I have said, the Cabinet Office should be co-ordinating the process. We heard the Secretary of State try to talk about some of the domestic issues, but they go far further than those he could elaborate on. In particular, following numerous complaints from UK charities that the Government are not taking the SDGs or the voluntary national review seriously, it is remarkable that there does not seem to be even a basic understanding of who is responsible for what. I was therefore somewhat surprised to see on the Order Paper yesterday that the focus of this debate had changed, shifting unannounced away from the UK’s own performance to the much broader topic of the SDGs in general. The scope of the debate now covers the whole world—quite an extension.
There could not be a bigger agenda out there than changing the world by 2030, yet there is little or no leadership in the UK. There appears to be poor co-ordination and zero vision. The Secretary of State may be very good at talking to people in the streets and on Twitter at the moment, but the truth is his Government and Departments have given up talking to one another.
The UN Secretary-General has said that the process in a voluntary national review should be for the Government to consult Parliament and the Opposition, as well as members of the Government and civil society. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have been pretty lacking in real, detailed consultation during this process, particularly in Parliament? We have had one or two informal sessions and an inquiry by the International Development Committee, but there has been no proactive, issue-by-issue engagement on the Government’s part.
Both the International Development Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee have expressed concern about a lack of co-ordination and a lack of discussion of these issues in Parliament. The Secretary of State was not able to address that in his speech, but I hope that the Minister will do so later. Our VNR report is due to be with the United Nations in just three days’ time. It is a blatant attempt to sweep under the carpet the UK’s failure to make any progress towards meeting the global goals for its own citizens—its failure to tackle poverty, hunger and homelessness in our own country, the fifth richest on the planet. There is a total lack of leadership, and I have to ask what on earth is going on, because we have been given no satisfactory details about the process today.
In the meantime, let me set out what I do know about how we, as a country, are doing on the SDGs. I do not need to be shadow Secretary of State to make these judgments; I can talk about my own constituency in north Liverpool and the poverty that I see there.
The first and most crucial goal is the ending of poverty. In that regard, sadly, we have little to be proud of here in the UK. Under this Tory leadership, one fifth of the population are currently living in poverty. In the past year alone, the Trussell Trust issued 1.6 million emergency food packages across the country, more than half of which went to children. Rough sleeping has risen by 165% since the Tory party took power in 2010, and child homelessness has surged by 80% in the same period.
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was damning of poverty in the UK. He said that it was
“patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty.”
His report warned that on current trends, child poverty rates could hit 40% by 2021. He said:
“The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”
What was the Government’s response to that damning report? They tried to smear it. However, I can tell the House that I see poverty day in, day out, with my own eyes, in my constituency, where 40% of children are already growing up in poverty. A study by the Centre for Cities revealed Liverpool to be the city hardest hit by austerity, with a cut of £816 per head in day-to-day spending since 2010. A staggering 64% has been slashed from our local authority budget; 3,000 council staff have been lost; and local services are stretched to the limit. Liverpool now has the second highest levels of destitution in the UK, and that means a lack of basic essentials, including food and shelter. According to the Office for National Statistics, even life expectancy is starting to creep backwards in Liverpool. Austerity is literally cutting lives short.
The stark reality faced by so many of the people whom I represent could not be further from the rosy picture painted by Ministers at the Dispatch Box. That is exactly what Philip Alston meant when he described an “almost complete disconnect” between what Ministers and the public see, and it is why so many people were outraged when our multimillionaire Chancellor said that he does not accept that large numbers of British people are living in poverty; he really should take a step outside Downing Street.
Hunger is addressed as one of the global goals, and I have with me the “Agenda 2030” paper, which explains the UK Government’s approach to delivering the global goals for sustainable development at home and abroad. Goal 2 of “zero hunger” does not even mention food banks in this country; it talks about secure farming and childhood obesity, but it is incredible that a report on how we are delivering on the global goals in this country does not even mention food banks. I hope that the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to finally break with the state of denial that has shamefully typified his Government when it comes to the scale of poverty here in the UK.
Far from eradicating poverty, this Government have exacerbated it. It is no wonder that they decided to shift the focus of today’s debate at the last minute rather than face up to these realities at home, because what an embarrassment it is that this country will go tail between our legs to the UN high-level meeting in July. With our global reputation already smashed to pieces, this Government have only two choices: double down on their attacks on the special rapporteur or admit that our own record on poverty is, despite our being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, utterly shameful. With such an appalling domestic picture, how can this Government seriously be trusted to lead on work eradicating poverty globally?
Let me now say a few words about our work towards achieving the SDGs internationally. DFID staff work extremely hard to bring about meaningful change in people’s lives across the world, and we in the Labour party fully back the UK’s role as a global champion of international development. Although I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s confirmation just last week in the Chamber that he supports the continuation of the 0.7% spending targets, unlike some of his colleagues, I remain deeply concerned about the way that aid has been spent in recent years. Under this Government, aid has been diluted and diverted away from poverty reduction towards spending in the UK’s national interest, including for the benefit of UK commercial and business interests.
If we are serious about achieving the SDGs at a global level, we must prioritise supporting people across the world in seeking to build their own public services. We know from our own experience right here in the UK how essential free schooling—state schooling—and our national health service are in ensuring equality and that people can have a dignified life. That is why in government a Labour DFID would establish a dedicated unit for public services within the Department.
Another major barrier to achieving the SDGs both domestically and globally is this Government’s policy incoherence. I welcome the Secretary of State’s plans to prioritise the climate crisis, which is crucial to achieving goals 13 and 7 on climate action and on clean energy, but his colleagues do not appear to be on the same page. It is this Government who have shut down the dedicated Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is this Government who continue to promote fracking and support the growth of fossil fuels overseas; over 99% of all energy support provided by UK Export Finance goes to fossil fuels. And it is this Government who continue to spend our aid money on new oil and gas projects overseas through the prosperity fund and CDC investments.
The Government’s policy is not just incoherent in the area of climate; it is also fuelling conflict through arms sales. According to Christian Aid, while DFID allocates at least 50% of its development spending to conflict-affected regions, more than 50% of UK arms exports are now sold to countries within these same regions. Meanwhile, ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia fuel the conflict in Yemen, directly undermining goal 16 on peace.
Does my hon. Friend find it appalling, as I do, that British fighter jets using British ammunition and flown by people trained in Britain on routes that are set out in Saudi control centres where British personnel are based end up bombing British-paid-for aid in Yemen? That country is suffering one of the worst humanitarian disasters we have seen in 100 years, and something being done in the voluntary national review to change our policy on Saudi Arabia and Yemen would be one instance in which we could actually see progress. Does he agree that if that is not done, it will show the Government’s commitment to peace and international justice for the sham that it is?
I am pleased to agree 100% with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him on his tireless efforts to highlight these utterly disgraceful practices.
I should like to raise a final point relating to the SDG agenda. If we are to bring about the kind of world envisaged under the SDGs, we need to start talking about the structural causes of poverty. Debates about the sustainable development goals have become dominated by discussions on how to mobilise trillions in additional finance and, in particular, how we can mobilise private finance and philanthropic funds. This is not good enough; charity alone will not solve the world’s problems, especially if we are ignoring the reasons that these problems exist in the first place.
I have said before, and it really cannot be said enough, that poverty is not a technical problem. Poverty is man-made, and to solve it we need to change the unfair global economic order that is rigged in favour of the few at the expense of the many. I support efforts to increase funding, and I am a passionate believer in the continuation of our 0.7% aid spending, but we need to go further. We do not talk enough about the unfair structures and the imbalanced voting power within global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We need to do more to tackle the tax avoidance that means developing countries losing out on trillions of pounds of revenue each year. The SDGs do not go far enough in preventing unjust debt burdens. Does the Secretary of State agree that poverty is not simply about a lack of funds and that the answer to global poverty does not lie in taking a begging bowl to the world’s billionaires? Will he instead use the UK’s moment at the high-level political forum in July to raise the questions on the structural causes of poverty that are missing from the current agenda?
To conclude, the UK’s voluntary national review, which is due to be with the United Nations this week, has been mishandled and botched by this Government. It has lacked leadership; it has not been taken seriously from the start; and today the Government have backtracked on their own decision to have a full parliamentary debate on it within days of announcing it. It is a total and utter embarrassment. If this process had been taken seriously, it would have allowed the Government to face up to their record in office over nine years and own up to the utter failure of austerity. I hope that this Secretary of State will therefore use this as a moment to take stock of his Government’s failure on poverty and inequality here at home in the UK.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place. I have been in this role for two years, and I now face my third Secretary of State for International Development. However, I thank him for his humility regarding some of the issues that this country faces in trying to meet our sustainable development goals. He also talked about a third of the homes in his constituency not having an outside toilet when Willie Whitelaw was the MP, but only half of homes in Dundee had an outside toilet under Churchill. He was flushed out by an MP for the Scottish Prohibition party, which I was surprised to learn given that we are the home of whisky, gin and fine ale.
It is important to remember that, back when the sustainable development goals were adopted in 2015, all 193 nations committed to achieving a transformational development agenda by 2030—a significant diplomatic achievement to say the least. It is also worth remembering that the Paris climate accord was agreed in the same year, so perhaps 2015 was a high point in recent times. The UN describes the SDGs as a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. The rallying cry throughout the negotiations was “leave no one behind” yet sadly, from day one in 2015, the UK Government have been lagging in their commitment to implement and achieve the 17 goals.
The 2015 UK aid strategy did not refer to the SDGs. The 2016 bilateral and multilateral development reviews only briefly mentioned the goals. DFID’s 2017 report on the Government’s approach to the SDGs fell far short of the comprehensive implementation plan that the International Development Committee had asked for, while the Environmental Audit Committee stated that there was an “accountability gap” across Government.
Despite the lack of appropriate focus and co-ordination given to the SDGs, the UK will present its own voluntary national review to the UN at the high-level political forum on sustainable development. The VNR will assess the UK’s progress on the SDGs, indicating what the UK has done to date and setting out how it will push forward towards achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030. It is therefore important that we are having this debate today to draw attention to the significance of the SDGs and to spell out how vital they are in addressing the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, peace and justice, and in ensuring a better and more sustainable future for all.
The hon. Gentleman celebrates the fact that this debate is happening today, but should it not have happened a year ago and been followed up with 17 sectoral debates in which we could have discussed in depth how Britain is faring? This should have been a debate to wrap up and to prepare for how to present Britain to the UN with a united face. The problem is that this process has been a farce and has not been given the full weight that it deserved.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The SDGs could be a comprehensive blueprint for each Department, regardless of who is in government, because they also provide the Opposition with an opportunity to contribute.
Furthermore, it is critical that people across Government listen to us today and use this opportunity to commit to a coherent and robust SDG implementation plan in order to achieve all 17 goals domestically and to support other countries to achieve them.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that it is important to raise awareness of the goals? Incorporating elements of them into the curriculum so that young people can fully participate would be an excellent idea.
I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, I visited a local primary school in the past month or two to discuss global leadership, and I was impressed that the children were able to list all 17 goals. Getting the SDGs into the national curriculum across these islands is vital. The next generation will inherit both what we do right and what we do wrong, so now is the time to put this topic front and centre.
It is no secret that the SNP is working towards an independent Scotland, but crucially we want this process because we want to play our part as global citizens, to improve the lives of people at home and abroad, and to aim to be world-leading in everything we do. The Scottish Government’s actions on the sustainable development goals typify that. Not only was First Minister Nicola Sturgeon one of the first national leaders to commit publicly to the SDGs, but Scotland has continued to set the pace for the rest of the UK. The First Minister noted in 2015:
“The national and international dimensions to poverty and inequality are interlinked. Scotland cannot act with credibility overseas, if we are blind to inequality here at home. And our ambitions for a fairer Scotland are undermined, without global action to tackle poverty, promote prosperity and to tackle climate change.”
The UK Government would benefit from listening to those words. Let me outline some evidence of what is being done.
Commenting on the Scottish Government’s attempts to reduce inequalities, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations noted that
“great efforts are being made to help Scotland progress towards the SDGs.”
It highlighted the introduction of a new advisory council on women and girls as just one example of Scotland’s efforts to reduce inequalities.
Similarly, in the 2018 “Measuring Up” report by UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development, Scotland’s target to eradicate child poverty in Scotland by 2030 through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 was praised as “ambitious” and the Child Poverty Action Group’s “The Cost of the School Day” programme featured as a case study for UK best practice. We should just think how that compares with the comments made by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston. He said that the UK’s social safety net has been
“deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”
and that the UK Government have inflicted “great misery” on their people with
“punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous”
austerity policies. How did the UK Government reply? Denial.
The priorities of this Conservative Government have been laid bare by the fact that the only SDG target for which the UK has received a green rating is under goal 8, on decent work and economic growth:
“Strengthen the capacity of domestic financial institutions to encourage and to expand access to banking, insurance and financial services for all.”
That is almost laughable, because I do not think a single Member represents a constituency that has not been affected by local bank closures on the high street. Surely this serves only to demonstrate that the UK Government are focused on boosting the financial services sector while ignoring working people.
As well as work at home, the Scottish Government have been striving to support other countries to achieve the SDGs overseas. It goes without saying that SDG 4, on quality education, is one of the most valuable tools in the fight against global poverty, yet some of the world’s most vulnerable people remain without access to education. The SNP Scottish Government have been working to meet this goal by empowering people in developing nations and giving them the skills and opportunities to improve the lives of themselves and their communities.
We have backed programmes such as the Pakistan scholarship scheme, which has helped to support more than 400 women and more than 1,400 schoolchildren to continue their education. Also, more than 73,000 Malawian children have been helped to stay in school through support given to a feeding programme, while the Livingstone fellowship scheme allows doctors from Zambia and Malawi to come to Scotland for specialist training, which they will take back home for the benefit of their communities. Last week I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State commend Scotland’s partnership with Malawi and the many projects it upholds.
SDG 16, on peace and justice, is one of the UN’s five priority goals this year. As well as welcoming people from developing countries for training, Scotland has been a place of refuge for those fleeing conflict. Scotland, which has less than 10% of the UK’s population, has taken almost 20% of the UK’s intake of Syrian refugees.
The Scottish Government are also playing a role in the Syrian peace process. The SNP has long shown its determination to put women at the heart of government and politics. Recognising this, the UN special envoy to Syria invited the First Minister to provide support in training female peacemakers in negotiation and communication skills. Indeed, since its launch, the programme has trained more than 150 female peacemakers from Syria, Libya, Palestine and other conflict zones around the world. These are clear examples of the Scottish Government’s ambitions being met in Scotland and overseas, and I now turn my focus to the UN’s fifth focus goal for 2019, namely SDG 13 on climate action.
Crucially, many of the sustainable development goals will be rendered unachievable, and existing development gains that have been made will be reversed if we do not tackle climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of autumn 2018, the UK Committee on Climate Change report of May 2019 and the International Development Committee report of this month all reach the same conclusion: we have too little time to prevent Earth’s temperature from increasing by more than 1.4° without radical solutions and clear political leadership. By way of example, Mongolia and Tibet are already experiencing 2° above pre-industrial levels.
The demonstration by Extinction Rebellion and strikes by young people in our schools serve to focus us on and remind us of how urgent action is needed. There is no doubt that we face a climate emergency. The world will be less safe, resources will be sparse and ecological and demographic crises will be unmanageable. What good is our work on education, inequalities, peace and justice if it is undermined by natural disasters, civil unrest, disease, displacement and mass migration caused by climate change, which pushes 100 million more people into poverty?
I was interested to hear the Secretary of State affirm last week:
“There should be no distinction at all between the work that we do on international development and the work that we do on climate and the emergency.”—[Official Report, 6 June 2019; Vol. 661, c. 256.]
That is commendable, and I am sure he will look to how the Scottish Government have approached the issue, and have become a world leader in their response to climate change. The Scottish Government have rightly called a climate emergency. Scotland has outperformed the UK as a whole and is one of Europe’s leading countries in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Our target is to cut those by 90% by 2050, compared with the UK’s target of 80%. Also, a publicly owned, not-for-profit energy company to deliver renewable energy will be established as part of the strategy to reduce emissions.
It might be worth reflecting—the Secretary of State might be interested in this—that the water company in Scotland is in public ownership, and has managed to achieve at least as much success as the privatised system down south, but with all the benefit being retained for the public purse.
That is absolutely correct. If you look across these islands, Scottish Water covers all of Scotland, which is one third of the landmass of the UK. Most people sometimes imagine Scotland to be a small periphery; it is actually a huge part. Considering the number of water companies across the UK and their different rates and tariffs, and the fact that people have to measure the amount of water they consume to keep their costs down, it really is a great benefit to us that our water in Scotland is nationalised. Furthermore, Scotland’s ban on diesel cars will begin in 2032—eight years ahead of the UK Government’s—and unlike the UK Government, the SNP does not support fracking, or a return to nuclear energy.
In addition to that progress at home, the Scottish Government have distributed £21 million through the world-leading climate justice fund, which is now supporting projects in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda. Through that, more than 100,000 people have been provided with training on climate change and water rights issues; over 100,000 trees have been planted; and over 200 village-level committees have been established to support water management, to prevent or mitigate the negative impact of climate change.
Let us be in no doubt: tackling climate change is a universal imperative. The UK Government can take lessons from the Scottish Government, and must recognise the imminent impact that climate change will have on international security and humanitarian access to fundamental resources, both at home and abroad.
In a report that I mentioned earlier on UK aid for combating climate change, produced by the International Development Committee, we concluded that climate change must be placed at the centre of each strategy and funding. Our report urged a minimum spend of £16 billion annually, and a halt to funding fossil fuel projects in developing countries unless it was possible to demonstrate that they supported transition to zero emissions by 2050.
Disappointingly, we often heard evidence suggesting that Government Departments were not taking climate change seriously, and that there was not joined-up thinking across Whitehall. When I asked the prosperity fund what proportion of its spend supported the use of fossil fuels, I was told that it could not provide that percentage. Similarly, when I asked whether any assessment had been made of the carbon footprint and potential climate impact of its spend, I was told that it did not have specific indicators on carbon footprint. That was surprising and extremely worrying. Unfortunately, that incoherence and lack of focus appears to be common across Government, with policy in one area often undermining delivery in another. Nothing exemplifies that more than the fact that fossil fuels made up 99.4%, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), and renewables a mere 0.6%, of UK Export Finance’s energy support for low and middle-income countries; those are the countries most likely to be adversely affected by climate change. There is a long-term tie-in to those countries, because once fossil fuel energy supplies are established, they can go on for decades, fundamentally undermining our goal of reducing CO2 emissions globally.
Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, in low and middle-income countries, UK Export Finance provided £2,360 million-worth of support for exports in the fossil fuel energy sector, and less than £2 million-worth of support for exports in the renewables sector. It is therefore no surprise that this policy incoherence has impacted on the UK’s ability to deliver the sustainable development goals.
In their “Measuring Up” report last year, the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development found that out of 143 relevant SDG targets, the UK’s performance was “inadequate” or “poor” on 76% of them. Astonishingly, that is more than three quarters, for those of us of a certain age who work on the pre-decimal. The UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development has also stated that there is little evidence of tangible progress from Government Departments, or the Prime Minister, or even within the Cabinet.
Last night, I watched with horror a programme called “War on Plastic” with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. One of the things he said was that although we think we are recycling plastic here in the UK, it is being shipped to developing countries—Malaysia was mentioned because it is the largest recipient. Often, that plastic not only pollutes their water supplies but is then burned, contributing again to CO2 in the atmosphere. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that when we think we are doing the right thing and recycling, we are actually causing even more damage? We need to take urgent action on single-use plastics and our relationship with them.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The idea that getting rid of little plastic stirrers and straws is really tackling the problems with plastics is farcical. Frankly, it is paying lip service. When China stopped importing plastics in 2013, Malaysia become the biggest importer, but Malaysia is now looking to stop importing plastics, so things need to move fast and radical action needs to be taken. There needs to be a co-ordinated plan from the Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. On his point about sustainable development and the use of plastic, I had the opportunity to visit the Copenhagen fashion summit just a couple of weeks ago, and some of the big training-shoe manufacturers are doing innovative work on reclaiming plastics from the sea and making them into training shoes. That is a good idea not only for reaching out to young people but for recycling. Does my hon. Friend think that such ideas should be supported?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. She has reminded me of another point: Scotland now has the world’s first company to look into the re-tarmacking of roads without using oil. Recycled plastics will be used instead. In the past couple of weeks, it was announced that a cul-de-sac in a building development was the first road to be surfaced with such material.
It is clear that the UK Government have not developed a focused strategy to address the sustainable development goals seriously and needs to start to deal with these issues with the urgency that they deserve. Although DFID is co-ordinating the voluntary national review, which is commendable, and is also responsible for its overall drafting process, the delivery of specific goals is spread across a variety of Departments. Despite that, the UK Government are failing to communicate the SDGs across those Departments. Witnesses have told the International Development Committee that they did not know about the SDGs until the VNR process began—that is shocking—and that there is still limited knowledge of the goals among officials. If I have one thing to say before I conclude, it is that all Departments need to understand what the SDGs are. They should be front and centre in everything that we do.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the discussion about plastics? So many people will have seen that moving “War On Plastic” film last night. Will the hon. Gentleman take a moment to thank the colleagues from all parties who took part in the campaign at Lent to raise awareness of and support Tearfund’s work on setting up sustainable plastic-recycling facilities in developing countries? That campaign was match funded by the UK Government, under DFID, and has raised millions, and it is expanding into many other countries.
Indeed, on the issue of plastics, the environment and the climate, we share common views throughout the House, and I am of course happy to reflect that, as well as the great work that Tearfund has done.
As the Select Committee stated in its letter to the Secretary of State in April, given that the UK signed up to achieve the SDGs in 2015, nearly four years ago, the current situation just is not good enough. It is becoming increasingly clear that, given the all-encompassing nature of the SDGs, DFID is not the Department most suited to ensuring that they are embedded in everything that the Government do. We cannot afford not to take the SDGs seriously and instead to treat the whole process as a box-ticking exercise that can be forgotten about once the VNR has been and gone.
We have a unique opportunity to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities, combat catastrophic climate change and protect our natural environment by 2030. We simply cannot pick and choose which goals are important to us and which ones we can disregard. Sadly, it does not appear that the UK Government have used the opportunity of the VNR to make the SDGs better known in the UK or to take their own responsibilities more seriously. For example, in a letter on 6 June, firms and charities called for the Government to promote international development through their international trade policy. If the UK wants to do that, it should follow France’s example and call for the USA to return to the Paris agreement before it starts any trade talks.
Instead, in the same week, we saw the UK Government roll out the red carpet to President Trump, a climate change denier, in a desperate attempt to secure a trade deal, with anything up for grabs.
Going forward, it is expected that the Prime Minister will attend the first four-yearly Heads of State meeting on the sustainable development goals at the UN General Assembly in September. Should that Prime Minister be the current Secretary of State for International Development, I would welcome hearing whatever he is likely to say in September. Of course, as of yet, we have no idea who that Prime Minister will be. Although the Secretary of State understands that we face, in his own words, a climate cataclysm and would like to double the amount that DFID spends on climate and the environment, sadly the same cannot be said of several of the other candidates also vying to become Prime Minister.
One candidate endorsed a report that recommended that the UK should spend 0.7% of its income on aid only if it
“gains the freedom to define aid as it sees fit.”
He also said that aid spending should be used in the UK’s
“political, commercial and diplomatic interests”
and called to change the Department’s purpose from poverty reduction to furthering
“the nation’s overall strategic goals.”
Another candidate has spoken of her desire to halve the UK’s overseas aid budget and abandon the UK’s commitment to the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid. When I saw that on “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday morning, my chin literally bounced off the kitchen table. Although the Government will cherry-pick their examples of progress on the SDGs in this debate today, it has been evident that their implementation of the sustainable development goals has been shambolic and the future could be bleaker should some in the Conservative party get their way.
In conclusion, I would like to quote Richard Curtis, film writer and director responsible for films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, and “Love Actually”. Importantly, he was in front of the International Development Committee today, because he is also UN advocate for the SDGs and co-founder of Project Everyone and Comic Relief. He summed up precisely what needs to be done by this UK Government when he said:
“The UK is reputed for campaigns such as Live Aid and Band Aid”—
those of us in this Chamber who are old enough, which is most of us, will probably remember them—
“as well as Make Poverty History, yet what we need is one person who is thinking about this all the time. We need real leadership.”
Whoever becomes Prime Minister next month, they need to learn the lessons of the UK’s implementation of the SDGs so far. We are nearly one third of the way from the adoption in 2015 to the target date of 2030. I urge the UK Government to use the VNR to mark the beginning of a more thorough and serious approach to implementing the sustainable development goals—a starting point with proper leadership and proper cross-departmental engagement—and to look at some of the examples that I have mentioned and that have been demonstrated by the Scottish Government.
It is a pleasure to follow three very thoughtful speeches—from the Secretary of State, from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who is also my constituency neighbour, and from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who serves with distinction on the International Development Committee.
The global goals have been a key focus for the Committee since 2015. In June 2016, the Committee published a report on the goals and their implementation at that time, and that was three years ago. We found then that, despite the leading role the UK had played in shaping the goals, progress on working out how to implement them here in our own country was disappointing. We concluded that meeting the goals by 2030 would require strong leadership, a coherent implementation plan and, crucially, the engagement of all Government Departments. We are now conducting a fresh inquiry into UK progress on the goals, in which we have explored DFID’s role as the lead Department, as well as looking at the VNR process. In the evidence that we received, we highlighted the fact that the strong leadership shown by the UK in the creation of the goals has not been sustained since their adoption.
We have an upcoming spending review. Surely that spending review should take the 17 sustainable development goals as part of its core mission, as well as net zero emissions, which I have called for previously.
That is a fantastic idea, and I hope the Minister will be able to respond to it when she closes.
My hon. Friend will know that my Committee—the Environmental Audit Committee—has also been looking at the domestic implementation of the goals. Way back before the general election, we were told that the way of delivering the goals here at home was through the single departmental plans, so does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that only two Departments—DFID and the Treasury—mentioned the SDGs in their plans immediately after the 2017 general election?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the leadership that she has shown on this issue and the work of her Committee, to which I will return in a moment. She is absolutely right. To be frank, I think the single departmental plans are an insufficient mechanism for delivering the goals anyway, but it is a huge concern if even that is not being achieved.
So far, 111 countries have submitted their voluntary national reviews to the UN. The UK was slow to put itself forward, only committing in November 2017 to present its first VNR, which we will do this year. We have fallen behind other key countries, including Germany, France, Sweden, Canada and Ireland. The Department did not even host its first stakeholder meeting on the VNR until the end of July last year. Departmental champions, described by DFID as
“responsible for supporting production of the review”,
were not appointed until late October 2018. DFID’s own stakeholder events—the only comprehensive attempts to reach out to different groups as part of the VNR—were very welcome, but they did not start until March this year—just three months ago.
One of the founding principles of the 2030 agenda is
“the requirement for all implementation and follow-up processes to be participatory and inclusive”.
Stakeholders from civil society, the private sector, Parliament and the general public have a crucial role to play in the VNR process. Indeed, stakeholders have been keen to engage more, particularly UK-based civil society organisations such as UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development and the Bond SDGs Group, the umbrella for the non-governmental organisations that work in development. Those organisations have been very active, yet they have said that the process has been frustrating. Bond described the consultation as “a missed opportunity”, adding that
“the Government has not been clear about specific opportunities for consultation with non-government stakeholders”.
UKSSD told us that stakeholder engagement has been “limited and selective”.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the review was not made available in any accessible formats and that the events were often called at very short notice, meaning that disabled people could not attend?
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern, not least when the guiding principle of the goals is to leave no one behind. If we are failing to engage with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, we are leaving behind a group that has been left behind all too often.
At the September high-level political forum, which is the summit, there will be a review of the modalities of the HLPF and the VNR. Does my hon. Friend agree that we could submit this VNR as an example of bad practice—of what not to do and what other Governments should not follow?
Although I might express it slightly differently myself, I do share my hon. Friend’s concern. It is incredibly important that we learn from this experience for future VNRs; I will come to that in a moment. We can indeed teach other countries a lesson in how not to go about such a process. As my hon. Friend knows, this issue has been raised in evidence that our Committee has taken not just from DFID, but from other parts of the Government.
It is wholly unsatisfactory that almost four years since the UK signed up to the goals, there appears to be very limited knowledge of them among Whitehall officials outside the Department for International Development. In evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, Dr Graham Long set out the kind of criteria needed for a good VNR:
“A rigorous assessment of governance for, and implementation of, this…agenda…A focus on those furthest behind in the UK context…Reporting on participation and inclusion in the review…Reporting on awareness-building efforts…Presence of stakeholder perspectives”.
France has been described as exemplary in the way it conducted its review in 2017. It was comprehensive across all goals at home, internationally and in France’s overseas territory. It was self-critical in several sections, with clear next steps, including the notable pledge to establish a national SDG action plan detailing governance for the SDGs and outlining participation in the preparation of the VNR and its future implementation by key stakeholders. We can learn, as a country, from that example.
When the report is presented, as we understand it will be later this week, we as a Committee would like it to make reference to each goal, target and indicator. I welcome the commitment that the Secretary of State made to that when I intervened on him. This must include data on progress so that we get a fully comprehensive picture of the current situation for the whole of the United Kingdom, alongside a rigorous assessment of where we need to go further. Leaving no one behind is at the heart of the goals. It is crucial that the UK’s assessment focuses on the most marginalised groups here in our own country as well as internationally.
As my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Liverpool, Walton set out very powerfully, in cities such as Liverpool we have seen the impact of Government policies on poverty and inequality over the past nine years. We know from the Food and Agriculture Organisation that more than 2 million people in the UK are severely food-insecure. We know from the Office for National Statistics what the statistics are showing us about the challenges around poverty and other forms of inequality.
Canada’s VNR focuses from the beginning on vulnerable and marginalised groups in Canada, with a discrete section on leaving no one behind that outlines the main dimensions of inequality and discrimination, with detailed efforts to address vulnerable groups throughout. That is the kind of example from which we could learn lessons in setting out our VNR due to be published this week. It is crucial that there is a national plan for sustainable development. There must also be some kind of co-ordinating mechanism or body with cross-Government reach. For example, Germany has a lead Ministry, with the federal Chancellery at the heart of it, and an advisory council, while France has put in place a representative backed by its Prime Minister. That is what has been lacking in the UK’s approach from the start, since the adoption of the goals in 2015—there has been the void in leadership that we have heard about.
The Secretary of State spoke very powerfully, but we on the International Development Committee have argued that DFID should not be leading on the domestic implementation of the goals, so nor should it be leading on the VNR. I hope that the Government will look again at that. This should be led from the heart of Government, by the Cabinet Office. Governments commonly announce next steps for global goal implementation in their VNRs, including goal and target-specific measures alongside wider reforms. I urge the Government to use their VNR as a catalyst for more effective implementation of the goals.
I will finish with five points for the Minister to address. First, I urge the Government to put in place the structures and lines of accountability that are needed to ensure that the goals are truly prioritised and embedded across Government. Simply putting them into single departmental plans—which is perhaps not even happening, but even if it were—is not enough. I endorse UKSSD’s recommendation that the VNR
“should include steps towards the creation of a plan or strategy for implementing”
Secondly, the Government need to consult widely to come up with a comprehensive and effective implementation plan setting out how we are going to achieve the goals between now and 2030.
Thirdly, stakeholders need to be engaged in a much more meaningful way. It is very concerning that of the other five countries in the western European and others group presenting this year, we are the only one that does not address stakeholder engagement in our set of main messages. That needs to be addressed between now and next month. One way that could be done—I hope that the Minister will refer to this—is to include stakeholders in the UK’s presentation in New York next month at the HLPF. That has been done by other countries, and I hope that we will do it too.
Fourthly, time needs to be used wisely. The Government should produce a detailed, publicly available timeline as soon as the next review is announced. Finally, I hope the Minister will say more about how the Government will bring the VNR back home once it is presented next month, including by communicating the goals across Government and into public consciousness. We have an opportunity to capitalise on the momentum of the VNR to galvanise greater engagement with and progress towards the goals in coming years.
Let us learn lessons from some of the weaknesses in this process over recent months and years, so that we can start a deeper and more serious approach to engagement with the goals between now and 2030. With the challenges in our own country around inequality, poverty and food insecurity that we have heard about today, much more needs to be done if we are to meet the goals by 2030. Germany’s 2016 review committed that country to undertake another VNR in 2021. I hope the Government will make a similarly bold commitment that the UK will undertake a further VNR at an early opportunity.
We can still be proud of the role that the UK played in the millennium development goals and the formation of the global goals in 2015. This VNR provides us with an opportunity to build upon that. In particular, if the Government get this right, the presentation next month could be a springboard for a renewed focus on tackling poverty, tackling inequality and tackling the scourge of climate change both at home and abroad. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how that will be done.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on giving such a comprehensive overview of the process and the strategy we need for delivering the sustainable development goals both here and abroad. I want to take the opposite approach and focus on a couple of issues where the SDGs could be used as a tool with which to make progress.
The first is SDG 2, on zero hunger. We have tended to see that as an overseas issue, but, as I argued in my intervention, it is a real and growing problem here in the UK and needs a domestic focus as well. The second is plastic pollution and waste, which touches on a number of the sustainable development goals. In that case, it is almost the opposite—we are now alert to, if not on top of, the problems caused by plastic pollution as it affects the UK, but it is also very much an issue for developing countries and the Department for International Development.
SDG 2 was the subject of an inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee, and I am glad to see a couple of my colleagues from the Committee here. The goal is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture via five domestic and three international targets. Last year, UKSSD assessed UK performance against the domestic targets and judged that all were either amber, where
“the UK is not performing well enough or performance is deteriorating”,
or red, where
“there is little or no policy in place that adequately addresses the target, performance is poor.”
This is very much a problem in the UK. I recently held a Westminster Hall debate on the children’s future food inquiry, which showed that the UK has among the worst food insecurity levels in Europe. Nearly one in five under-15s live in a food-insecure household, half of which are severely food-insecure. We heard some terrible stories about children going to school hungry and their education suffering as a result. As many Members across the House have seen in their constituencies, the surge in demand for emergency food aid can be directly linked to the roll-out of universal credit, with its long waiting times, delays in payment and sanctions. The report found that not only the unemployed, but many people in low-paid and/or insecure work are affected by food poverty
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she is a valued member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing. Was she as surprised as I was to discover, during our inquiry, that the UK has the second highest level of severe food insecurity of children under 15, coming second only to Romania in the EU? Does she agree that the roll-out of universal credit, which makes single-parent families up to £50 a week worse off, is a key driver of that food insecurity?
Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee. I would say that since 2010 the Government have absolutely refused to acknowledge that this is a direct result of Government policies. In particular, it is because of the policies of the Department for Work and Pensions that the rise in food bank usage has grown so exponentially. We heard the Chancellor again this week taking a very blasé attitude towards the figures on poverty in this country.
Does my hon. Friend not think that there is a poetic irony in the fact that DFID uses the system of cash transfers to give food aid to people abroad, particularly in emergencies, yet it will not make cash transfers to hungry families here at home? It seems to big up the food bank movement—do not get me wrong; it does amazing work—but the most efficient way to feed people is to give them an income so that they may choose how and what they want to feed their own family.
Exactly. I could not agree more. It is absolutely shocking that so many families in this country are so reliant on food banks and other emergency food provision in this day and age.
As the EAC found when we looked into this issue, no Department has included domestic hunger and food security in its single departmental plan. It has very much fallen through the cracks and, as I have said, it is viewed only as an overseas issue. Whether intentionally or not, the Government are giving the distinct impression that they do not want to acknowledge or to tackle the crisis at hand. It was very telling that when we had I think four Ministers from various Departments in front of us for the inquiry—
The Chair says there were five Ministers. We asked, “Who is responsible for hunger?” and it was not just that there was no one with designated responsibility, but the fact that they all looked so blank and just looked at each other. It had clearly never occurred to them that perhaps somebody ought to be looking at this. That was one of the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee—that we appoint a Minister with responsibility for hunger and food security.
I do think there is the broader point, which I have returned to many times in this House, that the F in DEFRA stands for “Food” not “Farming”. We have quite a limited view of food policy in this place. We need to be looking not just at how we produce the food, but how the food gets to people, as well as healthy eating, public procurement, food waste and so many other issues, and hunger is very much part of that. We will do that only by making sure that there is someone with ministerial responsibility across the whole piece.
We also need to look at the issues of malnutrition and childhood obesity, which are part and parcel of the same problem. A recent report by Kellogg’s looked at food deserts in the UK and, absolutely shockingly, two estates in south Bristol—very near to my constituency—came in the top five in the country, and another one in my constituency was also singled out. These are places where childhood obesity will quite often still be a problem, but there is also the overconsumption of cheap, fast food, which is high in calories and low in nutrients. We need a definition of under-nutrition that covers both underweight and overweight individuals, and a tool for identifying it, as called for by the Patients Association.
If we are to leave the EU, British food standards must be maintained. We cannot have a rush to the bottom, whether on animal welfare or food safety standards. This obsession with ever-cheaper food is not the way to solve hunger in this country.
Earlier today, I chaired a session of the all-party group on food waste that was looking at the issue of food waste—surprisingly—with the new food waste champion. Sustainable development goal 12.3 is specifically about reducing food waste. In this country, we have signed up to a target of 50% by 2030, and it is reassuring that the Government are committed to taking action on that. However, it was very disappointing that the Committee on Climate Change, in its recent recommendations to the Government, has suggested only trying to reach that goal by 2050. If we are serious about tackling the carbon footprint of food waste—I am very fond of saying that if food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter after the USA and China—may I suggest that we ignore the Committee on Climate Change and stick with what we have promised under SDG 12.3 instead?
The second issue I want to speak about is plastic pollution. I pay tribute to Tearfund for its “No Time to Waste” report, which has already been mentioned. That excellent report shows just how far-reaching and serious the impact of plastic pollution is in developing countries. It is also a problem for us because multinational companies and waste exporters from developed countries are largely responsible for producing plastic in the first place. I have not yet caught the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall programme from yesterday, but I think it highlighted the fact that we export waste to countries such as Malaysia.
As the Tearfund report mentions, plastic pollution has a direct impact on our efforts to achieve more than half of the sustainable development goals, including those on poverty, hunger and economic growth. It is a threat to biodiversity, on which the production of nutritious food depends. It pollutes our water. Costs associated with ocean-based consumer plastic pollution amount to $13 billion every year. That includes revenue losses to fisheries, aquaculture and marine tourism industries, as well as the cost of cleaning it all up.
Plastic pollution is also relevant to the goal on healthy lives and wellbeing. Plastic causes flooding, and flooding causes the spread of waterborne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, dysentery and cholera. Burning plastic pollutes the air. I will never forget seeing a screening in Parliament of a film called “Trashed”, which was narrated by Jeremy Irons. It shows kids in the Philippines playing on toxic waste dumps, and we could see the steam coming off the dumps. The mothers were indoors, cooking and using the plastic as fuel. Again, that is incredibly toxic.
Between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in low and middle-income countries because of diseases related to uncollected waste. There is obviously a problem with water and sanitation for people who live among uncollected waste.
Goal 11, the sustainable cities goal, is also relevant. Globally, 2 billion people lack waste collection, and a further 1 billion people lack safe disposal of waste, let alone recycling facilities, but at the moment only 0.3% of overseas development aid is spent on waste management. I know that the Government are trying to support waste management in developing countries. There tends to be a focus on health and education but not on basic public services. Waste collection in developing countries is crucial if we are to achieve a number of the goals.
Let us consider small island developing states. For example, in the Maldives, one of the islands is effectively designated as the rubbish dump because there is nowhere on the other islands to put the rubbish. The Seychelles are on their second landfill site. There are only three inhabited islands and the main island is pretty much built on a hill and there is little land there. The second landfill site was meant to last 10 years, but it will be full up in six. Where do they send the waste? Tourists who come in on the cruise ships mostly create the waste in the first place. We therefore need to consider how we support other countries to have a waste collection system.
Goal 12 is on sustainable consumption and production. As a Parliament, we should focus more on that. Global plastic production is completely unsustainable and plastics use is growing fastest in countries where there is no prospect of safe disposal. Plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally. Of course, that contributes to climate change. Global plastic production emits 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year —more than the UK’s total carbon footprint.
Tearfund highlighted two examples of how the problem is growing in developing countries: what it dubs the “sachet economy”—single portion plastic sachets, which are easier and cheaper to produce and transport than bottles, but are currently non-recyclable, and plastic PET —polyethylene terephthalate. In 2017, global consumption reached 471 billion bottles, which, if they were put in a line, would reach from Earth to Mars.
Goal 14 is about life below water and goal 15 is on life on land. An estimated 8 to 12 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year. That also pollutes our soil and fresh water. As the Tearfund report concludes, we will not meet the sustainable development goals without tackling the plastic pollution crisis. We have a time-critical decision to make. We can choose to ignore the evidence and carry on with our linear business model, churning out more and more plastic because it is cheap and convenient. We can continue to fail to invest in circular models and sustainable waste management systems, and ignore the devastation being wreaked across the planet. If we choose this path, and plastic production is allowed to continue to increase in line with predicted growth, it will completely overwhelm even the waste management systems of high-income countries. Communities will continue to be engulfed by mountains of plastic waste, our oceans will continue to fill up with plastic, and people and animals will continue to suffer. Or the global community can act while there is still time. I do not know whether the Minister has had the chance to read the Tearfund report yet, but I hope she does and that she elevates this issue to the position of importance it deserves on her Department’s agenda.
It is a pleasure to be able to catch your eye in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, to make a very brief contribution. I was keen to speak, because in 2015, as a newly elected Member of Parliament, the first debate I secured in Westminster Hall was on the sustainable development goals. The Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), remembers it well. It has been interesting to see how progress has been made over the years. I think that I said at the time, and I am happy to say it again today, that we welcome the role played and the leadership shown by the UK Government at that time in driving forward the successor framework to the millennium development goals. There was real leadership from David Cameron and the coalition Government. That Government, of course, also enshrined the 0.7% target into law. It is just disappointing that all the momentum seemed to evaporate as soon as the ink was dry on the agreement, as though that was the work done. That should have been, and still has to have been, the starting point. That has to be the momentum that takes us forward and keeps us making progress.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not just a starting point? There was meant to be a 10-year programme for action on the sustainable consumption and production patterns from 2002 onwards. We have had the millennium development goals from 2000 onwards. This should not be a standing start, but a running start where we are already delivering. That is the great shame about where we are. It feels as though we have done a standing start and that we have meandered around a third of the way through.
I absolutely agree. There was a lot of talk about what lessons we could learn from the millennium development goals framework. First, it had to be a continuous, ongoing learning iterative process. It cannot just be about trying to reinvent the wheel every single time. We probably have the most thoughtful ministerial team in DFID since I have been here, but I am just not convinced how long they will last and whether they will have the opportunity to drive the process forward. I will perhaps say a bit more about that before the end.
At the time the sustainable development goals were being developed, we repeatedly made the point that, unlike the MDGs, they would be truly global. We had to have a truly global system for how to tackle the challenges affecting every country in the world, including our own. Not everything in our garden is rosy, as every single speaker, including the Minister, has said. That is the importance of the framework: to hold us to account. We report so we can show where progress is being made and where the gaps still lie. Poverty is unacceptable wherever it is found and we all have to be held to account. If we are genuine about trying to show leadership in this part of the world, it is not just about helping other countries to meet those goals but ensuring we are making every effort to meet them all ourselves and, in terms of accountability, being willing and able to report on them.
On the Scottish Government, Nicola Sturgeon was one of the first Government leaders anywhere in the world to say that her Government would commit fully to the SDGs and play their part in implementing them both at home and abroad. Since the SNP became the Scottish Government in 2007, all their work has been measured against a national performance framework. Since the SDGs have come into force, that framework has been revised so that it is aligned with all the different aspects of the sustainable development goals and that they are reflected in the indicators and the outcomes of that framework. The Scottish Government are showing leadership, and I encourage UK Ministers to look at the framework and the difference it might make across the whole of Government policy.
As other Members have said, the biggest challenge at home and abroad to meeting the sustainable development goals is climate change. Indeed, the changing climate threatens to reverse the progress that has been made over the period of the millennium development goals. I welcome the focus that the new Secretary of State is bringing to the importance of climate change, but tackling climate change and achieving climate justice needs to go beyond, and be additional to, the work that is being done. It is not simply about repurposing some of DFID’s funds and priorities to tackle climate change instead of other things. It has to be both/and; otherwise, we will not make the progress that we need.
That is why I give the example, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), of the Scottish Government’s climate justice fund, which is additional to the Scottish Government’s international development fund and is deliberately not handled by the International Development Minister, or at least that was the case when it was set up. It was looked at from a holistic perspective to help people in developing countries to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, because, as others have said, the concept of climate justice recognises that those who are worst affected are often those who are being hit first and hardest but who have done the least to cause the changing climate that we are all experiencing.
The other aspect that is very important is tackling governance and making sure that civil society and national Government frameworks are as strong as they can be. In saying this, I declare a couple of interests: I am the SNP Member on the board of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I am chair of the all-party group on Malawi. Malawi has just gone through pretty successful, very peaceful elections, but they have demonstrated some of the challenges that come with governance in developing democracies. More women have now been elected to the Malawian Parliament, which is fantastic, but as I said to the Secretary of State in DFID questions last week, some of the very capable incumbents found themselves losing their seats. That is democracy—we all put ourselves forward in elections and we have to go into them with open eyes and expect that we may not be re-elected—but there is a tendency throughout developing democracies for one-term elections. People seem to find that once they have been elected, they have real difficulty getting re-elected. We perhaps have to look at some of the structures and causes behind the scenes, when individual candidates seem to get targeted because they are not pliable or are not signing up with the overall majority. The civil society links that help to strengthen that are hugely important as well, so I pay tribute, as the Secretary of State has done, to the work of the Scotland Malawi Partnership.
The civil society grassroots links in Scotland are hugely important. Many of the projects there that have partner and twin organisations in Malawi are just as dedicated to tackling poverty at home in Scotland. Many are church or faith-based groups and they work with poor people in their communities, as well as trying to support people living in poverty in Malawi. When DFID is looking at its options, I hope that it can find different ways to support networks such as the Scotland Malawi Partnership.
Finally, underpinning all that is the 0.7% target, which was calculated at a time when if all the developed countries reached that target, there would be enough money to reach the goals. I do not know when anyone last tried to do that kind of calculation to figure out whether that is still the case, but if everybody did meet the 0.7%, that would leverage far more resources than are currently available for development. It is hugely commendable that there is a cross-party, cross-society consensus in support of that target.
Is the hon. Gentleman therefore concerned, as I am, that a number of the prospective Conservative Prime Ministers are talking about slashing it and that the lead candidate is even talking about abolishing the whole Department for International Development? We must say no to that and that we will not let that happen.
The hon. Gentleman could have been reading the notes that I have in front of me. He is absolutely right. That might play well to certain parts of their gallery, but it will not play well in the country as a whole. Conservative Members should remember that just before the launch of the very ill-fated Tory manifesto of 2017, there were rumours that the 0.7% would disappear, but that was objected to by civil society, by all the different parties and by their party in Scotland, because there is some semblance of a recognition of that commitment’s importance. That is the message that needs to go from this debate. Toying with the target and with DFID being a stand-alone Department may play well with certain Conservative Back Benchers, but it will not play well in the country as a whole. The Conservative party will mess with that at its peril.
I am delighted to join the debate and thank all Members who contributed. The hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) made the excellent point that the SDGs should be a comprehensive blueprint for all Departments. He raised the UN special rapporteur’s report on poverty in the UK and stated that the Government are in denial of the facts. He quoted Richard Curtis, who I commend for his work in raising the profile of the SDGs, and gave a clear message that whoever becomes Prime Minister needs to give proper leadership to the SDGs across the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is the Chair of the International Development Committee, must be commended for the work he has done, particularly on the SDGs. He made an excellent speech in which he spoke of the evidence his Committee has taken, righty raising a lack of understanding of the SDGs across Whitehall. He made many important points, particularly on how the Government will bring the VNR back home, especially into the public consciousness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) focused on a number of SDGs. She cited the work of Tearfund on plastic pollution and the impact it will have on achieving the SDGs. She made the important point that we spend only 0.93% of ODA on waste management in developing countries, which is really a public health concern.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) spoke of the work the Scottish Government are doing on SDGs. He cited Scotland’s partnership work with Malawi, evidencing how civil society can be engaged in delivering the SDGs.
Since I joined the shadow DFID team, I have championed the SDGs at every opportunity. Last year, I went to New York as part of Global Goals Week, and I look forward to returning to New York this year to attend the high-level meetings where the UK’s voluntary national review will be presented. Given that engagement, I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House announce last week that we would have a specific debate on the voluntary national review process. Needless to say, I was somewhat perplexed to see the scope of the debate changed in the Order Paper to remove any reference to the review. It is vital that we take it seriously. We must honour the SDG agenda that we signed up to as a country, and that means applying all 17 goals to both our international and domestic work and being honest about where we can improve.
Let me echo what has already been said in this debate regarding the need for a whole Government approach to achieve the SDGs. On a global level, that means we must have policy coherence so that the actions of one Department do not undermine the work of others. In the UK, local government and local councils matter. We cannot deliver the SDGs domestically without them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, just like in 1992 when after the Earth summit every local council produced a local agenda 21, the Government should be mandating local councils to produce and fulfil local SDGs? I think that councils would be willing to take that opportunity if the call went out from the heart of government.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important contribution, which I fully endorse. I hope that the Government will take that on board.
As I was saying, local government and local councils matter. That is why last year I worked with Birmingham City Council, my local council, to approve a motion on the sustainable development goals, with cross-party support. It was the first council to agree formally to play its part to achieve those important goals. I hope that other councils across the country will follow Birmingham’s lead and adopt their own motions, and I hope the Minister will join me in encouraging Members from across the House to support similar motions in their constituencies.
Will the Minister also agree to speak to colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that councils and communities across the UK are playing their part? I am concerned about the leadership role that DFID appears to be playing in a programme that should be both global and domestic. DFID is specifically tasked with addressing poverty overseas. Its limited resources should not be diverted to tackling issues in the UK that are the specific responsibility of other Departments.
Those concerns were recently raised by the International Development Committee, which said:
“Cross-government engagement with the SDGs—up to this point—has been woefully insufficient. Outside of DFID there is still very limited knowledge of the Goals amongst Whitehall officials.”
The Committee went on to say that it was
“not convinced that DFID should be leading on the coordination of the VNR”.
I agree with its comments. I should like the entire Government to take the SDGs far more seriously. According to analysis by Saferworld, only three of 76 conflict, stability and security fund programme summaries refer publicly to the 2030 agenda and SDGs as guidance for context analysis or programme direction.
Will the Minister update the House on whether the proposed departmental champions have now all been appointed? Will she clarify what their role will be and what meaningful reporting process they will follow to ensure that the UK does deliver on these important goals? Will she—this is a related question—give concrete assurances that the voluntary national review of the UK’s progress towards achieving the goals domestically will not take any time or resources away from the Department’s international work to eradicate extreme poverty overseas?
I have heard concerns from a number of NGOs and civil society groups that feel that their involvement in the review process has been chaotic, disorganised and last minute. Given that the original deadline for the report’s submission to the UN is this Friday—a deadline that was confirmed in response to one of my recent written questions—civil society groups will be rightly alarmed that they will not have had a proper chance to feed back on the VNR before it is submitted. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is meaningful engagement with those groups? Will the Minister clarify how the input sought from the recent consultations will feed into the final review, and will she give a commitment to seek Government time for a debate following the submission of the VNR, so that we can discuss the content in greater detail?
We cannot afford to fail to meet the SDG targets. The challenges that we face are vast. Across the world, one in nine people still go hungry, one in five children live in conflict, 40 million people are displaced from their homes, and the world is facing an ecological breakdown. The world may be at its wealthiest overall, but inequality is at its highest: 26 people now own the same wealth as 50% of all humanity—3.8 billion people.
That is symptomatic of a global economy that is rigged in favour of the few at the expense of the many and a system that accumulates private wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals at the expense of public goods.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), the picture in the UK is bleak as well. More and more children live in poor households, and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an unacceptable 7% rise in child poverty is likely between 2015 and 2022.
It is right that we have had time today to debate the UK’s own performance against the sustainable development goals and the voluntary national review. I trust that we will respect the truly universal nature of the SDGs, so that we see a far greater focus on how we achieve them both globally and here in the UK, as that will give us a global blueprint for dignity, peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future.
This has been a short but perfectly formed debate. We have touched the surface of a range of issues relating to the overarching framework that the whole world has signed up to for our journey towards 2030 as a global population. Today’s debate has been a milestone on that journey, enabling us to talk about not only the UK’s voluntary national review, but the journey on which the rest of the world is embarked. I am proud to stand at the Dispatch Box having been in the Government at the time when we enshrined our contribution of 0.7% of gross national income in statute. We are the first and only country in the world to have done that. Members on both sides of the House have expressed support today for the continuation of that approach; they can count on me to continue to support it, as, indeed, the Secretary of State made clear earlier.
This is the first time that we have carried out a voluntary national review. There are, of course, 17 goals. I do not know about the rest of the House, but I personally find that 17 is not exactly a catchy number to work with. I noticed that some Members worked that down to five Ps and others to fewer themes, but I find that 17 is a bit unmanageable. Within those 17 goals there are 169 targets and within that 244 separate indicators. Having worked in the private sector for many years before entering politics, I am a strong believer that it is important to measure these things, because what gets measured gets managed. Interestingly, as a result of this first voluntary national review we found that our independent ONS does not measure absolutely every one of those indicators; in fact only about 72% of those global indicators are already on our national reporting platform. That is the first thing we have learned, along with the importance of data around that. We have therefore decided to add to the data we commission.
We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate with a range of contributions from the Opposition Benches, including by the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), and the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady)—the voices from Scotland, where of course the process has been done by the devolved Administration of the independent Scottish Government—as well as the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). We heard a number of times about food insecurity. As a result of the voluntary national review and the discovery that we had statistics for only 72% of the measures, we have commissioned a new data series for the UK, with a measure that will take place in the household surveys around food insecurity. I hope that the whole House will welcome the fact that what gets measured gets managed, as I said earlier, and that we will have a measure for that for the first time.
A number of points were made in the debate about the consultation process. This has been an ongoing process since the UK played such a pivotal part in developing the goals in the first place. In the run-up to the voluntary national review we have engaged with 350 organisations, we have had 200 different case studies shared with us, we have had 35 different engagement events—this is of course within England—and we have had the opportunity to talk to some of the Select Committees about this process. I welcome engagement from all the groups, and am particularly keen to hear from a wider range of groups as we go into the process of publication this week.
The Minister says there will be publication this week: is she able to confirm that we will publish as we submit to the UN so that it will be publicly available including to parliamentarians simultaneously with its submission?
We have published this week the main messages from the UK voluntary national review. Obviously we will save for the high-level forum some of the details of the report itself, but my understanding is that publication is imminent. I am not able to specify precisely on which day it is coming out, because I am not sure whether that has been decided; as the hon. Gentleman knows, beings way above my pay grade decide such things.
In the Committee I asked—as the Chairman of the Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) asked again today in the Chamber—about the inclusion of civil society in the delegation and presentation at the high-level political forum. I was given reassurances that discussions were happening on the youth side with the British Youth Council. The Secretary-General produced the youth and SDGs report this year, which will also be presented at the HLPF, and it is important to include young people. Can the Minister confirm that young people and other sectors of civil society will be included in the delegation? If not, will we take urgent action to get our young UK ambassadors—a system I know the BYC runs very effectively—engaged in the process so that they are able to be interlocutors with the Minister and go together?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case. Baroness Sugg will be leading the UK delegation, and I know that she will be thinking about the make-up of the delegation. I note the compelling case he has made for a wide representation of civil society on it.
I want to mention some of the statistics that relate to this country. I have mentioned some of the gaps, but in terms of things that we measure, I am sure everyone in the House will welcome the overwhelmingly strong employment growth in the UK. Yet again today, we have seen how strong the job market is, and we have also seen that employment incomes are growing. In fact, the average income in this country is now £507 a week. That is the median income against which the poverty line— 60% of the median income—is measured. I am sure the House will also welcome the fact that there has been a disproportionately large increase in employment growth for the poorest 20% of households. These are an important part of the goals. We have seen a seven-point growth in the income of the poorest households. The percentage of people in this country in absolute low income is at an all-time low, and the percentage of children who are in absolute low income after housing costs remains at a historic low. However, hon. Members have pointed out—and we agree—that it is important to note that the goals call for zero poverty and zero hunger, and it will be valuable to see in the voluntary national review where there is still work left to do.
I particularly value the points made about people with disabilities. We have tried to show real leadership internationally on this, but we have also worked hard here domestically to increase the number of people with disabilities in work. There are 700,000 more people with disabilities in work since 2015. There is a lot we can learn from other countries, and the fact that this is happening in an international context with hundreds of other countries representing their insights will enable us to compare and contrast across the world, as the Chairman of the International Development Committee has said.
I fully acknowledge the importance of the world dealing with plastic waste, and the hon. Member for Bristol East will know how much work we have put into some of the pilot programmes internationally. We recognise the importance of the work that is done by a range of organisations including Tearfund, which we work with in Pakistan on waste management, and the importance of our learning from the great examples—the leadership, indeed—in other countries that have been quicker than we have to ban certain types of plastic that are difficult to get out of the food chain.
In summary, as I wait for the speaker who is going to respond to the Adjournment debate, I just want to highlight the fact that this is a journey that we are on as a world. The process of doing a voluntary national review has brought home the importance of measuring these things and the fact that, even with a very well developed and independent Office for National Statistics, we still have some room to improve on our measures. We can all learn from each other as a world, and I look forward to seeing a strong UK delegation at the high-level working group. I value all the inputs from our colleagues across the House in today’s important debate, and we look forward to working with the various Committees of the House as we continue to make progress towards the sustainable development goals for 2030.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Sustainable Development Goals.