Mary Creagh

Working hard for Wakefield

Speech in a debate on the Sustainable Development Goals

The Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, is carrying out an inquiry looking at how to apply the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the UK. I spoke in a debate on the SDGs, my speech is here:

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to follow such excellent speeches from the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I find myself in violent agreement with everyone but particularly with the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) about her remarks on cycling. As a keen cyclist, I shall don my helmet and dash up to Euston later to conduct a witness session with young people in Birmingham.

I was keen to take the Environmental Audit Committee out of London. We are going to the midlands to listen to what young people have to say about their futures and their involvement in delivering this incredibly ambitious agenda. I therefore give my apologies to you, Mr Stringer, because I will have to leave at 3.15 pm—I thought we were to finish at three o’clock.​

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on the International Development Committee’s report. I will pick up a couple of the issues it found about the worrying lack of engagement from Departments across Government and how we will achieve the goals domestically and internationally.

I am reminded of when I was out campaigning for the Labour party, when I had just become an MP, to make poverty history. I was in Wakefield city centre giving out leaflets and said, “We’re trying to make poverty history,” and this woman looked at me and said, “Well, what are we doing to make poverty history at home?” Actually, probably all of us have been confronted with that question, and finally as MPs across parties and as Governments of whatever colour we have an answer. It is imperative that we get it right. As I was Labour’s shadow Secretary of State for International Development until 2015, this cause is very close to my heart.

The Environmental Audit Committee launched its inquiry on 25 July. We want to build on the International Development Committee’s inquiry and measure, monitor and—importantly—communicate the Government’s performance and progress towards achieving these goals. I will share a few initial observations on the principles of applying everywhere and to everyone and ensuring that no one is left behind. That is imperative, and that means that we must implement the goals domestically. The second principle is that we must focus on the poorest and most marginalised groups in society. That presents significant challenges that the Government, NGOs, the Office for National Statistics and we as politicians will have to tackle. I was in our Committee yesterday and I was in Berlin on Tuesday talking about the global goals. If we ask a bunch of 20-something people who work for NGOs—this is interesting—we hear, as a witness said yesterday, “We’ve got to look at all these goals, and we looked at water quality and access to water and thought: in the UK we don’t have a problem with that” and yet we received evidence a couple of weeks before that nine UK water companies are in water stress. That might be 15 water companies by 2020 and all of them by 2030. The definitions of what we measure are in some way defined by the people we ask. If we put the question to NGOs in this country—which do not normally campaign on water and are not involved in its delivery—they will give a different answer to the people who are actually involved in that delivery.

On data collection, disaggregating the data is really important. A headline goal or target could be on nutrition, but we are not generally malnourished in this country; some might even think we are a bit too well nourished— I am certainly feeling that way at the moment; that is why I am on the bike again. We have got to look underneath malnutrition and at this country’s problem with obesity, particularly among children. A significant percentage of children are obese by the age of five, which has increased by the age of 11. That is a massive problem.

There is also a hidden problem of malnutrition among our frail, elderly population. It is hidden because we do not go into care homes and say, “Did you have your breakfast today?”, or, if the old person’s stomach has shrunk, “Did you have a light lunch at 11 o’clock and then something to eat at 1 o’clock?” We are able to consume and absorb less food as we get older, but we are not really changing our habits. We still expect three ​meals a day, but old people might need five or seven meals a day. Are we adapting our services? These goals profoundly challenge us to think about the problems and the difficulties we will have in collecting that data.

The Office for National Statistics says that about 70% of the targets are covered, but it will need to use data partners, such as NGOs, businesses and local government, to make sure the data are of good quality, and it will have to build trust in the information. We hope to inform the ONS’s consultation. It will be published on 29 November, which will be a critical moment in our country’s implementation. We need to engage the public on the goals.

We also heard from businesses yesterday. At the meeting I attended in Berlin, where there were environmental charities that are used to fighting businesses that want to build dams, chop down trees and exploit mineral deposits, it was very interesting that there was a strong reaction against me when I said, “No one is really talking about the role of business in this.” I thought to myself that business has probably lifted more people out of poverty than the combined global aid budgets and everything that charities have done, so it is a question of how we get business to address market failure. If people are hungry or in poverty, that is a market failure. How do we work with businesses to address that? Businesses want well-paid people who are able to purchase their goods and services, whatever they may be. We heard from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is developing an interesting data mechanism that can be applied globally. We heard about the insurance company, Aviva, which is on the frontline of flooding and climate change issues, and also from Hermes Investment Management.

We also have things to learn from other countries. Wales has a commissioner for future generations. At first, the Welsh Government were going to introduce a sustainable development Act, before realising that no one knows what sustainable development is—it is too abstract, too distant, too out there—so they talked about solidarity with future generations. They had a great programme of implementation and consultation that gave everybody in Wales ownership and understanding of what that Act means.

When we have our data partners and data parameters, we will need some poets to translate it into normal language. Obviously, that is part of our job as politicians —to translate very technical, difficult issues. However, we need to cascade that down. One of my concerns is that a lot of international NGOs came to our inquiry but we did not hear much from UK charities. That is a big problem, and we have a real job to do with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to get that message out and get those charities to map every activity against the baseline targets.

We will also have to translate those goals into what we do as politicians. How is what we do in the House and every day that we spend as MPs going to end poverty or violence? Every Bill that we pass should be run past that mechanism if we are going to have meaningful action. We have looked at innovations from other countries. For example, Colombia has put its peace process at the heart of everything it is doing, while Finland has developed an online tool so that everyone can put in what they are doing to contribute to the goals and bring them to life. I am afraid that we have not yet seen the same level of ​enthusiasm from the Government. I will read the Minister’s response very closely in Hansard. I hope we will see a new level of enthusiasm on this.

Dr Graham Long, who is a senior lecturer at Newcastle University, set out some areas of concern in the UK: 40% of homes fail to meet the decent homes standard; 40,000 people die prematurely due to air pollution every year; the Trussell Trust gave out half a million emergency food parcels in the first half of the year, including to more than 180,000 children; we throw away more than 7 million tonnes of food and drink every year; as I said, nine companies are under water stress; since 2013, the suicide rate has increased to 12 deaths per 100,000 people, which is its highest rate since 2004. On energy efficiency, the phasing out of fossil fuels and non-communicable disease mortality, we have done an awful lot as a country, but we have an awful lot to do.

We need to work with local government, the NHS, schools—I was pleased to see some young people in their school uniforms in the Gallery who had come to listen to the debate—colleges, universities, large and small businesses, local and national charities and trade unions, which realise that there are no jobs on a dead planet. Those organisations will help to transform the goals into action on the ground and to build a community of likeminded people. As I said, I am off to Birmingham this afternoon.

However, we need leadership from the Government. The voluntary sector is waiting for the Government to show leadership; it is a sort of chicken and egg thing: if the Government do not lead, nobody knows about it and the charities feel like they are talking into a vacuum. We heard during our inquiry that the Government’s contribution to the goals is confined to the 2015 Conservative manifesto, but that was published before the goals were agreed and only lasts until 2020.

Perhaps we need to look at fixing this into law, as we did with climate change, and having something that sets the goals on a five-yearly basis—although not to coincide with general elections—and that are agreed by an independent committee and with an independent monitor that is able to look at those things in the round. The area on which I think the International Development Committee report was most damning was the “deep concern” at the lack of a strategic approach, the “deep incoherence across government policy” and the potential for progress made in one area to be undermined by its lack in another. We will look at that in a granular way. This is a 15-year agenda, and the goals are non-binding and voluntary, so we really need to see robust accountability mechanisms in place; we cannot rely only on the Environmental Audit Committee or the International Development Committee, which have very limited resources.

I will conclude by saying that ours is the generation that can end extreme poverty, hunger and violence, reduce inequality and tackle climate change. I know that my Committee, and the other Committees of the House, will work over the course of this Parliament to ensure that we live up to our commitments and achieve those global goals. Our constituents, our children and our grandchildren are relying on us to do that. We must not let them down.​

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