Scotland's Sustainable Development Goals Network
The Scottish Parliament

Scottish Parliament debates progress on UN SDGs

On 16th January 2020, the Scottish Parliament debated Scotland’s progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). The item of bussiness business was a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20261, in the name of Lewis Macdonald, on sustainable development goals.

Motion debated:

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of On target for 2030?, a report from civil society organisations co-ordinated by the UWS-Oxfam Partnership and the SDG Network Scotland; understands that this report aims to offer a snapshot analysis of progress in Scotland against each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which officially came into force on 1 January 2016, from expert organisations operating within each relevant field; considers that the negative effects of slow progress on achieving Sustainable Development Goals are felt disproportionately by low-income households, including in the North East Scotland region, and that this undermines the pledge made by UN Member States to ensure that “no one will be left behind”; acknowledges that the report encourages Scotland to do more to meet its Sustainable Development Goals, and understands that progress in this area is not the responsibility only of government but also of business, the third sector and individuals, if Scotland is to fulfil its commitments by 2030.

Lewis MacDonald’s remarks:

I am delighted to speak to the motion and am grateful to all the members who signed it and to the many organisations that have provided briefings to support the debate, some of which are represented in the gallery.

The sustainable development goals are global goals. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development was agreed by the United Nations in 2015 as

“a plan of action of people, planet and prosperity.”

The agenda aspires to

“end poverty and hunger … protect the planet from degradation”,

ensure “prosperous and fulfilling lives” for all and

“foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies”.

Those are big ambitions that require innumerable actions by very large numbers of actors: Governments, intergovernmental agencies, non-governmental organisations, businesses, trade unions, voluntary and community organisations and individuals around the world.

We can be proud of the actions that have been taken by many people from and in Scotland towards achieving the goals worldwide. Whether through NGOs, churches or faith communities, secondment from work in our public services, or directly as volunteers or as part of Government engagement with developing countries, many thousands of people make a real and substantial contribution to achieving the sustainable development goals in some of the poorest countries on the planet.

However, the global goals apply here, too. Scotland will be judged not only on the work that Scots do or support elsewhere, but on how we as a country measure up against the goals. That is why today’s debate is focused on the latest report from Scottish civil society on progress in Scotland towards achieving the UN’s global goals.

On Target for 2030?” asks how we are doing here, measured against the same standards as the rest of the world, and it produces some challenging answers. The question really matters, so we are indebted to Oxfam, in partnership with the University of the West of Scotland, and to the SDG Network Scotland, for producing a comprehensive assessment.

We are also indebted to a total of 22 organisations in civil society for the informed and insightful contributions that they have made—from the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland to the Built Environment Forum Scotland, from the Child Poverty Action Group to the Marine Conservation Society, from Girlguiding Scotland to the Scottish Trades Union Congress, and from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to Business in the Community. Those organisations are all working at the front line on the whole range of sustainable development issues across Scotland. Scotland’s International Development Alliance puts all that in the context of Scotland’s place in the wider world, and emphasises that all the goals must be addressed together, not separately.

The report is a sobering assessment. Given that many of our constituents rely on food banks to feed their families, members will not be surprised to learn from Nourish Scotland that 8 per cent of the Scottish population described themselves as “food insecure”. Perhaps less familiar are the finding of research by Citizens Advice Scotland, that

“12% of households in Scotland may struggle to afford their charges” for water and sewerage, and the projection by Changeworks, that the current Scottish Government target

“means that in 2040, 5% of the Scottish population will still be in fuel poverty, due to poor energy efficiency.”

A common thread among many of the analyses is the need to tackle inequality. Another is the need to do so with the participation of the people who are affected by inequalities. Oxfam quotes figures from the Office for National Statistics that confirm that

“the wealth held by the top 10% of households is around five times greater than the wealth of the bottom half combined.”

Oxfam concludes that

“until we address inequalities of power and political participation, progress on addressing economic inequality will be hindered.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrates that, in recent years, Scotland has simultaneously reached record levels of employment and record levels of in-work poverty, which taken together mean that we have not met the sustainable development goal of “decent work for all”. The STUC highlights some sectors in which poverty pay holds back workers, particularly women, and calls for sectoral agreements to set minimum terms and conditions in social care and to promote collective bargaining in early learning and childcare.

Disturbingly, in the context of the goal of inclusive and sustainable economic growth, the STUC reports

“daily stories from young hospitality workers about bullying, harassment and unpaid wages”.

They are the kind of stories that we would hope not to be hearing in the 2020s.

What is to be done? The editors of “On Target for 2030?” do not attempt to summarise the range of contributions, but they draw some conclusions, which I hope the minister will address in closing the debate. Among other things, they conclude that

“whilst there is clear policy and political commitment on all of the Goals in Scotland, more needs to be done in order to meet the 2030 targets”,


“There is a lack of available, high-quality Scotland-specific data in some policy areas”,

and that

“further work is needed to improve and build upon” the existing “fairly loose alignment” between the outcomes and indicators in the Scottish Government’s national performance framework and the UN’s sustainable development goals.

In briefing members in advance of today’s debate, the SDG Network Scotland built on those conclusions with specific asks of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. The network supports the Scottish Government’s approach of carrying out a supplementary review to support the report by the UK, as the member state of the United Nations. The network says that the supplementary review was prepared on a transparent, collaborative and innovative basis, and that it provides a model that the UK Government would do well to follow. However, thus far, the report is available only online in draft form, and the network is keen for it to be concluded and published in its final form as soon as possible. I hope that the minister can give an undertaking on that today.

The SDG Network also calls on us, as a Parliament, to align our remits more closely with the sustainable development goals, with regular debates in the future to hold the Government to account on progress. As members of Parliament consider what priorities we might wish to suggest for members in the next session of Parliament, this might be the right time to highlight the 2030 agenda for sustainable development as a proper focus for the 2020s.

Minister Kate Forbes remarks:

I thank Lewis Macdonald for securing this important debate and I thank the report’s authors, Oxfam Scotland, the University of the West of Scotland, SDG Network Scotland and the multiple contributors. I know that a lot of stakeholders are in the gallery. The Scottish Government values enormously the work that they do in this area.

Contrary to Claudia Beamish’s view that we were disappointed with the report, the publication of “On Target for 2030?” was enormously welcome. It was really helpful because, as the report illustrates, we have been engaging widely with civic society in taking forward the important agenda around the SDGs, including as an active member of SDG Network Scotland. Evaluation is fundamentally important and, if we are to ensure that we meet our targets for 2030, it is important that we do not just consider what we are doing internally, but that we have that international analysis of progress to date.

In 2015, Scotland was one of the first nations to sign up to achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030. That demonstrates our commitment to playing our part both in achieving the goals in Scotland and contributing globally. Patrick Harvie mentioned the way in which the relationship between the international development and domestic policy elements have changed over the years. We are very mindful that there are means by which we can mutually benefit in learning from other countries.

The UN’s sustainable development goals offer a vision of the world. Jamie Halcro Johnston talked about the need for aspiration and ambition and it is about that, from ending poverty and hunger through securing education and health services to combating inequality and achieving gender equality. Those aims set an agenda for tackling some of the world’s greatest problems, and we in Scotland want to pioneer outcomes, results and means by which we can meet the goals that might also be valuable to the rest of the world.

In signing up, the Scottish Government was required to demonstrate how it will work to achieve those targets by 2030. Many of the goals align with what we are already doing to tackle poverty and inequality, not just here at home but globally. However, the question for us all is how we can achieve that. Our internationally recognised national performance framework is the main vehicle by which we can deliver and localise the SDGs. Claudia Beamish rightly mentioned the importance of not working in silos, and the NPF brings it all together to ensure that there is a connection between different teams that are doing different things to achieve different goals.

The national performance framework is, essentially, Scotland’s wellbeing framework. It has the same aspiration for social, environmental and economic improvements, defining a country’s success as more than just growth in gross domestic product. The NPF is not just the Government’s framework; it belongs to the whole of Scotland. One of the most important lines in today’s motion is the last line, which is a rallying call to all Scotland to recognise the role that we can all play in embedding the SDGs and reaching them in the work that we do. The NPF fundamentally reflects the partnership principle that underpins the UN 2030 agenda. It enables us to mobilise partners, stakeholders and others on those outcomes, so that they can join in with meeting the SDGs.

As all the reports recognise, good progress has been made since we adopted the SDGs, including our commitment to tackle child poverty and health inequality. However, there is no question but that work remains for us to do to meet the 2030 target. As Bill Kidd said, much comes down to prioritisation. The Scottish Government is committed to achieving the SDGs by creating a more successful country with opportunities for all Scotland to flourish, in every region and every background, through increased wellbeing and sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

Stewart Stevenson mentioned child poverty, which I will take as an example. In recent years, the Scottish Government has passed legislation—the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017—published the tackling child poverty delivery plan and implemented the best start grants for low-income parents through the new Scottish social security system. Soon, we will start the new Scottish child payments. We should be proud of that programme of work, but we should also recognise what we are trying to achieve through it, which is to deliver on our commitments to tackle poverty. I believe that that will serve us well in meeting the SDGs.

That programme of legislation takes us closer to achieving goals that are ambitious but fundamentally and morally important. We will continue to take the necessary action to ensure that no one is left behind, which is at the heart of the NPF’s goal for an inclusive Scotland with opportunity for all. What has been refreshing in this debate—Monica Lennon mentioned this—is the recognition of the need to reflect on progress to date. That is not about patting ourselves on the back, but about recognising the work that many different parties and stakeholders are delivering and the scale of the challenge. Fundamentally, the SDG goals must be ambitious and aspirational if we are going to deal with the inherent inequalities that still exist in this country. To do that, we need all of Scotland to work together.

Lewis Macdonald asked a specific question on the Scottish supplementary review. It is worth reflecting briefly on the background to that. There were significant limitations with the UK Government’s approach, so the Scottish Government has been working collaboratively with stakeholders to develop content for our own specific Scottish review. There are fundamental differences between the UK Government and the Scottish Government in the approaches to some key issues—for example, SDG 1 on ending poverty is a particular challenge, given how strongly the Scottish Government feels about the UK Government’s welfare reforms.

Working with the SDG Network Scotland, we have been trying to assess performance and highlight the challenges and opportunities in realising an SDG specifically in Scotland. We are at the last stage of finalising the Scottish supplementary review and it will be published imminently and shortly—before or by the spring, hopefully. As Lewis Macdonald mentioned, stakeholders are aware of the position and a draft report is available online on the SDG Network Scotland web page.

Fighting inequalities continues to be at the heart of the Scottish Government’s vision for a fairer Scotland and it is enormously valuable when reports such as “On target for 2030?” highlight the work that has been done and what we still have to do to achieve our ambition.

Full debate transcript:

You can read the full debate transcript here

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