Koldo Casla and Imogen Richmond-Bishop
This article was published first in Open Democracy.
In 2015, all 193 United Nations (UN) member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address the global challenges of our time, including human rights, inequality, poverty and climate change.
All countries, rich and poor, are expected to meet the SDGs. This July the UK Government is voluntarily reporting at the UN in New York on its progress on the implementation of the Goals. Whilst we have yet to see the final report, the Government has made public the preparatory Emerging Findings.
And not all that glitters is gold.
The Government says that they have “carried out wide-ranging outreach across different regions and sectors” and that they have “received 200 case studies from organisations, business and civil society”. Both of us have attended several of these outreach and engagement meetings, and it is a good thing that they exist. However, what the Government’s document does not say is how many of those events were specifically designed to listen to the testimonies and opinions of people with direct experience of poverty.
Furthermore, as we said to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, it would appear that the Government has been highly selective in what it has decided to include or omit in its Emerging Findings.
SDG2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. “In 2015/16, the median calories consumed per UK adult aged 19-64 each day were 1,810. UN FAO state the prevalence of undernourishment in the UK was less than 2.5% in 2015.” (Emerging Findings)
As the UK is a relatively food secure nation, the median amount of calories consumed is not a good identifier for whether the UK is making progress on SDG2. Many of the issues with the food system in the UK are not caused by a physical lack of food, but rather issues around its production and accessibility especially for those on low incomes. Undernourishment says nothing as to the quality of the food consumed on a macronutrient level, nor where the food was obtained from, nor whether it was actually sufficient to the needs of the individual.
Focusing on undernourishment instead of household food insecurity is misleading. The Government could have for example chosen to include other figures provided by the FAO, like those that have estimated that 8.4 million people in the UK are food insecure.
Instead of focusing on university students in the South East who are growing hops as a case study, the Government could have looked at the hundreds of thousands of people volunteering in, donating to, or using emergency food aid across the nation. The most recent figures from the Trussell Trust found that food banks within their network distributed a record 1.6 million emergency food parcels in the past year alone.
We welcome the frank admission from Government that childhood obesity is on the rise and that this needs to be addressed. However, the document does not mention some of the key causal factors of this rise. One such factor is a prevalent colocation of obesity and poverty that can be partly explained by the fact that in order to follow the Government’s own “Eat Well Guidelines” one in five families would have to spend 40% of their income after housing costs.
SDG10: Reduce Inequalities. “The UK is committed to creating a fair society where no one is left behind, people are valued, able to participate fully and realise their potential.” (Emerging Findings)
The UK is a highly unequal society, but the Emerging Findings document does not reflect the rising inequalities in terms of income, wealth, and health outcomes. Recently released official statistics show that life expectancy for women born in deprived areas has declined in recent years, something utterly unacceptable in the fifth world economy.
It is true, as the Emerging Findings document says, that the UK has “some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, including the Equality Act 2010”. However, the Government’s resistance to implement the legislation in its entirety, including the socio-economic duty (section 1 of the Equality Act 2010), has meant that this legislation is not enabled to go far enough.
Recent changes to the tax and welfare system have disproportionally affected certain groups, such as people with disabilities, people of minority ethnic backgrounds and women. These groups are also affected by the persistent gender, ethnicity and disability pay gap, and are often amongst those most affected by poverty.
According to the Women’s Budget Group, lone mothers with disabilities have lost the most overall due to the cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms. By 2021 lone mothers with disabilities are set to lose 21% of their net income, this rises to 32% if one of their children also has disabilities. Changes to the personal tax allowance that came into force this April will mean that the top 10% will receive an extra £6,500 a year whilst the bottom 10% will only receive an average of £650.
The Voluntary National Review is an opportunity to examine if the right policies are in place to ensure that no-one is left behind. However, the insufficient attention to lived experience, the disregard to rising inequalities, and the missing assessment of the impact of tax and social security reforms make us fear this review will be much ado about nothing. The UN’s Agenda 2030 for sustainable development cannot become an excuse not to make use of all available resources to advance progressively towards the full satisfaction of all the rights proclaimed in international human rights law.