19 October 2023
UN Sustainable Development Goals

Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell)

This is my first experience of serving under you, Ms Bardell, and I hope that there will be many more in the future.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing this important debate and for her efforts to support sustainable development. She has a great deal of experience in this work. She and I talk often in the margins during votes and in the House of Commons, and she has done a service to the House today by expressing herself with such lucidity. I will address a number of her points. Because of the brevity and succinct nature of the contributions in this excellent debate, I have little excuse not to answer the many questions that have been asked.

Before I do that, I am conscious that this debate takes place against the grim backdrop of the horrifying attacks against Israel. Our thoughts are with all those who are suffering. Britain unequivocally backs Israel’s right to defend itself. We are stepping forward with humanitarian support, working to protect civilians from harm and striving to keep peace and stability alive.

To return to today’s debate, Britain played an instrumental role in establishing the sustainable development goals in 2015, and we are committed to achieving them by the end of this decade. However, seven years on only 15% of the goal targets are on track and nearly 40% are stalled or in reverse. We are currently on track to miss 88% of the goals. If that trend continues, it means that 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty in 2030. We will have failed to limit global temperature increases to the 1.5° agreed in Paris, and we will have broken the collective promise we made in 2015 to other Governments and to our citizens.

At the halfway mark, with the clock ticking, we must rapidly accelerate progress on the goals, but we have some huge, complex and interlinked challenges to overcome: conflict, covid, climate change, the cost of living crisis and debt burdens increasing to unmanageable levels. It is no wonder that people are angry, particularly in the global south. Meanwhile, geopolitical divisions are making it difficult to address global issues together, and the international financial system is in urgent need of reform to ensure that, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), no one is left behind.

In the face of such challenges, the UK is genuinely making an important contribution to reforming the system and ensuring that the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable countries are heard. This year, we launched an 18-month campaign to restore our credibility on international development, accelerate progress on the sustainable development goals and build modern partnerships with developing countries. The campaign has already made progress, and I want to reflect on three aspects of it.

First, there have been some significant pledges on the world stage. At the G7 leaders summit in May, the Prime Minister announced that British investment partnerships will mobilise $40 billion by the end of 2027 for high-quality, clean, green infrastructure and investment. In turn, that will attract further investment from the private sector. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford for her eloquent comments on British International Investment. At the G20 leaders meeting in India, our Prime Minister pledged $2 billion to the green climate fund, which places Britain right at the top of support for that vital engine of combating climate change.

That brings me to the second aspect: support to reform the international financial system. During this year’s United Nations General Assembly, we announced new guarantees for multilateral development banks, to help our overseas aid to go further and multiply our impact by unlocking more affordable finance for key SDG priorities. Through one such guarantee, Britain will unlock up to $1.8 billion of climate finance, thereby supporting vulnerable people across Asia and the Pacific to adapt to climate impacts. It will also accelerate their transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources, demonstrating how sustainable economic growth and development can go hand in hand.

Britain also announced £180 million for the International Finance Facility for Education, which includes up to £95 million in grants and paid-in capital, along with a contingent guarantee of up to £85 million. This guarantee is an incredible multiplier and will unlock up to $1 billion in new financing, through the Asian Development Bank and the African Development Bank, for education for lower middle-income countries, where an estimated 70% children under 10 are unable to read a simple story. The funding will help countries to use education as a tool for sustainable development, focusing on improving literacy, numeracy and social skills, including the training of teachers and development of curricula.

Britain is also leading the way on making the global financial system more responsive to shock. For example, we were the first to offer climate-resilient debt clauses in loans from our export credit agency, thereby pausing repayments when natural disasters strike—I hope to return to that subject before the end of the debate. Countries need to be able to identify the main risks they face, with access to the right tools and finance to respond. We are scaling existing mechanisms, such as the regional insurance risk pools, and strengthening the global architecture for disaster risk financing by working through the global shield against climate risk. The City of London is an extraordinary inventor of good ideas across the financial-engineering sector, but particularly in insurance.

The third aspect on which I shall reflect is the effort to build a healthier, more prosperous future, including through £17 million of new UK funding, announced at the UN General Assembly, to improve tax systems so that developing countries can stop revenues leaking and invest in their sustainable development. We also supported the political declarations on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, on universal health coverage, and on tuberculosis—to which the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) referred and to which I shall return—all of which were adopted. We committed up to £500 million for the advancing of global health, which will help to tackle future pandemics, boost research into vaccines, reduce deaths from infectious diseases and end the preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children, as the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) emphasised.

We are determined to capitalise on the momentum generated at the UN General Assembly. Our White Paper on international development, which has been referred to and which I hope the Prime Minister will launch at the global food summit on 20 November, will set out how we will accelerate progress on the SDGs, eradicate poverty and tackle climate change. This is not about the UK acting alone: the paper will draw from the voices of our partners around the world and set out how we will work with international partners, and across His Majesty’s Government, for the greatest impact. Ministers will continue to use their engagements with international counterparts to drive forward this agenda, including at the AI summit and the food security summit later this year. We will continue to collaborate with Governments, civil society, academia, businesses and others to champion and deliver the goals.

Patrick Grady 

The Minister said he hopes the Prime Minister will launch the White Paper at a global food summit on 20 November. I very much hope that the House will have sight of it at the same time as, if not before, external participants in a summit somewhere, and that the Minister—or perhaps the Foreign Secretary or, indeed, the Prime Minister himself—will present it to the House so that we can ask questions about it.

Mr Mitchell 

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, to which I shall come back, if I may. It is a most unusual White Paper that depends on wide agreement across the political parties.

Let me turn to some of the comments made in the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford made an important point about the role of the private sector. In particular, she mentioned BII, formerly known as the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which invests risk capital in Africa. It is important to recognise the extraordinary contribution that BII makes. Last year, it invested approximately 67% of its investments in Africa—more than £700 million. We should bear in mind that Africa attracts about 3% of world investment, so for an organisation such as BII that is a tremendous commitment. It employs directly and indirectly something like a million people through those investments—that is food on a million tables—and over a three-year period it paid tax into the exchequers of the countries in which it invests of about £10 billion. Not all that money will necessarily be spent to the best effect, but it is absolutely the foundation of building up the ability of a country to meet the aspirations and needs of its citizens.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford mentioned Education Cannot Wait, to which Britain is a huge contributor. I have seen on the ground in Africa the way that Education Cannot Wait makes a tremendous difference to children caught up in emergencies and disasters who are having to move and who are displaced, and how it has real effect.

My right hon. Friend asked me for an update on the White Paper. It will address the two key issues of how to get the SDGs back on track—I talked earlier about how far off-track they are—and how we have a quantum leap in the amount of funding required. The White Paper runs to 2030; were it to be just for this Parliament, it would not have attracted the interest and engagement of not only the brilliant and bright civil servants across Whitehall but the 50 countries that have already contributed to it. Because it runs to 2030, it will need to be a through-train through the result of the election. Of course, I am confident that my party will win the next election, but it is possible that that will not be the case. That is a matter for the electorate to decide. For that reason, it has all-party characteristics, and we are engaged in talking to all the other parties.

On the question from the hon. Member for Glasgow North, I happen to know that this morning a meeting was being fixed with his party’s development spokesman, to show them what we are thinking of doing and take account of their views and advice. I assure the hon. Gentleman that when the Prime Minister comes to launch the White Paper, we hope that it will be a British contribution to driving forward the two objectives that I set out and will not be seen in any way as a party political contribution. We are at our best in driving forward the goals that we all share when we do it on a British basis.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford referred to the Bridgetown agenda and to Marrakesh and the World Bank. Under the new president of the World Bank, Ajay Banga, the Marrakesh meeting was a tremendous success. It also avoided the fears expressed by many that it would be divisive between the north and south. It lived up to President Ruto’s call in Kenya, at the time of the African climate summit, that we should not allow ourselves to be divided into east, west, north and south, and that we should focus on investment and the private sector as the key ingredients for building our way through the climate crisis.

My right hon. Friend mentioned Sudan and Darfur, on which she and I are in agreement. There are signs of ethnic cleansing taking place in Darfur, and the world must react to that. I hope tomorrow to speak to Mr Hamdok, who has played such a leading role in civil society in Sudan. We very much hope that the forthcoming meeting in Addis Ababa will be helpful in moving this issue on. My right hon. Friend is right to say, as others have, that the situation in Sudan is desperate. This is not a fight about ideology: this is a fight between two generals seeking power, and it is a fight being conducted at the expense of that great country and the people who live in it.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) made a very good point about TB and, in particular, about malaria. That point was also made later in the debate, so I will come back to it in just a minute. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also asked about the White Paper. I hope I have answered most of her questions, but she will want to know that the White Paper will underline the importance of defending freedom of religion and belief for all—and it is not just because she occupies an office next to me in the Foreign Office that I can give her that reassurance.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—who is really my hon. Friend—spoke as the conscience of the House of Commons, as he so often does. I will come to the points that he made in a moment, because they were also made by others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) was absolutely right to speak about SDG6 and the need for access to water. Britain has always previously been in the lead on WASH and ensured that we prioritised that, but I think our efforts have slipped a bit in recent years. Ten years ago, we were securing clean water for the same number of people as live in the United Kingdom —more than 60 million people. It is a vital part of international development, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Our right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) is just about to publish a book on water and its implications around the world. On the basis that we authors must stick together, I hope that book will tackle and set out some of the difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon also spoke about de-mining. I speak as a former ambassador for HALO in recognising the work that the Mines Advisory Group and HALO—two brilliant British organisations—are doing in conflict zones around the world. I can tell my hon. Friend that de-mining will feature in the White Paper, and that he is absolutely right to put his finger on it. It is not just about lifting ordinance out of the ground; it is also about extending the reassurance for people who are farming, and building up stronger communities in areas that have suffered greatly from conflict.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North, quite apart from speaking about the importance of the White Paper taking a wide account of the views of the House, also mentioned Malawi. I pay tribute to the Scottish Government for the work that they have done in focusing on Malawi. In the Foreign Office, we are very conscious of the importance of that country, which faces so many challenges, and the very good work that is done by many different parts within the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the SDGs should apply to all countries, and I agree with him. He will know that Britain conducted its own audit in 2019 and we came out of it extremely well, as he and I would both expect. We will do another audit in due course, but we are loth to engage officials in doing it too soon because that would be likely to replicate what was said back in 2019.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about conflict prevention, which is at the heart of international development. Preventing conflict from starting, stopping it if it starts, and reconciling people subsequently, is the first of the key hallmarks of international development. The second is building prosperity, which is inextricably linked with the first as well.

Finally, I turn to the hon. Member for West Ham, who also asked about the White Paper. I repeat my comments about the fact that I had an extremely constructive meeting with my opposite number in the Opposition team, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), earlier this week.

The hon. Member for West Ham talked about the critical nature of the climate change disaster that we face, and she is right that it is the existential crisis of our time. The world is burning up. We have seen these extraordinary extremes of weather. The oceans are dying, with the chemical changes that have taken place because of the rise in temperature. The hon. Lady will know better than me, as a London Member, that, last year, there were brush fires in London for the first time. There is no doubt that this is the existential crisis of our age, which is why we are putting so much effort into ensuring that the British contribution is as good as it can possibly be.

The hon. Lady talked about food and starvation: she is right that it is obscene that some should starve in the world today when there is plenty of food for everyone. I am pleased to say that next year, because we now have the budget under better control, we are able to allocate ahead of time £1 billion for humanitarian relief. The White Paper will have more to say about how we can build greater resilience and adaptation into that process. She will know that the global food security summit takes place on 19 and 20 November. That will be not so much a pledging conference, but will look more at the way in which technology, science and artificial intelligence can drive forward our objectives.

The hon. Member for West Ham also raised the issue of Sudan, and rightly asked about sanctions. We have sanctioned people; we do not normally talk about it on the Floor of the House because, as she will know, it is a process. We are conscious, however, that it is a powerful tool in the armoury for making change. The hon. Lady also raised the important issue of debt. She is right that the principal instrument is the G20 common framework, but we need to do far more than that. We have learned lessons from the negotiations that Zambia and Ghana—two close friends and allies of the United Kingdom—have been through.

I briefly mentioned climate resilient debt clauses. It is important to understand this British invention, which is a real benefit for countries under stress. It means, for example, that a country such as Ghana, faced with a pandemic or an extreme event, does not have to use its liquidity to pay off capital and interest on debt. There is a two-year holiday so that the money can be used to help their own citizens. It is an important contribution by Britain. UK Export Finance, our export credit guarantees agency, is using it, and we hope that before long everyone will be.

Finally, both the hon. Members for West Ham and for Ealing, Southall raised the issue of malaria and TB. In the case of malaria, the new vaccination that was announced a fortnight ago, which is the second vaccination —again, British technology—is a very welcome moment. I was in Mozambique recently with the head of the Global Fund, and together we saw how climate change is leading to an uptick in the number of people affected by malaria. In Mozambique, the amount of malaria had been driven down below 50% among children, but is now rising again for the first time in many years because of climate change and the amount of flooding.

Let me be clear that the first announcement that we were able to make once the Prime Minister came into Government last October was about a replenishment for the Global Fund of £1 billion. It is a very significant commitment by Britain, because we know the Global Fund is so effective when it comes to HIV, TB and malaria. I hope that the hon. Members for West Ham and for Ealing, Southall will accept that this is a powerful British ambition in all three of those areas, and that our support for the Global Fund is a reflection of that.

I end by saying that despite the setbacks we have faced, there is hope that the world can deliver the SDGs, and the UK is determined to play its part. The world needs the goals because they are an approach that recognises the interlinked nature of the global challenges that we face, and sets out our shared vision for overcoming them. That matters now more than ever. Together, we must mobilise the finance required to deliver them, including building a bigger, better and fairer international financial system that addresses both poverty and climate change. We must ensure that money is spent with maximum impact, working closely with country partners to boost economies, create jobs and build a greener and healthier future. I hope that we can all unite to champion and deliver the SDGs over the next seven years for the sake of people and planet.

Jim Shannon 

We all asked individual questions. I asked a question—the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to this as well—about NGOs and churches that are involved in missionary work, and work on the ground through charities and so on. I am keen to see how we can work better together.

Mr Mitchell 

I apologise. I did not deal with that point, and should have done. The hon. Gentleman is right that the NGO sector—

Hannah Bardell (in the Chair)

Order. Perhaps the Minister could write to the hon. Member.

Mr Mitchell 

Perhaps two more minutes?

Hannah Bardell (in the Chair)

No, because we have a summing-up as well.

Mr Mitchell 

I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that point. As he said, we are all in this together, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, we must leave no one behind.