Report on the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals 2023

Report on the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals 2023

Dáil Contribution on the Report n the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals 2023 Part I
Dáil Contribution on the Report n the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals 2023 Part I

Full Transcript

An Ceann Comhairle

I call on Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, the Leas-Chathaoirleach of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands entitled “Report on the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals 2023”, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 7th December, 2023.

I thank the Cathaoirleach of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands who allowed me as rapporteur to initiate our discussion on this report. The sustainable development goals, SDGs, which were adopted by United Nations member states in 2015, are a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet, and a roadmap for how we might all, as a global community, live better together on an equitable basis. They committed to tackling poverty, hunger and inequality by promoting sustainable prosperity in a way that respects our planetary boundaries and the shared natural world that sustains us. The 17 SDGs, underpinned by 169 subtargets, are pledged to leave nobody behind while reaching the furthest behind first.

It is important to clarify they are often regarded as something that applies to overseas development aid or through the Department of Foreign Affairs, something that happens in countries other than here – and certainly goals 1 or 2 would be most easily applied to those contexts – or something exclusively environmental in nature. I could point to goals 13, 14 and 15 in terms of their environmental outputs but actually they are a cross-cutting framework by which we can address inequality across all parts of our society and ensure that our future development is on a sustainable basis. It is important that Ireland continues to play a central role in the implementation of the SDGs considering the central role we played in their initial negotiation in 2015 and again in the agreement to the political declaration in September 2023. In his speech to the UN on that occasion, the Taoiseach recommitted Ireland to Agenda 2030, saying: “It must become more than a piece of paper – as Leaders it is our solemn responsibility to breathe life into it.”

The national implementation plan for the SDGs lays out a policy map that assigns, for each of the 169 targets, a lead Department and, in relevant instances, a stakeholder Department. That is what we chose to follow in our investigation of these goals and their subtargets in our considerations as a committee. The report details the work of the committee in holding our respective Departments to account in their progression of those goals and targets assigned to them on the policy map. We felt it was important to have this discussed as we are the first committed to complete and report on this process, although other committees are doing some useful work in the area as well. We hope that this will be part of a repeated and iterative process whereby we strengthen and embed the role of the SDGs as a tool for effective and cross-cutting policy making, not just in the Department of Social Protection. Rural and Community Development and the Islands, but across government.

I will reflect a little on the process whereby we came to produce this report. The national implementation plan explicitly references the important role that is to be played by Oireachtas committees in section 3(1)(6). This role in monitoring and overseeing the progress on SDGs is also underpinned by Standing Order 100(4) relating to the work programme of the committees, which states that progress on the implementation of the sustainable development goals as set out in the United Nations 2030 agenda for sustainable development, are within the scope of the committees’ orders for references set out in Standing Orders. I acknowledge the role of Maeve McLynn who, at the start of this Dáil term, identified the opportunity to insert that new provision to Standing Orders for committees.

As such, we organised two sessions. In our first session, departmental representatives from the Minister of State’s Department and the Department of Social Protection came before us. We had a second session with a range of witnesses who were quite expert in the area. From Coalition 2030 we had Mr. John Sheehan; Ms Louise Lennon; Ms Meaghan Carmody who is joining us in the Public Gallery this afternoon for which I thank her; Mr. Paul Ginnell and Mr. Tim Hanley. We also had representatives from Comhdháil Oileain na hÉireann and Social Justice Ireland. Their contributions very much informed what went on to become our recommendations which are in this report.

I propose to go through the recommendations. I am happy that the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O’Brien, is taking this debate because many recommendations relate directly to some of the work he is doing in both of the Departments in which he serves. It is useful that he is here to respond to these.

The first recommendation is that we did not have specific subtargets mapped to the islands. The commitment in the SDGs is to reach the furthest behind first and make sure we leave nobody. The committee felt that the islands could do with that specific mapping. Representatives from Comhdháil Oileain na hÉireann suggested that the islands would be an excellent test bed for sustainable development and we could respond to that. I agree with that. They are already regarded as lighthouses in terms of the renewable energy transition. We could easily apply many of the lessons of the SDGs to the islands as well and actually have a broader consideration in terms of the targets and subtargets than we find in this report.

With regard to recommendations 2 and 4, the lead Department is the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. These recommendations both deal with participation in lifelong learning and a worry that we had around the digital transition, whereby certain cohorts are being left behind. The involvement of the Minister of State’s Department in this would relate to subgoal 4.6 and our public libraries policy. The committee felt that libraries are essential institutions and incredibly accessible to most people. Investment in our library services is making that moreso the case. However, we need to work more on having them become places that are seen as spaces for lifelong learning. In particular, we were worried about the digital divide whereby more and more of the services that people access on a daily basis, be it for Revenue online or social welfare provision, or even relating to choice-based letting for example, which regularly presents in my constituency clinic. These are places where people who are suffering from being on the wrong side of the digital divide feel they are increasingly locked out of the provision of services. The Minister of State might be able to think about how we develop that role.

I will skip ahead to recommendation 6, which states that the committee recommends that delivery and vindication of the SDGs are given a central position in the second national social enterprise policy. That falls within the remit of the Minister of State. There is huge scope for social enterprises to put the SDGs at the absolute heart of what they do. This makes sense. I have seen some excellent work in the European context on the future for social enterprise. His Department could be pivotal in making sure that the SDGs really are worked in there. The most recent social enterprise policy is now finished so maybe the Minister of State will be able to update us on when we can expect to see a new iteration of that.

I refer to another policy that falls within his Department, which gave rise to recommendation 10. We recommend that adequate training and support be provided to community structures, Tidy Towns committees, public participation networks, PPNs, and town teams. We identified the relevant national policy, which is the sustainable, inclusive and empowered communities five-year strategy. The committee particularly acknowledges the role played by Tidy Towns, which is in practically every town and village throughout Ireland and is administered by the Minister of State’s Department. In promoting an awareness and understanding of the SDGs, it is important that people can get under the bonnet, rather than just have 17 shiny badges or pins on their lapel, but that they understand the subtargets and how they can be implemented in the real world in their own towns and villages. It locates the goals for people within their own communities. I cannot think of a better example than the Tidy Towns committees in terms of the work that they do. The SDGs have been aligned to each of eight competition categories within the Tidy Towns and a specific SDG award was introduced in 2021, really helping to build that practical understanding within communities. Another area where there is huge potential is the town teams, under our Town Centre First policy. Town teams are being established. Chambers Ireland has produced an absolutely excellent toolkit and is probably a leader in that first principles approach.

It has produced an excellent toolkit for how towns and businesses in towns can apply the SDGs as a first-principle approach. I would like to see that integrated into the thinking of our town teams from the get-go because it is an important opportunity to contextualise it and sit it down in people’s communities to make sure they understand the SDGs do not happen far away but in towns and villages across the country.

A number of other recommendations would fall under the Department of Rural and Community Development but I want to talk about the other half of the work we had to do, which was around the Department of Social Protection. We had a particular look at goal 1, which is to do with poverty, and target 1.2, which sets out, by 2030, to “reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions.” That last piece is important because target 1.1 refers to a minimum bar of income, which is more applicable to the developing world than to here, but target 1.2 talks of national definitions. The national definition we have set out as the social target for poverty reduction is to reduce consistent poverty to 2% or less. That is work the Minister of State set out within the Department.

According to SILC figures presented by Department representatives when they were in with us, the rate of consistent poverty in the 2020 survey was 4.77%, reducing to 4% in 2021 and bouncing back up in 2022. While we have made progress since the 2013 peak of 9%, we have quite a way to travel if we are serious about reaching that target of 2%.

Meaghan Carmody of Coalition 2030 spoke of the need for disaggregated data because often in a national context we can present how Ireland is doing. The CSO does good work on the SDGs on its dashboard, so for education, poverty or whatever, we might present a national picture but in so doing may miss the specific groups we are talking about in terms of the SDGs. Those are the people who are furthest behind and whom we want to reach first. I mentioned the islands. They are geographically remote and difficult to reach. There are also Travellers, people precluded from work by ill health, older people and one-parent families. These are the people in our society we know to be at greater risk of poverty or exclusion from society or education. It is important we know exactly what we are dealing with and have disaggregated data to speak to.

The other thing I will mention to the Minister of State, which will be no surprise, is income adequacy. One recommendation we made concerned benchmarking of social welfare rates, whether against the minimum essential standard of living or whatever else. We feel strongly it should be removed from the budgetary cycle of “Are we putting a fiver on the pensions?” We should set a minimum floor whereby people, particularly those on fixed incomes, know the adequacy of their income will be maintained over time.

I thank all the people who came to the committee and contributed. I thank the staff in the secretariat, who assisted in the preparation of the report, and the Cathaoirleach and members of the committee, who contributed so well. I thank Coalition 2030 and Social justice Ireland. Social Justice Ireland prepares a report each year, the sustainable progress index, which is very useful in holding our feet to the flames on the progress we are making.

The current national implementation plan for the SDGs expires in 2024. I would like the Minister of State to ask the Minister, Deputy Ryan, what plans are in place to ensure we have continuity of the plan.

I think this process was useful. It is something we can improve on next year. As an iterative process, it will make the Departments pay attention if they know they have to report on this every year. I thank committee members for the engagement we had in this process. I hope we see other committees engage and complete this process in the same way we have.