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Wellbeing of Future Generations

Volume 674: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for requiring public bodies to act in pursuit of the United Kingdom’s environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing by meeting wellbeing objectives, publishing future generations impact assessments, accounting for preventative spending, and through public services contracts; to establish a Commissioner for Future Generations for the United Kingdom; to establish a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Future Generations; to require companies to consider the impact of their activities on the United Kingdom’s wellbeing; and for connected purposes.

It is a great honour to introduce the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill today. I pay tribute to the Bill’s co-sponsors, the indefatigable Lord Bird and everyone who has been involved in the Today for Tomorrow campaign so far. I wish that I was introducing the Bill in very different circumstances, but I am confident that hon. Members can see that it does not conflict with our immediate priorities, which are rightly elsewhere. Indeed, at times like this, it is only human to ask, “What could we have done differently to prevent this from happening? How can we stop something like this ever happening again?” Our common interests, our connectivity to one another and our compassion are all burning bright in an otherwise dark moment. Acting today for tomorrow is as relevant now as it will ever be.

As we wrote yesterday, as co-sponsors of the Bill, in a letter published in The Guardian:

“It is essential to deal with coronavirus as it is—a global emergency—but it is clear we must work harder to predict and prepare for the existential risks we face. Not only the threat of pandemics, but the climate crisis”

too. That is the nub of the Today for Tomorrow campaign. It is backed not just by all the sponsors of the wellbeing of future generations Bill, but by over 70 MPs in total and many in the other place who spoke eloquently in favour of its proposals.

The future generations Bill is also gaining support from across civil society, my constituents and, I am sure, from many others as well. It all suggests that the desire to be better ancestors is incredibly strong. To me, it also suggests that we know in our hearts and in our heads that the way that we currently make policy and legislation does not adequately prioritise the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.

When we are rebuilding on the other side of this pandemic, we can choose to do so with greater consideration than ever to future generations, with stronger compassion for every person and their wellbeing, and with an unshakeable commitment to building an economy and society that works for everyone now and for the future. It is these values of compassion and consideration, co-operation and courage that hold us together in times of disaster, and the same values are at the heart of this Bill, which it wants to centre in our politics at all times.

We are all aware of the pressures that regular election cycles place on decision makers to pursue policies that show benefits quickly and the difficulty that that can add in addressing longer-term challenges. The climate crisis is an obvious example, with decades of delay between today’s emissions and the full impacts of their heating. The glacial pace of climate action shows that economies and political systems the world over are failing to value future lives and, indeed, the wellbeing of current generations in the manner they deserve. Last month, a landmark report from the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and The Lancet found that no single country is sufficiently protecting children’s health, their environment and their futures. That index, which compares performance on issues from child flourishing to greenhouse gas emissions and equity, finds that countries the world over are failing the next generation. We can and must do better than this. The same is true in other areas, including poverty, regional inequality, environmental degradation and the over-consumption of finite resources. Each of these have their impacts today, but each also harms the health, means and opportunities of tomorrow.

The concept of our obligations to future generations is not new; it exists in every political tradition. It can transcend party politics. The Big Issue’s Today for Tomorrow campaign has secured pledges from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the former leader of the Lib Dems, the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of Plaid Cymru. I hope that the Prime Minister will therefore ensure that this Bill continues its journey through the House in due course. The Bill’s co-sponsors represent all the major UK political parties and every one of our four nations. Initiatives to put wellbeing at the heart of decision making can be found in many countries around the world. New Zealand’s wellbeing budget, led by its Treasury, invests billions in tackling deep-rooted social problems, including child poverty, mental health issues and family violence. Different approaches can be found from Gibraltar to Ghana, and from Malta to many other places, but inspiration for this Bill was found closer to home.

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, passed by the Senedd in that year, was pioneering. It was the first legislation in the world to enshrine in law a duty on public bodies to safeguard the wellbeing of future generations. It created the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, who is responsible for promoting sustainable development. The commissioner, Sophie Howe, gives future generations the voice they currently lack here, and her recent progress report shows that the legislation is making a real difference. Our Bill, similarly, would create an independent commissioner for the whole of the UK, to represent those who cannot yet represent themselves. It would empower the commissioner to bring legal proceedings against a public body that is failing to fulfil its wellbeing duties. It is important to say that the Bill has carefully considered the Welsh experience and taken on the lessons learned, so that it is even stronger legislation, set out to be even more effective. For example it would strengthen the duty ensuring that wellbeing objectives are actually met.

In addition to the independent UK commissioner for future generations, I wish to highlight a few of the other key provisions in the Bill. It contains: a duty on the Secretary of State to publish national indicators that measure progress towards wellbeing goals and report annually to Parliament; a duty on all non-devolved public bodies to balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future; a requirement on companies of medium size and above to consider how their activities relate to the wellbeing of the UK; provisions for the establishment of a joint parliamentary Committee for the future, to scrutinise legislation for its effect on future generations, to hold Ministers to account for short-term decision making and to report on future trends; and a requirement on public bodies to report on and seek to increase their preventive expenditure.

A study from Scotland illustrates the importance of preventive spending, finding that 40% of all public spending was devoted annually to alleviating social problems and tackling “failure demand”—demand that could have been avoided had earlier preventive measures been put in place. It would be insightful if the Government could provide an equivalent figure for England. Another study, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that poverty costs Britain £78 billion a year, with £1 in every £5 of Government spending making up for the way in which poverty damages people’s lives.

In conclusion, I am acutely aware that this Bill is concerned with preventive spending and the next generation when an urgent crisis is facing this one, yet as we have seen in the response of communities across the country, emergencies can bring out the best in us, and give us a common focus and a common purpose. The author Rebecca Solnit says that disasters give us

“a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

So, with the eyes of future generations upon us, this Bill presents Parliament with an opportunity to act today, for tomorrow. This Bill is not a panacea but it might just help us head in the right direction, by enshrining long-term thinking and the voices of future generations at the heart of decision making, precisely where they belong.

Question put and agreed to.


That Caroline Lucas, Bambos Charalambous, Simon Fell, Dr Philippa Whitford, Wera Hobhouse, Liz Saville Roberts, Claire Hanna, Abena Oppong-Asare, Bob Blackman, Anna McMorrin, Kevin Hollinrake and Alex Sobel present the Bill.

Caroline Lucas accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 September, and to be printed (Bill 124).