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Future Generations

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 26 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Young of Cookham on 26 November 2018 (HL11361), by what means, if at all, they require public bodies to act, and to demonstrate how they act, in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present generation are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

My Lords, public bodies operate in the context of an overall framework of government policies and guidance that ensure financial and environmental sustainability. Fiscal rules implemented have meant that the Government are forecast to meet their fiscal targets early, with debt falling as a proportion of GDP in 2020-21, reducing the burden on future generations. Government guidance, such as the Green Book, ensures that public bodies consider monetisable and unmonetisable value, including environmental impacts on air, water and climate change.

It is interesting that today we have a “The Time is Now” demonstration outside; it is interesting to us all to realise that we are moving towards many big problems. The thing about the Welsh commission—which I am very pleased the Government want to look at—is that it tries to bring together poverty, education and so on, so that we can look at the problems coming down the line. I would like the Minister to agree to meet me so that we can look at what has happened over the last five years with the Welsh commission. I am guilty of banging on about the Welsh; I am not a Welshman, but I do love this Act.

The noble Lord refers to the future generations Act, which is operational in Wales and which we are following with interest. As he said, it imposes obligations to achieve certain objectives in Wales. Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe is charged with monitoring the implementation of the proposals. To some extent we are replicating that approach in the environmental Bill to be published later this year, which will set up an office for environmental protection to monitor progress towards our environmental objectives, with powers to impose sanctions against public bodies that do not follow them. So far as a meeting is concerned, I first met the noble Lord in 1991, when he was launching the Big Issue and I was Housing Minister. That was an agreeable encounter, and I am sure the next one will be as well.

My Lords, it has been a real privilege today—as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, mentioned—to spend time with some of the 16,000 people, many of them young, representing all faiths and none, who have come to say to Parliament that the time is now on climate change. I very much support the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Bird. Does the Minister agree that the issues of climate change, both in the material sense and the perceived sense—public opinion—are absolutely the pressing priority for the future generation? Following the commendable adoption of the net zero by 2050 target, will the Minister share with the House what the Government’s next three priorities are in combating climate change?

It was interesting that in the debate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, initiated last Thursday, climate change was one of the top priorities of Members of your Lordships’ House, so it is not solely an issue for the younger generation. The right reverend Prelate asks what our priorities are. Last year we published our 25-year environmental plan and later this year, a Bill will put a legislative framework round that. I agree that the greatest betrayal for this generation would be to pass on to the next generation a planet in worse condition than it currently is. Our objectives are to drive up air quality, reduce plastic waste and food waste, ban the sale of ivory and conserve energy. The environmental Bill, to be introduced later this year, will explain how we will take those objectives forward.

My Lords, we will be happy to have the noble Lord, Lord Bird, as an honorary Welshman, particularly after last Thursday’s debate. In the wind-up to that debate reference was made—the Minister has made it again today—to the five-year review for Wales. The Government said that they would wait to see the outcome of that review. As it will be another couple of years before that comes out, can the Minister give a commitment that the Government will treat issues such as the carbon targets with great urgency, and can they link up to find out what lessons have already been learnt in Wales in that regard?

The noble Lord makes a helpful suggestion. There will be an opportunity later today to debate the net zero carbon emissions policy under the SI. The remit for the commissioner in Wales is slightly broader than just climate change. However, the elements that relate to climate change can be transposed, as I said earlier, into the environmental Bill, with an office not dissimilar to that of the Future Generations Commissioner in the Office for Environmental Protection, which will have roughly the same remit as Sophie Howe has in Wales.

My Lords, one way of ensuring that public bodies think about future generations is to ensure that they hear their voices. Today’s 16 year-olds are the parents of babies born in 2037, who will themselves vote in 2055. Is not the best way of ensuring that decision-makers consider future generations to give 16 and 17 year-olds the vote, both in any referendum and in electing the people who govern the country?

I understand the noble Baroness’s proposition. She will know that the current position of this Government is not to extend votes to 16 year-olds—but who knows what may happen in the future?

My Lords, can I give the Government a good idea? Perhaps they will think about strengthening the Youth Parliament, because young people are clearly politicised and want the Government to do something. If we strengthened the Youth Parliament and gave it a more constitutional role, the Government could hear from it directly and in a more co-operative way.

I am a great fan of the Youth Parliament and when I was in the other place I attended some of its sessions there. It gives young people an opportunity to taste public life and I hope that many of its members will go on to become Members of Parliament. Perhaps I may reflect on the broader issue the noble Baroness raises about whether we might give more powers to the Youth Parliament. It is a helpful and positive suggestion.

My Lords, is not part of the problem of short-term policy-making, when we should have long-term thinking, that the ministerial churn is enormous? A number of senior ministerial posts are on their third postholder since 2015 and are expecting a fourth within the next four to six weeks. The noble Lord is an absolute pillar of the example of long-term postholding in government. Does he have any recommendations to make about how we may shift from this constant change of ministerial office to a longer-term prospectus?

The noble Lord makes a valid suggestion. I was a Minister 40 years ago and since then I have been churned many times, often against my will. The noble Lord makes a serious point. It takes time to come to terms with a portfolio and then to develop one’s own priorities and initiatives. It is demoralising, just when one has discovered one’s responsibilities and what one wants to do, when one gets the call from No. 10 to say that one’s talents have been recognised but need to be deployed elsewhere. It is right that Ministers should spend at least two years in the same position. However, it may not always be possible—as next month may show.