Introduction and purpose

Speaking to the purpose of an earlier private member’s bill with a similar aim, Lord Bird said:

There is a growing consensus that it is time to shift to a longer-term, preventative approach to policymaking. This involves adopting new ways of thinking, planning, and budgeting to ensure that the needs of future generations are respected and taken into account at all levels of government.

Inspired by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, my bill is focused on how—by working together—citizens, government, public bodies and business can improve the UK’s environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing. The bill aims to embed sustainability and prevention at the heart of Britain’s democratic process as part of transforming how persistent problems—including poverty, inequality, and the climate crisis—are approached and tackled.

It includes new duties on public bodies, government and (certain) companies to work towards the realisation of a series of national wellbeing goals, in addition to creating the post of a UK future generations commissioner and a joint committee on future generations, in an effort to centralise the needs of current and future generations at the centre of public, parliamentary and governmental decision making.

Key provisions

The bill consists of 44 clauses and 2 schedules, in 6 parts. Part 1 (clause 1) summarises the other parts.

Part 2 (clauses 2 to 15 and schedule 1) introduces the following concepts:

  • “sustainable development”: defined as “the process of improving the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of the United Kingdom by taking action, in accordance with the future generations principle, aimed at achieving the wellbeing goals”;
  • the “future generations principle”: defined as “acting in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”; and
  • “wellbeing goals”: to be determined by a public consultation exercise.

Part 2 would also impose various duties on public bodies, which are defined generally as “any body or person that carries out functions of public administration” or is under the control of such a body. For example, such bodies would need to carry out sustainable development and publish, and report on, wellbeing goals. A public body proposing changes to policy, tax or public spending would need to provide a “future generations impact assessment”, setting out the likely implications of the proposals for its wellbeing objectives.

The Government would also be required to set measurable national wellbeing objectives and publish an annual report on progress towards meeting them.

Part 3 (clauses 16 and 17) would require the Government to publish a “futures and forecasting report”. This would consider “long-term future trends concerning the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of the UK”. In compiling the report, the Government would be required to engage systematically with younger people (ages 11 to 25).

Part 3 would also require public bodies to produce an annual draft budget, including spending aimed at mitigating risks to the future generations principle.

Part 4 (clauses 18 to 23) sets out the oversight roles envisaged for various existing and new public bodies. These are as follows:

  • The National Audit Office (NAO) would be empowered to carry out examinations of public bodies, assessing their actions against the wellbeing goals and the future generations principle, and report the results.
  • The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) would have a wider remit, to consider the extent to which the national wellbeing indicators have been, or are likely to be, achieved. It would also be required to publish a “future generations risk assessment” on an ad hoc basis.
  • A new joint committee on future generations would be established. The committee would be permitted to examine any bill “with a long-term perspective” to assess its impact on future generations. The committee could also initiate inquiries and would participate in the appointment of the future generations commissioner. It would be required to produce annual reports.

Part 5 (clauses 24 to 40 and schedules 1 and 2) contains various proposals for promoting good practice around future generations’ wellbeing. First, it would establish a “future generations commission” and commissioner for the UK. The commission’s general duty would be to promote the future generations principle and act as a “guardian of the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. In doing so, it would be required to engage with the public and public bodies.

The commission would be able to carry out reviews of public bodies and apply for court orders to compel specified remedial actions. It would also be required to publish reports on progress towards the wellbeing goals. It would be advised by a “citizens panel” and an “expert panel” and would need to consult widely before publishing reports.

In addition to the commission, the bill would require a minister in each government department to have a new duty to promote the future generations principle.

Part 6 (clauses 41 to 44) contains final provisions. These include a power for the secretary of state to make regulations introducing additional measures. They set out that the bill extends to the whole of the UK. They also state the bill would come into force six months after it was passed.

International comparisons

Welsh act

As mentioned in the introduction to this briefing, Lord Bird cited the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 as an inspiration for his previous bill in this area. The Welsh Parliament’s research service, Senedd Research, described the aims of the act as:

To put sustainable development at the centre of decision making, and […] to ensure actions meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Amongst other provisions, the act requires public bodies to set and publish objectives that demonstrate how they are promoting a “sustainable development principle”. The Welsh act has a more precise definition of public body than Lord Bird’s bill, listing twelve categories (such as local health boards) and institutions (such as the National Library of Wales). The act also established a commissioner for future generations in Wales. The first commissioner, Sophie Howe, was appointed in 2016. The act specifies that the commissioner has a set term of seven years.

In March 2021, the Welsh Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee published a review of the 2015 act. It concluded that “inconsistent leadership and slow culture change are failing the aspirations” of the act. It particularly criticised a lack of culture change in public bodies. However, it found that the commissioner for future generations has “developed a positive public profile and […] effectively promoted and raised awareness of the act”. The review made 14 recommendations, including that the commissioner should prioritise working with public bodies and that the Welsh Government should carry out a review of which public bodies are subject to the act.

The commissioner’s most recent report also stressed the need for culture change in public bodies. It suggested that the Welsh Government was showing a “lack of integrated thinking”. For example, it said the Government was introducing “new guidance, policy, legislation and reviews that overlook the act and create new layers of complexity and governance”.

A May 2020 review by the Auditor-General for Wales said that the Welsh Government had not sufficiently resourced the implementation of the act. It recommended that the Welsh Government and Parliament should conduct post-legislative scrutiny of the act.

Other international arrangements

In the UK, there is also a ‘futures forum’ in Scotland, established as a Scottish Parliament thinktank working on a non-party basis. There is no UK-wide equivalent, although future generations have been mentioned in several government policies and plans.

Worldwide, countries including Finland, Hungary, Singapore, and Israel have introduced formal representation of future generations into policymaking.

House of Lords debates on future generations

Lord Bird introduced a previous private member’s bill on the same subject in the 2019–21 session. Responding to the second reading debate, held on 13 June 2020, the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, Lord True, said the Government did not support the bill. He agreed that a duty to future generations should be a “guiding and embedded spirit” as far as possible in policy development. However, he raised several concerns about the bill, such as:

  • The power given to the commissioner;
  • the creation of a new public body or bodies; and
  • the potential impact on companies.

Lord True stated the Government must “examine” the Welsh system. He also pointed to steps being taken to achieve the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 as an example of considering future generations in policymaking.

For the Opposition, Lord Collins of Highbury supported the bill. He noted that the 2019 Labour Party manifesto had included a commitment to a “Future Generations Wellbeing Act”.

The bill did not progress further than its second reading.

Previously, in June 2019, Lord Bird introduced a House of Lords debate on the “case for better protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policymaking”. The Library’s briefing for the debate contains an extended discussion of the areas covered in this article. The briefing, and the Hansard record of the debate, can be found at:

House of Lords committee on intergenerational fairness

The House of Lords Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee published its final report in April 2019. Its conclusions concerning future generations included:

  • Governments should plan better for the long-term, such as by modelling the generational effects of policies and improving data.
  • Spending reviews should be less short-term and more transparent.
  • There should be a new fiscal rule on the whole government balance sheet, including consideration of “the Government’s generational balance of debt and assets”.
  • The Government should produce intergenerational impact assessments for all draft legislation.

The Government’s response to the report in July 2019 agreed that “fully considering the long-term implications of our policies is important”. In response to the recommendation for intergenerational impact assessments, the Government said that the green book methodology (see below) ensured that “where relevant, the costs and benefits of an intervention to future generations are fully captured”.

Current government policy

Environment Bill

The Environment Bill is a government bill that contains various provisions aimed at improving the environment. It has completed its Commons stages and received its second reading in the House of Lords on 7 June 2021.

Provisions in the bill include requiring the Government to publish a “policy statement on environmental principles”. This must contribute to “sustainable development”, which the explanatory notes describe as:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs […] When using the policy statement, Ministers of the Crown will consider the needs of future generations.

The Library’s briefing prior to the second reading debate covers the bill in more detail.

In the bill’s second reading debate in the Lords, several members spoke about the importance of protecting the environment for the benefit of future generations.

Changes to the ‘green book’

In December 2020, the Government revised its ‘green book’, which provides guidance on public sector appraisals and evaluations in the UK. The book describes a discounting process, in which the cost and benefits of policies in future years are converted to a value in today’s money using a ‘discount rate’. This means future sums are worth less, in today’s terms, than benefits and costs arising now. Academics have argued that this process “builds intergenerational inequity into the policy appraisal process”.

HM Treasury has previously recognised the standard discounting technique may not be appropriate for projects with long time effects. It said these raise “fundamental ethical issues concerning the responsibility of the current generation to future generations”. The December 2020 revisions to the green book made some changes to discount rates. However, the review that led to the revisions was concerned that such adjustments still do not adequately allow for environmental effects. It therefore announced a further expert review of discount rates, to report in 2021 (no further date has been specified).

Academic theory

University of York professors Hilary Graham and Piran White have suggested that “how future generations are represented in policymaking is one of the biggest questions of our time”. They said that the “standard approach” to policymaking prioritises the interests of current citizens, particularly in democracies, because existing citizens can vote. In addition, Harvard academic Dennis Thompson has argued that future generations should be explicitly considered in policymaking, for example because current policies can have large and irreversible effects in the future.

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