The middle of a global health emergency is a strange moment to be introducing a Parliamentary Bill that focuses on the needs of future generations.
But I believe it’s a very appropriate one. It is times like this when we ask ourselves: “What could we have done differently to prevent this from happening? And how can we stop something like this from ever happening again?”
Today, those questions are about the coronavirus pandemic. But we face other dangers too. Not only the threat of pandemics, but the climate emergency and catastrophic biodiversity loss. We need to work harder to predict and prepare for those risks too.
When democratic governments are invariably focused on election cycles of only four or five years, it’s not surprising that crises, which appear to be over the horizon are too often ignored. The present always takes priority over the future.
But the decisions taken today shape that future and it is time that the wellbeing of future generations was hardwired into today’s policymaking. That is why, last month, I introduced the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill into the House of Commons.
While I am the Bill’s sponsor in the Commons, it was earlier introduced into the House of Lords by John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, who has been a champion of the campaign to “act today for tomorrow” and respect the needs of future generations.
Our Bill has the backing of more than 70 MPs representing all the major political parties in the UK and every one of our four nations.
That suggests to me that we politicians know, in our hearts and in our heads, that the way we make policy and pass legislation does not adequately prioritise the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.
There are plenty of examples of where we are going wrong: poverty, regional inequality, environmental degradation, the overconsumption of finite resources. But the most obvious is the climate crisis with decades of delay between today’s emissions and the full impacts of the heating it’s causing. The glacial pace of climate action shows economies and political systems the world over failing to value future lives and failing to cherish the wellbeing of future generations, in the manner they deserve.
The inspiration for the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill comes from very close to home. It builds on the pioneering Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act passed by the Welsh Assembly in 2015.
That was the first legislation anywhere in the world to enshrine in law a duty on public bodies to safeguard the wellbeing of future generations.
It created a ‘Commissioner for Future Generations’, responsible for promoting sustainable development, giving future generations a voice in today’s decision-making.
Our Bill similarly creates an independent commissioner for the whole of the UK to represent those who cannot yet represent themselves, empowering the Commissioner to bring legal proceedings against a public body that is failing to fulfil its wellbeing duties.
We go further, too, by requiring the government to publish national indicators that measure progress towards wellbeing goals and report annually to Parliament, and introducing a duty on all non-devolved public bodies to balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future.
We would also require companies above a certain size to consider how their activities relate to the wellbeing of the UK.
This Bill is not a panacea, but it is a start and sets us off in the right direction by enshrining long-term thinking at the heart of decision-making.
So when we rebuild our society on the other side of this pandemic, we should do so with greater consideration than ever to future generations, and with an unshakeable commitment to building an economy and society that works for everyone – now and for the future.
Caroline Lucas is Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion and is a former leader of the Green Party.