Why we need a Committee for Future Generations in the House of Lords

88q98 (1)The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development has proposed that the House of Lords establish a Committee for Future Generations to review legislation. It is hoped that such a body would reduce the short-termism that can creep into legislative and executive decision-making. Graham Smith explains why this Committee is needed and how it could work in practice.

The problem of short-termism in democratic politics is well understood. Psychologically, we all tend to prioritise more immediate concerns over long term considerations. Our electoral cycles of four to five years mean that politicians and political parties typically think in those timescales. Long-term issues are often complex and thus are difficult to deal with in the policy silos of government. Future generations by definition are not present and thus have no direct representation within decision making processes.

Some of the most challenging issues we face run against these tendencies, requiring us to take a long-term perspective and consider the interests of future generations. Rapid technological development, inter-generational economic opportunity, welfare and social care provision, or environmental challenges such as climate change all fit into ‘the too difficult box – the big issues that politicians can’t crack’ identified by former Labour minister Charles Clarke. The problem of ‘short-termism’ in politics was explored in detail by the international Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations in its 2013 report, Now for the Long Term. The Commission recommended that, as a matter of urgency, governments invest in ‘innovative institutions… independent of the short-term pressures facing governments of the day but appropriately accountable to the political system in question.’ Such institutions ‘should be charged with conducting systematic reviews and analysis of longer-term issues.’

We are beginning to see a number of democracies develop innovative institutions and practices to promote consideration of future generations amongst policy makers. These take different forms. Many new democracies have included clauses protecting future generations and, in some cases, non-human nature in their constitutions. We have also seen the creation of independent bodies such as the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner (now a less powerful Deputy Commissioner) that took on ombudsman functions, responding to complaints from the public where there was evidence that the constitutional protection of future generations and the environment had been abused. More recently, in 2016 the Commissioner for Future Generations in Wales was created to oversee the activities of public bodies and boards and publish a Future Generations Report in the run up to Welsh elections. Taking a different approach, Finland and Germany have both created parliamentary committees with responsibility for considering long-term issues and sustainability respectively.

Advocates for the protection of future generations have exploited different windows of opportunity within the different political systems and contexts. In Wales, for example, the opportunity to create the Commissioner for Future Generations emerged from the duty to promote sustainable development in the Government of Wales Act that devolved powers to the Welsh Assembly in 1999. The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 that established the Commissioner was the eventual legislative realisation of that duty.

The windows of opportunity are different at UK level. There seems little appetite for a new independent body. The nearest equivalent – the Sustainable Development Commission – was abolished as part of the bonfire of the QUANGOs under David Cameron.

But there are aspects of the structure of UK governance that are particularly well suited to embodying consideration of the long term and the interests of future generations: namely the House of Lords. Whatever one thinks of the upper house in democratic terms, its role and composition mean that it is not subject to the same electoral pressures as the House of Commons. It is well placed to think long-term and often prides itself in doing so. The most recent example is the report of the ad hoc Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence published in April which received widespread praise. A new ad hoc Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision has recently been established and will report in March 2019.

While these are welcome developments and indicate the capacity and expertise present in the House of Lords to undertake such significant reviews, the ad hoc nature of the committees is an obvious weakness. Around four ad hoc committees are created by the Liaison Committee each year following applications from peers. In the first instance, then, the treatment of long-term issues is very much left to the discretion of the Liaison Committee. A successful ad hoc committee will typically sit for around a year, taking evidence and developing significant expertise but on publication of its report, the committee disperses. There is no body within the Lords that then holds the government and other actors to account to respond to recommendations or which is able to act strategically and draw lessons from across different reviews and reports. The danger is that the expertise and insight that is generated is dissipated too quickly.

This situation could change. In 2018, the Liaison Committee announced that for the first time in 25 years, it was to review the structure and function of committees in the second chamber. The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) saw that as an opportunity to propose a new permanent Committee for Future Generations to bring long-term thinking more systematically and strategically into the workings of parliament: a committee charged with reviewing future challenges, as well as scrutinising existing and proposed legislation for its long-term impact. More precisely, the Committee would have three functions:

  • The Committee should be able to select, from current and draft legislation, bills that it would scrutinise with a long-term perspective, considering the impact on future generations, and then suggest amendments to protect future generations’ interests. These amendments would then be considered by the Lords at Committee Stage.

  • The Committee should also conduct its own reviews, in the manner of a select committee inquiry. It should focus on topics that it believes are not being properly addressed elsewhere in parliament. Again, it would provide a long-term perspective and consider the interests of future generations.

  • The Committee should produce an annual report on long-term trends, with recommendations for how parliament and government should respond, in terms of both policies and processes for investigation, assessment and decision making. This report would be debated in both Houses of Parliament.

The House of Lords is particularly concerned with its capacity to engage the broader public in its work. The Committee for Future Generations would be well placed to instigate much needed public engagement and national conversations on critical issues with long-term impacts that are fundamental to creating a post-Brexit vision for the UK.

From a standing start, FDSD was able to garner support from over 30 peers before submitting its evidence to the Liaison Committee for consideration. It was interesting to see that other evidence submitted to the Committee also raised the need for improved consideration of long-term issues and the interests of future generations.

The Committee for Future Generations should not be seen as an institutional ‘silver bullet’ for dealing with short-termism. But it may be an important next step. It is now in the hands of the Liaison Committee as to whether this piece of the institutional puzzle of how best to protect the interests of future generations is realised.

About the author

Graham Smith is Chair of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development and Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster.

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