Tackling the big issues both the UK and the world are facing, such as the climate crisis and poverty, requires long-term thinking that is at odds with the five-year election cycle and that’s where the Future Generations Bill comes in.
Decisions made by the politicians in power today will have huge consequences not only for society today but also for the future generations that follow.
Lord John Bird’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill – the bill’s full title – is aiming to ensure future generations are considered in those actions. Here’s everything you need to know about the bill.
What is the Future Generations Bill?
The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill is a private member’s bill, which means it is a piece of legislation being brought through parliament by a peer or MP who is not part of government.
The Big Issue’s founder Lord John Bird, who has been a crossbench peer since 2015, is bringing the draft legislation through the House of Lords. A co-sponsor to introduce the bill to the House of Commons is still to be confirmed.
The bills’ main goal is to ensure public bodies make decisions that consider future generations by setting wellbeing targets.
What is in the Future Generations Bill?
The draft legislation currently lays out plans for a public consultation to set national wellbeing goals – measures of how the country is faring in terms of environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing.
Public bodies, including government departments, will then be held accountable on how they hit those goals. The bodies will be required to carry out impact assessments and account for preventative spending to stop future generations being affected by issues that could have been avoided.
The bill also aims to establish a Future Generations Commission to assess progress as well as extending the duty of the Office of Budget Responsibility to consider wellbeing and the future generations principle in their work.
A minister in each government department’s portfolio will also be required to “promote the future” and a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Future Generations must also be set up if the bill makes it into force unamended.
Private member’s bills are proposed laws introduced by an MP or peer from outside of government – but very few make it into law without government support. They can start in either the House of Commons or House of Lords but must go through both houses and clear five stages of scrutiny to clear each house. The first reading just requires the member in charge to read the bill’s long title before MPs or peers get a chance to debate the bill and suggest amendments at the second reading.
The committee stage follows, with a detailed line-by-line analysis of the written bill. The report stage is next where the bill is discussed further and reprinted to include all amendments. The third reading is the final stage, allowing MPs and peers one last chance to debate and amend the bill. If the bill passes all these stages it must then repeat them in the other house. Both houses must be in agreement before the Queen can give the legislation royal assent to make it law.
Where is the Future Generations Bill up to?
The current bid to get the Future Generations Bill into the law is the third time it has been introduced in parliament.
The Future Generations Bill made its debut in the House of Lords in October 2019 but the last general election curbed its progress. After restarting in the Commons in March 2020 the pandemic put private member’s bills on hold until the Queen’s Speech in May 2021, but the new parliamentary session paved the way for the bill to be reintroduced in Westminster.
The bill started its third attempt at making it into law during the current parliamentary session on May 20 when it was given a first reading in the House of Lords. This time around, the bill was the first to be drawn in the Lords’ ballot, securing priority status for the limited parliamentary time available to debate private members’ bills.
The Future Generations Bill is currently more than halfway through its journey into law. The bill has made its way through the House of Lords and now must do the same in the Commons before it can enter the statute book.
Peers approved the bill at its third reading on February 4 and a second reading is now due to be heard in the House of Commons in March with Conservative MP Simon Fell co-sponsoring the bill.
Speaking following the third reading in the Lords, Lord Bird said: “It’s a momentous day for our younger and future generations and I am pleased and proud that the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill has reached its third reading.
“To get to this stage is no small feat, and goes to show the breadth of support this legislation has. The reach of the bill is already being felt, with the government’s recent levelling up white paper placing the wellbeing of young people and future generations at the heart of its agenda.”
However, progress through the Commons is likely to be a tougher challenge than in the Lords. Speaking at the bill’s second reading, Lord Nicholas True, the minister representing the Cabinet Office told the chamber that the UK government is “sceptical”.
Lord True said: “I welcome very much the tone of the debate but I won’t be able, on behalf of the government, to support the mechanism.”
It is rare for a private member’s bill to make it into law without the full support of the government.
What has Lord Bird said about the bill? Who else supports it?
The Future Generations Bill is part of Lord Bird’s lifelong mission to abolish poverty and to usher in a greater focus on prevention in society.
Writing in The Big Issue, Lord Bird said: “The future generations legislation that we propose in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill will put dynamite under the accumulating bad practices that savage us later. That is the only sensible thing. We cannot keep projecting into the future the poor practices of the past, making us behave in a way that illustrates we were not conscious in the past of the demands that would be put upon us in the future.
At the last General Election, The Big Issue asked candidates from across the country to sign up to a Future Generations Pledge, asking politicians to back the bill and respect the needs of future generations. More than 600 candidates from across the political spectrum, including current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, took the pledge.
Green MP Caroline Lucas has also been a long-time supporter of the bill and co-sponsored the draft legislation on its second attempt to make it through the House of Commons before Covid-19 prevented its progress.
Barrow MP Simon Fell is championing the bill in the House of Commons for its third bid. He introduced the draft legislation as a presentation bill on June 21. MPs are currently awaiting their first chance to debate the legislation at the bill’s second reading, which is currently scheduled to go ahead in March 2022.
Fell said: “Our bill helps to bolster the work already underway by Government including the levelling-up agenda, Build Back Better as well as the net zero carbon by 2050 strategy. This is clearly a great solution to some of their most ambitious policy agendas.”
Scientists have also backed the bill. Gisela Abbam, chair of the British Science Association, penned a column for The Big Issue urging the UK government to bring a Future Generations Act into law.
Abbam said: “As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic we must ready ourselves for the next challenge and we must ensure that we can all meet that challenge together. If we return to the way things were, we will have failed – not only ourselves, but future generations too.”
The ideas behind the bill have also resonated with voters, according to a poll carried out by Portland Communications and commissioned by The Big Issue’s Today for Tomorrow campaign. The 1,500-person study found 69 per cent of the public want the government to do more to plan and prepare for long-term threats.
Crucially, that impact was also felt among swing voters in traditional ‘red wall’ Labour voters, many of whom turned to the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election. Almost three quarters of swing voters got behind the bill’s approach to long-term thinking in the poll.
The recent Levelling Up white paper has sparked debate about efforts to boost wellbeing in the long-term around the UK and the Future Generations Bill could play a role in improving prospects.
Lord Mike Watson, Labour’s Lords education spokesperson, said the bill could fix a short-sightedness around the levelling up agenda in a roundtable event hosted by Lord Bird in February 2022.
He said: “The Levelling Up White Paper goes to 2030, that’s not nearly far enough. That’s why Lord Bird’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill is needed.”
Do any other countries have a Future Generations Bill?
The pioneering Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is perhaps the most influential and well-known example. The Welsh bill inspired Lord Bird’s UK equivalent and came into force in 2016.
While Future Generations Commissioner for Wales Sophie Howe doesn’t have the legal power to force public bodies to comply with wellbeing targets but she has been an influential voice during the pandemic. Lord Bird’s Westminster version of the bill hopes to bring more legal powers.
Scotland has announced plans to create its own Future Generations Act and appoint a future generations commissioner. The plans were announced at the Programme for Government with minister for zero carbon buildings, active travel and tenants’ rights Patrick Harvie tasked with overseeing the role.
Harvie met with Howe while the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales was in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit to share expertise on how future generations legislation can be developed in Scotland. Following the meeting, Harvie tweeted: “Scotland has a lot to learn as we follow in your footsteps.”
UN officials announced they would establish a Declaration of Future Generations as well as appointing a special envoy and will hold a Futures Summit in 2023.
“Our vision for a UN Special Envoy for Future Generations is inspired by the progress being made in some countries around the world, including Wales, which demonstrates that it is possible to legislate and take action to put the interest of future generations at the heart of government,” said Jayathma Wickramanayake, United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.
How can you support the Future Generations Bill?
Alongside Lord Bird’s bill, The Big Issue is running a campaign called Today for Tomorrow. For more information on how to get involved, head to the Today for Tomorrow website.
The campaign has seen the launch of the UK’s first Future Generations Commission, bringing together an expert and a young person from each of the four nations in the UK to promote the principles of the bill to the general public and to the government.