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How can Britain protect the interests of future generations?

It's time for the UK to take responsibility for her long term future. This means changing the constitution to inscribe long term interests into decision making. But how?

Democratic accountability is necessarily short term. In the UK, the political system, premised on a four or five year electoral cycle, prioritises short-term electoral and economic demands over long-term inter-generational equity. Rapid communications, media pressure for sensation, and the complexity of modern government give policymakers little time for reflection. The financial system is hyper-sensitive to short term, speculative, considerations.

Issues of vital concern to future generations receive cursory consideration. The pressures that create the problem prevent it being adequately addressed.  

These factors build a compelling case for a constitutional mechanism to inscribe long term interests into decision making. Such a device would help elected politicians resist populist demands that ignore future interests. Historically, long-term interests have been the niche of the House of Lords. But the Lords Spiritual and hereditary Peers lack democratic credibility. They represent the power structures of Dickensian England.  

One proposal is for a reformed second chamber, with the power to block measures that threaten the long term public good. But there are problems in principle - and practice. If unelected, it would be a barrier to democratic authority. It could only be introduced by a self–denying ordinance of the House of Commons giving up its sovereign power. The Deputy Prime Minster’ vision is of an elected chamber Senate of 300 Senators serving fifteen year terms, a third elected every five years. But an elected chamber would replicate the political DNA of the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrat plans have now been diluted to increase numbers and retain 20% appointed members.   

Rupert Read has suggested a third chamber or 'national super-jury.' His 'Guardians for future generations' report will be launched in the House of Commons today (see here for details). The 'super-jury' would, he proposes, have the power of veto over existing legislation. But selection by lot is no more a guarantor of wisdom than is accident of aristocratic birth. Some jurors may be wise. Others may be feckless. Such constitutional change would require the assent of Parliament. It is an axiom of constitutional theory that Parliament cannot bind its successors. 

In seeking to represent long term interests may be we need to learn from other jurisdictions.

In 1993 Finland’s unicameral Parliament set up a parliamentary ‘Committee of the Future’ (Tulevaisuusvaliokunta) on and ad hoc basis. Seven years later it became a permanent feature of the constitution. The Committee conducts dialogues with the Prime Minister’s office and government on any foreseeable long term issues affecting their work. In its second year of office, the government produces a ‘future report’. This provides a perspective from which to judge its four-year programme. Such reports have included climate change, energy policy, demography and technological development. This ‘future report’ is examined by the Future Committee and other select committees. The Future Committee then drafts a response which it submits to the Parliament. Once approved, the revised response provides the basis for Parliament’s appraisal of forthcoming decisions and legislation. 

In Hungary, Sandor Fulup, the Ombudsman for Future generations has been a pioneer of long term thinking since 2007.  Sadly the New Constitution, introduced on January 1st, downgrades his role to becoming a deputy to the main Ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s office has had overlapping functions. It responds to public complaints and provides alternatives to legal remedies. It advises Parliament and conducts research and advocacy around environmental concerns. Cases dealt with so far range from resisting a military radar station on account of damaging radiation to stopping the building of an unsustainable new power station which had massive corporate backing. The role illustrates the power of imaginative innovation in safeguarding the rights of future generations.

Such innovation is not the preserve of the developed North. In Latin America, Ecuador`s 2008 constitution is the first to recognise environmental rights. In 2011 the first successful case was brought as a challenge to a project to widen the Vilcabamba-Quinara road, which was depositing rock and mud in the Vilcabamba River. The law has been less successful in protecting the Amazonian rain forest in the face of the state owned petrol company. But it at least offers the first building blocks to holding the government to account.

Is it now time for the United Kingdom to take responsibility for its own long term future? A more assertive version of the Finnish committee might be shaped to the UK doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights offers an effective model. The Committee, set up in 2001, has the power to scrutinise all legislation for compliance with the Human Rights Act. It also has the authority to conduct thematic enquires into areas of policy that impinge on human rights. It can compel answers from Ministers. A good example would be its 2009 enquiry into Children’s Rights. It can require Ministers to answer questions where it considers that there is a human rights’ deficit. It can call members of the public before it. The Human Rights Act 1998 provides a benchmark standard for measuring legislation and policy.

A similar mechanism – a committee for future generations - could be an effective guarantor of long term interests. An Environmental Limits Act could strengthen its resolve in relation to the environment by providing a benchmark for environmental protection. The committee for Future Generations would then have the power to scrutinise legislation for its impact on the future. The Energy and Climate Change Committee set up under the Climate Change Act 2008 already does this in relation to carbon emissions.  Following the model of the Joint Committee on Human Rights the committee for future generations would require the power to conduct thematic enquiries into areas of policy, with a particular impact on the future. The committee would need the authority to compel answers from Ministers and other witnesses, whether from finance, industry or education to its questions. As a committee of Parliament it would have the power to require attendance. The sovereign and democratic House of Commons could eventually decide to ignore its device. But it could not do so in an unthinking way. It would have to give account for its actions and justify them before the committee. Such a committee might just provide a pause for thought before legislating in haste.               

Setting up the Joint Committee on Human Rights took several years longer than bringing the Human Rights Act into effect. A committee for future generations is not going to be a ‘quick fix’. To be effective it will need to be a catalyst of wider political change. In the meantime there is the need for the democratic debate, deliberation and discussion to put long term thinking at the heart of decision making in Britain.

About the author

Michael Bartlet is a civil and community mediator and senior teaching fellow in law at SOAS. 


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