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House of Lords Library

Protecting and Representing Future Generations in Policymaking

Published Thursday, June 13, 2019

This House of Lords Library Briefing has been prepared in advance of the debate due to take place on 20 June 2019. Lord Bird (Crossbench) is to move that “this House takes note of the case for better protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policymaking”.

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Academics Hilary Graham and Piran White have argued that “how future generations are represented in policy-making is one of the biggest questions of our time”. However, the “standard approach to policymaking prioritises the interests” of current citizens.

Some theorists have suggested that future generations should not be explicitly represented in policymaking. One reason advanced is their implicit representation through family and institutional ties of the current generation. Another is uncertainty about what future generations’ interests will actually be. However, counter-arguments have been made to these ideas.

Worldwide, countries including Finland, Hungary, Singapore and Israel have introduced formal representation of future generations into policymaking. There is a Commissioner for Future Generations in Wales, and a ‘futures forum’ in Scotland. There is no UK-wide equivalent, although future generations are mentioned in a number of policies and plans.

A preference for current over future generations is built into the cost-benefit analyses (CBAs) undertaken on proposed UK government policies. In CBAs, the ‘discount rate’ means that any benefit has a lower value, the further in the future it arises. However, the Government has said that this should be adjusted for environmental issues. These, it said, involve “significant and, for all practical purposes, irreversible wealth transfers from the future to the present”.

Intergenerational fairness may be threatened by current government deficits. These transfer the cost of spending onto future generations, even though they may not benefit from it. A House of Lords committee proposed that all spending policies should be subject to an ‘intergenerational impact assessment’.

Finally, a number of organisations have put forward proposals for how future generations might be formally represented in UK policymaking. Several have proposed a new House of Lords Committee as a possible approach.

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House of Lords Library

The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.