10 September 2021

Enough quick fixes – future generations should be at the heart of policy-making

By Lord Bird

Most of world history is the result of things we didn’t intend. I was recently reminded of a conversation I had, several years ago now, with a prominent Conservative (with a capital ‘C’) to whom I noted that Thatcher revolutionised the welfare state by breaking much of it from being ‘contributory’ to ‘non-contributory’. Though he could reel off how she did so much to create social mobility in the UK, and so she did, the unintended laws arose when – by closing so many industries, and by removing subsidies – she allowed hundreds of thousands of people to move into social security; a place where many have been embedded ever since. That social security was not used as social opportunity, as it should have been, but instead its exact opposite – just enough to eke a living out of.

If we wish for a better world, we need people in power to start thinking about the unintended consequences of their bright ideas.

As so astutely noted in a recent article for this publication, the Government’s recently announced Health and Social Care Levy is undeniably short-termist, and “intolerable” in the face of all the crap young people have put up with over the last 18 months. This is exactly the sort of thing I’m trying to put an end to with my Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, which is all about placing long-term thinking at the heart of policymaking.

Millions of people in this country are currently behind in household bills, half a million are in rent arrears and nearly 200,000 homeowners are in financial difficulty. This is against a background of 1.9m jobs at risk of permanent loss from the pandemic and many adults and young people have been referred to mental health services. A severe lack of preparation means that younger generations are unable to secure the jobs and housing they need whilst older generations suffer from inadequate support in old age. At the same time government spending has skyrocketed – last year the Government borrowed £300bn, the highest figure since records began. 

Ministers are going to need to make tough policy choices, but I’d urge them to remember that our post-Covid recovery must not lead us down a path of quick fixes to balance the books. This approach will lead to the same unintended (and costlier to manage) long-term consequences. We already spend millions of pounds a year dealing in emergencies – this year more than ever – but we aren’t getting any closer to cracking the problem. Why? Because nobody in power is asking the question: is this prevention, emergency, coping or cure? Is this investing in people’s future, or making them slightly more comfortable in an uncomfortable present?

My bill, which is co-sponsored by Conservative MP Simon Fell, would ensure that the laws of unintended consequence are not allowed to run riot over young people’s futures. The bill’s provisions are designed to change the way policymaking works for the better. It’s visionary, but it’s also not that radical. 

With prevention at its heart, this bill looks beyond the inertia of five-year election cycles and places the emphasis on long-term planning. It would place a requirement on public bodies, including the UK Government, to balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future. Such preventative measures will have much greater financial and social returns than policies solely designed to tackle poor outcomes.

We can’t find ways to prevent bad things happening – whether that’s rising sea levels, families falling into homelessness, or future pandemics – if we don’t have a clear understanding of what’s coming down the road. And we cannot ignore the fact that tackling these issues separately is poor policymaking. That’s why our bill commits the Government to publishing a Futures and Forecasting Report in the year following a General Election, setting out the long-term trends across the economy, society, environment and culture. We firmly believe that long-term thinking is joined-up thinking.

The bill also introduces a UK-wide Commission on Future Generations, who’s will keep a beady eye on progress to ensure future generations remain at the heart of policymaking. Our “proof of concept” Commission, launching today, has been established to show what good looks like. This is a UK-wide effort, in which we must work together and learn from best practice at a national, regional and local level and across generations and cultures.

A few people have told me that the bill is too bureaucratic. Unfortunately, we live in a bureaucracy! We’ve also been told that Government is already thinking-long term, so this bill is superfluous. To which I say, exactly! Net Zero is enshrined in law. The Integrated Review has set out a long-term vision in foreign and security policy. This is the perfect opportunity to establish this approach across the whole of the UK’s policy-making process.

In the face of difficult economic choices after this dreadful pandemic, we need to make sure that money is spent wisely and sensibly on preventing issues before they arise, and stopping people getting poorer, sicker, and less safe at the hands of the tempestuous climate and ill-considered policy, now and into the future.  

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Lord Bird is founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue and a crossbench peer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.