Over the last few months, the Well-Being of Future Generations Bill has taken a rocky journey through Stages 1 and 2 of the legislative process with Assembly Members (AMs) quite reluctant to endorse its current form. Although many are hanging on to the hope that it could deliver on its intentions if significant changes are made.
The Minister for Natural Resources, Carl Sargeant, had to promise amendments to strengthen the Bill, with the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee warning that the changes will likely necessitate a Report Stage. At Stage 2 on 5th February, some government amendments attempted to placate concerns with re-written and more detailed ‘well-being goals’ to show what a ‘prosperous Wales’, ‘a resilient Wales’ and a ‘healthier Wales’ actually looks like.
It’s been interesting to watch the Minister’s reactions to the Bill, starting off fairly blasé about it when he first came into the role. At a later Committee session however, the Minister was fired up by the criticism:
“I have been quite disappointed with the negativity surrounding the process of the Bill and people saying, ‘It is too prescriptive’ or ‘It is not prescriptive enough’. Actually, this is a game-changer for Wales. […] I am actually quite passionate about this Bill now. Four weeks ago, if you had asked me, it may have been a different conversation.”
No political party is against its intentions, but time and time again it is likened to a glorified tick box exercise that will make no actual difference in practice. Its language is accused of being weak, in that public bodies only have to ‘try’ or ‘aim’ for sustainable solutions. Engaging individuals in simply ‘considering’ sustainability in their decisions may not be effective.
Many have argued that the Future Generations Commissioner could be the hard line in a soft-touch Bill, if the role were given greater powers such as sanctioning and launching inquiries, and the latest drafting does strengthen it slightly. Perhaps there is more anxiety about a Commissioner championing merely ‘the future Wales’ rather than the current demographics other Commissioners represent (such as older people or children). Perhaps the problem with this Bill is that the demographic it is most concerned with has not been born yet, so where’s the impetus for politicians to take care of those who cannot vote for them? The Welsh Conservatives tabled some interesting amendments to include ‘current generations’, but the Minister rejected these, arguing that it was already clear enough.
It raises questions over whether politicians are the right people to ensure the country is ‘thinking ahead’. Politicians by their nature will think 4-5 years ahead, as long as their electoral terms. They cannot guarantee they’ll be re-elected (if even seeking re-election) so work is in concentrated bursts, fitting with legislative and electoral cycles, making changes in the short time they have. And yet there is a slight show of over-confidence in the Minister repeatedly saying that this Bill fits in with two others – the Planning Bill and the Environment Bill – when the first is in Stage 1 scrutiny and the latter is yet to even be introduced. How can he be sure all three will pass? What kind of sustainable thinking does it show when a Welsh Government department drafts three Bills that rely on the framework of each other? Any future government’s amendments or repeal will have a significant knock-on effect.
The Minister may finally be ‘passionate’ about his Bill, but it looks like it will take a lot more work on it to satisfy the Assembly to pass it.