A parliamentary ombudsman for future generations?

Kirsty Schneeberger, Director of Think 2050, argues that the UK needs an intergenerational ombudsman to represent the interests of future generations

If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), 36th US President (1963-69).

Since at least the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 there have been various proposals for the establishment of some form of watchdog or ombudsman for future generations. When the delegates from Malta submitted their suggestion for a “Guardian for Future Generations”[1] it may not have secured political commitment and consensus at the international level, but it did spark a number of ideas about how the interests or rights of future generations might be protected.

Progress in Hungary

In Hungary, Canada, New Zealand and Israel, governments have established ministerial portfolios or parliamentary commissioners for future generations; in Finland a Committee for the Future was put in place. All have the aim of bringing long-term decision-making into the short-term political cycle.[2]

Of these forward-thinking examples, only the Hungarian one appears to be in full operation; since 2008 its Commissioner has received over 400 petitions from the public and reported to the Hungarian Parliament after fully investigating approximately 70 of these.[3] The Office of the Commissioner focuses on environmental and sustainable development issues and, by functioning as an ombudsman, effectively acts in a way that safeguards the Hungarian people’s constitutional ‘right to a clean and healthy environment.‘ By extension, this is a right enjoyed by future generations and so the Commissioner is able to take the long-view by integrating the interests of posterity into his work.

Recently, the Hungarian Constitution was amended and there was concern that the Commissioner’s position might be under question since his power and mandate stems from this constitutional right. Crucially it is this right that underpins the very existence of the Office and it is the absence of such a right that has led some thinkers to argue that such a role could not exist in the UK owing to an absence of a similar constitutional right, or other right, that could be construed in the same way.

Constitutional and environmental issues in the UK

It might be that the UK does not have such a right to a clean environment enshrined in its constitutional conventions (unlike many other countries both in Europe and across the world)[4]; however, this does not necessarily preclude it from establishing an ombudsman or parliamentary commissioner with a wider portfolio.

Hitherto the foundation upon which proposals to institutionalise the rights of future generations have been built has been largely centered around environment and sustainable development issues. Indeed, campaigns that are ongoing or building on a new wave of momentum for the idea follow the line of extending environmental rights to future generations.[5] In many ways this makes perfect sense. At the very least, one generation owes it to the next and subsequent generations to not remove the tools and abilities they require to meet their own needs, and this is inextricably linked with the state of the environment.[6]

Economic intergenerational injustices

However, the rights enjoyed by future generations do not end with environment and sustainable development issues, important as they invariably are. There are also intergenerational injustices that are currently being played out in relation to tax, housing and employment law.

The way in which policies on all matters are determined today do not adequately take into account the impacts they will have on tomorrow and this can often result in significant burdens being borne by future generations. In light of the growing understanding that intergenerational justice relates to more than environmental policies, it might be pertinent to consider how an ombudsman for future generations might not only act as a watchdog to protect the environmental needs of those people yet to be born, but could also investigate petitions from the public relating to other wider public policies.

Could an intergenerational ombudsman look at pensions? In the absence of a constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment, the UK is perhaps better placed to establish an ombudsman with a broader remit than the Hungarian one: it might be feasible to instead focus on building on the rights to fair tax and pension policies, for example.

If we are concerned about preserving the rights and safeguarding the interests of future generations, then we can begin to develop an appreciation of extending the rights to fair pensions, tax, housing, education and healthcare enjoyed by present generations to future generations. It would not be such a big step to consider that a right enjoyed by the population today should, in theory, be passed down to our descendants tomorrow.

In practice the situation is somewhat different, as research conducted into discount rates, the ways in which societies view young people and the iniquitous tax system bears out — so much so that it is questionable whether the present decision-makers really are taking into account the impact that their policies will have on younger and future generations at all.

It might be in vogue for politicians to use expressions like ‘intergenerational equity’  to argue that creating the green investment bank has been  done to ensure that future generations are not burdened with financial debt, or to speak of the great British promise that one generation owes to another. But actions really do speak louder than any rhetorical flourish, and it is clear that present policies are simply not delivering intergenerational justice across a broad spectrum of issues.

So perhaps it is time for an ombudsman who could consider the impact of every political decision – not just those pertaining to the environment or sustainable development – and how these might impact on the young and those yet to be born. In acting as a watchdog and mouthpiece for those who are not heard or cannot speak, the establishment of such a role could substantially contribute towards the safeguarding of our future for generations to come.

[1] Preparatory Committee for the United National Conference on Environment and Development, United Nations, Principles on General Rights and Obligations (Working Group III 4th Session) (New York 2 March–3 April 1992) A/CONF.151PC/WG.III/L.8/REV.1/ADD.2 (21 February 1992)

[2]    For a full analysis of the role of each of these see P. Roderick (2010) Taking the longer view, p. 23

[3]    K. Schneeberger (2011) Implementing intergenerational equity into mainstream decision-making, 23 ELM, available: http://www.lawtext.com/pdfs/sampleArticles/ELMSCHNEEBERGER20to29.pdf

[4]    See table 2 Environmental Rights in European States’ Constitutions in P. Roderick (2010) p. 19

[5]    See the World Future Council campaigns on this: http://www.futurejustice.org/

[6]    See for example the pioneering Report of the Brundtland Commission (1987) Our Common Future