On 20th June 2019 Lord Bird led a debate in the House of Lords on the motion “that this House takes note of the case for better protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policy-making.” The Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, spoke in the debate, and his speech is below. The speech of the Bishop of Oxford in the same debate can be seen here.
The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for bringing this debate to us. Despite wanting to say one or two things, I hope to listen and to learn from the wisdom of others. This debate is particularly pertinent at a time when phrases such as “the will of the people” are being bandied around, without specifying which people. If we are going to take this seriously, it must include people who are not people yet: future generations. Too often that term is used as a static term. It references the past. It does not create any vision for the future. It takes today seriously at the expense of tomorrow.
I recognise that others in this debate are going to speak on the detail, so I will focus on what I think are more fundamental questions to do with political culture. I had not thought of them in terms of the word “macrocosmic”, but perhaps they are. I shall make three points. First, long-term policy-making demands maturity, wisdom and leadership. It must transcend the short-termism that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has just spoken about. In our own generation, Sure Start made a massive difference and was aimed at influencing the lives of families, children and young people as they grew. Where is it? Killed.
Secondly, we cannot indulge in tokenism when we talk about young people—but there is quite a lot of that about. I am very grateful to the staff of the Library for the briefing for this debate, which drew attention to a number of very imaginative initiatives on listening to and engaging with the voices of young people, but they are limited and they must not be tokenistic. Greta Thunberg has been referenced several times as the voice of young people, but am I the only one who feels that sometimes the response, particularly from politicians, is patronising? They say you have to listen to young people, but I say that you should not ask for the views of young people if you do not want to hear what they say. If you say that you are listening but do nothing about it, you will create an even bigger problem in the future, which is rank disillusionment.
Thirdly, and finally, what has run through many debates, particularly over Brexit, is the idea that human beings are economic commodities or consumer targets. Almost the entire Brexit debate has been framed in terms of economics and trade. I keep asking the question: for whom does the economy exist? It is for the good of human beings and wider society; it is not an end, it is a means. We must consider the language we are using and the anthropological assumptions we are making about what a human being is. We are seeing in our education sector a diminution of arts and humanities because they do not guarantee a particular training for a trade or a particular economic return, yet they are crucial to what it means to be human beings either individually or in society. From the expansion of the imagination comes the imagination of a different way of being and a different world. So we need our young people to frame the future narrative and not just inherit the past. This is an issue that we face across the board. I come back to Brexit and the future of Europe. If we are constantly referring back to what our young people are inheriting from the middle of the 20th century, in another 20 or 30 years that does not create a vision for the future.
We have to ask ourselves what future our children are building. I used to visit Kazakhstan—as you do. I have been there a number of times and watched the development of that country as an independent state and the building of its institutions and even its cities—Astana in particular. What used to strike me coming back from Kazakhstan, central Asia, to Frankfurt, Amsterdam or London, was that in Kazakhstan so many of the young people were proud of what they were building, even though there were issues of corruption and lots of other questions about what was going on. They were building something for the future, and that captured their imagination, their energy and their will. When you come back to western Europe and ask what young people are building—what is firing their imagination and energy—the answer is, nothing, because they are simply expected to inherit something that has been handed on to them, and then protect it. This is not good enough. Our young people are the only ones who can write the narrative that will guide the future. If we are going to listen to their voice, we have to be prepared for what they are going to say.
Lord Crisp (CB): … Maybe this is the sort of opportunity that an incoming Government—assuming that we have another stable Government in due course—might see as something that could help unify the country. Bring people together to think clearly about the future, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds mentioned about Kazakhstan, where I too have dropped in occasionally, as one does. In countries such as Kazakhstan they focus on the future and think about what is coming, whereas we perhaps concentrate more on the past…
Lord Judd (Lab):…I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds mentioned the Library note. I am always deeply impressed by the quality of notes produced by the Libraries for our debates…
Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con) [Minister]: …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, my noble friend Lady Jenkin and others reminded us that young people have never been so important to us as they are now. Indeed, this Government have consistently recognised the need to think about future generations in the policy of today. In the most recent Budget, for instance, the Chancellor announced a £200 million youth endowment fund, which will be run independently by the charity Impetus, working in partnership with the Early Intervention Foundation and Social Investment Business across England and Wales. This focus is on long-term early intervention, exactly the intervention needed to protect and support young people and future generations by investing early, recognising, as we all do, that prevention is better than cure….