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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Poor health conditions existed long before COVID - why I’m introducing a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Young girl cycles past the Covid memorial wall in London. Credit: Alamy.

4 min read

I vividly remember sitting in the Commons when the Prime Minister announced the terms of reference for the inquiry into the COVID19 pandemic.

Straight afterwards, I walked to the national Covid memorial wall - a wall filled with drawings of hearts - each representing a life lost to COVID.

This poignant and staggering site is a reminder that we owe it to all those people who lost their lives during the pandemic to learn from this; to ensure that future generations do not have to suffer in the same way. It is for this reason, I am introducing a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill in the Commons today (September 10) for its second reading. I want to legislatively enshrine a commitment to act for the long-term.

As we begin to emerge from the COVID19 pandemic it is right that we start to ask how we can prevent a similar tragedy in the future. I believe the answer to that question lies squarely in addressing the conditions that existed prior to the pandemic.

In my patch, we suffered devastatingly high mortality rates because of poor health conditions that existed long before COVID. The toxic combination of pre-existing underlying health conditions in a heavily industrialised area meant that when COVID hit, it hit hard. As such, what has become clear to me is that we must change our approach to health and long-term provisions. 

And that is exactly what the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill seeks to do. With prevention at its heart, this Bill looks beyond the inertia of five-year election cycles and places the emphasis on long-term planning.

The Bill would place a requirement on public bodies to balance the needs of the present with the needs of the future. It does this by mandating that each public body must produce a report on preventative spending, with a categorisation of acute, current, future and preventative spending and a justification for each. By justifying their spending categories, it forces a consideration into what the longer-term approach would be.

This clause is designed to not only reinforce long-term preventative thinking, but to also ensure that a proportion of the annual budget held by public bodies is specifically designated to preventative work.  

Nobody knows the value of prevention more than my esteemed colleague, and Bill co-sponsor, Lord John Bird. As the co-founder of The Big Issue, he has spent the last 30 years lifting homeless people out of poverty, but this Bill is designed to prevent people from sliding into homelessness in the first place.

Prevention is not just a moral imperative; but it’s more fiscally responsible, because it’s expensive to keep people poor. It costs the UK £1 million on average to produce one Big Issue vendor. That’s because 80 percent of Big Issue vendors grew up in local authority care, which costs £15,000 a month, up to £250,000 a year. 

This Bill complements the government’s ambitious ‘Building Back Better’ agenda which has provided the vision for building up our national infrastructure. And it’s up to us to put this work into action. We are going to kick start this work by launching a UK wide Future Generations Commission today and I hope Parliamentary colleagues will join me and show their support.

This Commission is a ‘proof of concept’ which emulates a similar body that would be established if my Bill came into existence. The purpose of an independent UK Commission is to bring together experts and young people from each of the four nations of the UK to promote and enforce the principles of the Bill.

Its primary duty will be to act as a guardian of future generations’ needs, and to advise on and enforce the wellbeing duty on public bodies. This cross-UK body will provide a formal opportunity for the nations of the UK to share experiences on policy for future generations, ensuring that we learn from local innovations to improve wellbeing across the whole of the UK.

It is imperative that we use COVID as a warning shot to address our most complicated social problems to render us more resilient in the years ahead. Our obligation to future generations transcends party politics.

Simon Fell is the MP for Barrow & Furness.

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