Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State’s announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission

Written evidence submitted by Dr Rupert Read, University of East Anglia (ESD 12)

Guardians of the basic needs of future generations

Summary :

This submission:

· Proposes the creation of a set of 'Guardians of the basic needs of future generations', with strong legal powers to prevent and undo government action that can be shown (respectively) to undermine the basic needs of future people or to act against the dictates of a precautionary approach to the needs of future people.

· Sets out in outline form possible constitutional and institutional mechanisms for the Guardians.

· Outlines how the Guardians would be a superior option to the SDC, to various proposed weak successors to the SDC, and to a do-nothing option.

· Explains how this proposal, if enacted, would without doubt make this 'the greenest government ever', and a world leader in sustainable development.


Main text:

I am Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia (Norwich). I work with colleagues in Environmental Science at UEA, and my current research is for a book entitled 'A new covenant with all beings' . The climax of this book-in-progress is presentation of my proposal for a new institutional mechanism that should secure the welfare of future generations. This mechanism is 'Guardians of the basic needs of future generations'.

The idea of guardians for future generations has a long philosophical pedigree, going back to some extent as far as Plato. The idea in its modern form has been fairly widely investigated in the last 50 years, notably by legal philosopher Christopher Stone in his influential book, 'Should trees have standing' ? My innovation is (1) to tailor this idea to the contemporary British context, and (2) to radicalise the idea such that these Guardians have real powers to achieve the ends for which they are created.

           The Sustainable Development Commission has been abolished; radical reform of the House of Lords is being planned. Now is the perfect time to think boldly about what the shape of governance should be, in the 21st century. Now is a time for thinking, moreover, about governance for the future: For Britain, Europe, and the world, are under ecological threat as never before, and the need to plan for the needs of future generations are therefore greater than they have ever been.

I propose to 'think the unthinkable' and the needful at this time, to respond to this context. My starting-point is democracy. The people ought to rule. But this oughtn’t to mean: only people who are able to vote. The young ought to have a voice, too; and, more crucially, people who as yet do not even exist. (See my work on future people [e.g. "On future people", forthcoming in THINK; and my Open Democracy piece, here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/rupert-read/last-refuge-of-prejudice]. The challenge, if we are to have a meaningful democracy at a time when we need to be more aware than ever of the needs of future people, is to provide as authentic a possible representation of their voice. What would they say, if they could; what do we hear, if we listen closely enough to them? What is our responsibility to our children, and how we can ensure that it is built into our democracy?

The framework of ‘deliberative democracy’ has much to offer, in this connection. [See the oeuvre of James Fishkin et al] The need is to find a way of helping people alive now to enter into the ‘mind-set’ of future people, to determine based on science and ethics what their needs would/will be. This requires real reflection and deliberation, well-informed by the best of evidence.

In order for the needs of future people to be met, and for us as a people to rise to a sufficient standard of care for them (to enable them to be sustained, and moreover to flourish), it will in my view be insufficient to establish oaths, or some general duty, or an ombudsman function, or just another quango, such as an 'Office for Future Generations'. All these might well be of some use; but, for future people to be taken care of, for there to be some reasonable chance that we will do enough for them, more is needed.

I propose therefore that there be created guardians with veto powers against any new law that thre atens the basic needs of future people (Such guardians should have various other powers too, such as to initiate legislation, and to act as ombudsmen: see below.). In terms of existing law, my view would be that the Guardians could function as advocates/ombudsmen etc. on anything to do with the basic needs/interests of future people; if then for instance a judicial review of an existing law or of a government administrative decision were being sought, the Guardians opinion would presumably be strongly taken into consideration. Furthermore, I would argue that, if appealed to, the Guardians should be able to strike down existing laws, but only where they can show that the precautionary principle would oppose the proposed action/law in question. The precautionary principle, if properly applied, would stand against many things, including profligate use of 'natural resources'; but this is a more stringent requirement than in the case of new laws, where there would 'only' be the need for Guardians to show that the proposed law would undermine the basic needs of future people.

The guardians will in effect constrain decisions made elsewhere in the governmental and political system, and help to guarantee that those decisions are being made thoughtfully enough with regard to the needs of future people.

The guardians could simply be coincident with a reformed upper House, an upper House given a special responsibility to exercise general care for future people (incorporated into an oath taken by the members of the House). For reasons already intimated above, this would in my view be very unlikely to achieve the requisite result.

Alternatively, the guardians could be a sub-set of the members of the reformed upper House, given a special responsibility to exercise general care for future people, and thus democratically to side-constrain the rest of the democratic infrastructure. This idea is more promising. The guardians would then be very roughly analogous to the Law Lords / Supreme Court, able to strike down new legislation if it did not meet the basic needs of future people, or stood in the way of those needs, and able on appeal to strike down existing legislation if it did not satisfy the demands of the precautionary principle.

The creation of the guardians would be particularly likely to be an effective instrument if the guardians were selected via deliberative-democratic procedures, such as by lot, and supported by a ‘civil service’ of facilitators and experts, including of course legal experts (The Guardians would have strong rights - potentially up to and including supoena-style-rights, to call any further experts that they wished to hear from, to help them in their deliberations). The guardians would be a vital part of our democratic structures, a special part of the upper House - whether or not the remainder of the upper House were selected by patronage, by election via proportional representation, or by a more generalised deliberative democratic procedure (as in for instance Keith Sutherland’s ‘A people’s parliament’).

(There is a case for selecting the guardians randomly from the entirety of the population, as with jury service, but perhaps with a younger starting-age. Children, perhaps children aged thirteen or over, have a lot to tell us about the future, and a strong empathetic bond with future people. Again, this is a bold proposal: but this is I believe a time and an occasion for boldness.)

Alternatively, the guardians could be a whole different body, super-ordinate to a reformed upper House, somewhat similar to the United States Supreme Court in their constitutional status (though with greater democratic legitimacy, because of their kinship to juries in terms of their selection-method). This too could work.

My view is that the boldest and most useful way to replace the SDC, to be a part of a House-of-Lords-reform-package, and to provide a guarantee for future people that is currently entirely absent, is to instigate a new institution, a new level of governance, so that Britain can lead the world in taking care of the future: via Guardians for the basic needs of future generations.

To answer then most of the questions you are asking in this inquiry:


>How can mechanisms to ensure the sustainability of Government operations, procurement and policy-making be improved and further embedded and mainstreamed across Government departments?

Answer: The investigation or institution of an office of 'Guardians for the basic needs of future generations' would be the most powerful possible way in which to ensure such sustainability. For the very existence of the Guardians would mean that account would be taken of what they would say, at every level of major decision-making. (Furthermore, the Guardians' explicit opinion would presumably be sought on major budgetary proposals, on Green Papers, etc.)

>How can governance arrangements for sustainable development in Government be improved, and how can sustainability reporting by Government departments be made more transparent and accountable?

Answer: The Guardians' existence would not fully address this desideratum. But it would contribute to it, in that the Guardians would (somewhat like the SDC used to) comment when requested to (and of their own volition) on numerous such matters.

>Was the SDC successful in fulfilling its remit? Which aspects of its work have reached a natural end, or are otherwise of less importance, and which remain of particular continuing importance?

Answer: What is in my view most important is that sustainability becomes a requirement, and not simply a desirable thing. The SDC made a positive contribution in many fields, but it was not taken seriously as a part of government. It did not have to be listened to. The Guardians would have to be listened to.

>How, without the assistance of the SDC, will the Government be able to demonstrate that it is ‘the greenest government ever’?

Answer: If the Government were to announce that it were investigating setting up Guardians for the basic needs of future generations, this would send out the most powerful possible signal that it is serious about being the greenest ever. For this would be a major institutional change, with potentially dramatic consequences, and would at times make some of the Government's own policies (e.g. support for road-building projects) more difficult to achieve. Thus the Government would be making clear that it is not half-hearted but really means that it will put a green thread centrally in everything that it will do. For, if it did not, the Guardians, would strike the relevant legislation down.

Dr. Rupert Read, Reader in Philosophy, University of East Anglia, Norwich.

13 October 2010