Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 May 2024

Commission for Future Generations Bill 2023: Second Stage [Private Members]


3:10 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In doing so, I am moving that the Bill, entitled an Act to provide for the establishment of a body to be known in the Irish language as an Coimisiún um Ghlúnta sa Todhchaí or in the English language as the Commission for Future Generations for the purpose of reporting to the Government in relation to the establishment of an Office of Ombudsman for Future Generations and to provide for related matters, be read a Second Time.

Anyone who has ever had a hangover will understand a little about borrowing happiness from the future. Likewise, anyone who has saved for the deposit on a house, is making plans for pension provision or is saving towards children's college costs knows something about planning for the future. They also know that decisions they take today have the power to impact their future well-being and the well-being of those close to them. We understand instinctively on a human scale how this applies to us and our families, but do we adequately apply long-term thinking on a societal scale in our businesses, planning and politics or are we too often drawn to tackling the current crisis, sometimes in a manner inconsistent with our longer term goals?

This kind of thinking has been extrapolated to form a philosophical school of thinking led by a Scottish philosopher, William MacAskill, which is known as longtermism. Like most kinds of philosophical thinking, it does not always survive contact with the real world and can be problematic in its most extreme conclusions. Simply put, it can be encapsulated in the following three sentences.

Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We, today, through the decisions that we make, can make their lives better.

The issue of climate change brings this kind of thinking into sharp focus. How will future generations regard and judge us when they look at the climate consequences we are locking into their future world? The carbon emissions that I create today will still be in the atmosphere hundreds of years from now, trapping heat, intensifying droughts and heatwaves and raising sea levels.

The same applies to our treatment of the natural world. The curlew's call is becoming rarer around Tramore, where I live.

My sons have never heard a cuckoo. I have never heard a corncrake. Future skies, rivers and oceans will be quieter and emptier places, unless we radically change what we are doing today, and future generations will be immeasurably the poorer for it. Extinction is permanent and cannot be remediated.

This kind of approach can and should be applied to other challenges facing our society, such as how we respond to demographic pressures, how we deal with issues of migration in an increasingly unstable world, how we vindicate the sustainable development goals, how we revive and rebuild trust in our democratic institutions, how we plan for digital disruption and many more matters besides. None of these questions can be resolved within a single electoral cycle. All require cathedral thinking and an acknowledgement that these are long-term projects or goals, which we hope to realise for the sake or benefit of future generations.

Our democracy, and by extension our State, struggles to take account of this type of long-term thinking. This is for two main reasons. Let us examine the first proposition of the three I used to describe long-termism - namely, that future people count. In a very literal sense, in our democracy, they do not. Future people cannot speak, advocate or, crucially, vote. People aged under 18, which is the future generation we can meet and know, cannot vote. To state the obvious, any electoral strategy aimed at people who cannot vote is doomed to failure. In the strict electoral sense, these people do not count, yet morally and ethically we can feel that is not true. They must count and must matter, yet our political system fails to adequately capture that. That is a failure the Bill aims to address.

Second, all of us sometimes struggle to make decisions that align our long-term interests with our short-term interests, be that when to start a pension or open that second bottle of wine. Our democracy and electoral cycle tend to create conditions that reward promises and decisions with a short time horizon. Let us look at the current debates happening ahead of our local and European campaigns. How many candidates are outlining a 30-year vision of where they want to go in our society versus how many are offering, honestly or otherwise, quick fixes and instant solutions? At the ballot box, which of those two approaches is most likely to be rewarded? This makes planning for the long term for future generations extremely challenging.

A few countries have begun to take steps towards incorporating more long-term thinking into their decision-making process. The Welsh Government in particular is leading the way. It created an office of future generations commissioner, which is an independent and well-resourced office with the stated goal to act as guardian of the ability of future generations to meet their needs and encourage public bodies to take greater account of the long-term impact of the things they do. The work of this office is underpinned by ground-breaking legislation, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. I first encountered this work when I met the inspirational Jane Davidson, who championed this legislation during her time as minister for the environment in the Welsh Government. In my conversations with her, it became clear to me how an approach of this kind could be highly beneficial to our politics in Ireland by meaningfully stitching our well-being framework and our commitments to sustainable development goals into a legislative framework.

However, I must be honest in saying that the ambition of the Bill does not match that Welsh legislation. Such a piece of work would be well beyond the resources of any individual TD's office to address through a Private Members' Bill. Instead, this Bill is intended to be the first step along the road towards that end goal, whereby we fund and resource a commission for future generations, along the lines of the Commission on Pensions or the Commission on Taxation and Welfare, to fully explore the potential of creating an office of ombudsman for future generations in the Irish context. This Bill will establish an independent commission for future generations to consider and report within 12 months on how best to set up an office of ombudsman for future generations in Ireland. The proposed commission for future generations could also make recommendations on a number of areas, including measurement of the progress of the overall well-being of our society; how best to ensure best practice among public bodies and Departments while adhering to the principle of sustainable development; and the potential role of an Oireachtas joint committee on future generations.

Many of the sections in the Bill are technical in nature and set out the necessary administrative structures needed to underpin the founding, reporting and dissolution of such a commission. I do not propose to dwell on them here. The first of the sections more pertinent to our debate this afternoon is section 3, which sets out the functions of the commission, specifying that it should have regard to the well-being framework as well as any intergenerational issues, including the climate and biodiversity emergencies, the provision of care to children and older people, demographic changes, and intergenerational income and wealth distribution.

Section 5 sets out various criteria for how members of the commission should be appointed, taking into account experience and knowledge of areas such as climate science, ecology, economics, intergenerational equity, public health, culture and the arts, community development, spatial planning and some other areas. It also stipulates that the Minister should ensure, as far as is practicable, that a balance be struck in the composition of the commission to take account of gender, age, ethnic and cultural background, and speakers of the Irish and English language. Is mian liom dul siar ar feadh nóiméid ar an gceist seo, is í sin ceist na Gaeilge agus an gá atá le saineolas sna healaíne agus sa chultúr a chuimsiú i struchtúr an choimisiúin seo. Is minic a labhair mé faoin easnamh atá sna réimsí seo laistigh dár gcreat folláine féin. Tá samplaí maithe feicthe againn sa Nua-Shéalainn agus sa Bhreatain Bheag ar conas is féidir na táscairí seo a ionchorprú go húsáideach i gcreat folláine chun an rannchuidiú dearfach a d’fhéadfadh a bheith acu ar luacháil teanga agus cultúr araon a chur san áireamh le folláine daoine. Is dóigh go gcaillfimid go leor amach as gan iad a bheith san áireamh agus leanfaidh mé de bheith ag moladh an t-athrú seo a dhéanamh inár gcreat.

Section 15 is perhaps the most consequential section because it details the proposed output of the commission established. It specifies that the commission shall report not later than 12 months after the appointment of its members. Within that report, the commission should make recommendations on a number of matters specified in section 15(4) as follows:

(a) the progress of the overall well-being of society while adhering to the principle of sustainable development,

(b) the collection of data and measurable parameters in relation to well-being in order to measure the progress of the overall well-being of society,

(c) the predictions of likely future trends in the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of the State,

(d) how to ensure best practice amongst public bodies and government departments in their practices and actions to progress

the well-being of society while adhering to the principle of sustainable development,

(e) the potential role of a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Future Generations,

(f) the adequacy and effectiveness of legislation and practices in the State relating to the principle of sustainable development,

(g) an assessment of how public bodies can—

(i) better safeguard the ability of future generations to meet future needs, and (ii) take greater account of the long-term impact of such bodies practices and actions,

(h) how an Ombudsman for Future Generations could advise, assist and oversee the measurable progress of public bodies and government departments in relation to the dimensions of the Well-being Framework, (i) how a Joint Committee on Future Generations could scrutinise and propose amendments to legislation that may impact the well-being of future generations,

(j) encouraging best practice amongst public bodies in taking steps to meet well-being goals and objectives in accordance with the principle of sustainable development,

(k) setting national well-being goals and objectives and the indicators by which such goals and objectives should be measured,

(l) such other information in such form as the Commission thinks fit or the Minister may request.

It also places an obligation on the Minister, should he or she not accept the recommendation of the commission, to set out the Minister's reasons for not accepting same within one month of being given a copy of those recommendations. These are the principal provisions of the Bill as I see them.

As stated, this legislation is intended as a stepping stone rather than a destination. It is a way of meaningfully resourcing a national piece of research and a national conversation about how we can counter the short-termism of our democratic cycle to make sure that the needs of future generations are not sacrificed at the altar of present day political expediency. I will say to the Minister that in September of this year, the UN will for the first time convene a Summit of the Future with the intention of asking this core question regarding the principle of sustainable development: how do we meet the needs of our people today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs? This Bill is an opportunity for whoever is representing the Government to go to that summit with something concrete and meaningful to announce at the United Nations. It is an opportunity for Ireland to join the vanguard of nations that are making legislative change to take account of those generations that will come after us.

I thank the staff of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for their patience and support in drafting the Bill. I thank Coalition 2030 and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice for their support of its provisions.

I also thank both the previous and current Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Sophie Howe and Derek Walker, for their kind messages of support. Most importantly, I thank Síle Ginnane and Séafra Ó Faoláin of our research team, who I believe are in the Gallery. I suspect they are now among the foremost experts in Ireland on the potential of an ombudsman for future generations given their Herculean work in preparing the Bill. We in the Dáil are really the front-of-house people for the enormous amount of work that goes on in corridors elsewhere in Leinster House. We get to stand here and take credit for the work others do.

There is an old Greek proverb that states a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. I believe in this Bill and in this approach because I believe that future people matter even if I cannot meet, hear or know them and that young people count even if they will not count at the ballot box in the next election or the election after that. The choices we make in the here and now must balance the needs of today with the challenges of tomorrow. For that reason, I commend the Bill to the House.

3:30 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I am really pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this Bill on Second Stage today. I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh and his team for their work on this legislation. I have not had the opportunity to meet the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales yet but, in my role, I have met a number of Welsh Ministers at various intergovernmental meetings over the last number of years. It has always been interesting to hear them speak about how the role of the commissioner is influencing things, particularly in the area of children because it is usually the children's Ministers I meet, and about how some of the thinking and policy orientation from the commissioner is having an impact on day-to-day decisions. There was also quite a significant intervention in another area, that of transport infrastructure, in respect of a major new motorway that may not have been needed. In Wales, we see a really a good example of this sort of thinking about future people, as the Deputy describes them, working well in a jurisdiction with a size and make-up similar to our own. That is why the Bill the Deputy is proposing today is so timely.

As the Deputy has set out, the Bill provides for the establishment of a commission for future generations for the purpose of reporting to the Government on the establishment of the office of an ombudsman for future generations and related matters. Through that process, the Bill seeks to address the question of how we can safeguard the well-being of future generations and ensure that decisions we make in the present do not impact dramatically on their future. The proposed commission will garner the necessary expertise to report to Government regarding the establishment of a full office of ombudsman for future generations. It would also advise on how this office could advise, assist and oversee the measurable progress of public bodies and Government bodies on the dimensions of the well-being framework.

The commission’s report would advise on progress on the overall well-being of society, the collection of data and measurable parameters so that progress towards better well-being can be tangibly measured. It would also set goals and indicators to measure this change and look at predictions of likely future trends affecting well-being within our country. The report would also encourage and examine best practice among public bodies and Government Departments to progress the well-being of society, assess how they can better safeguard the ability of future generations to meet future needs and take account of long-term impacts in their practices and actions. It would also look at the role of a potential Oireachtas joint committee on future generations, how such a committee would work with this ombudsman and how it might consider and propose amendments to any necessary legislation.

I agree with the Deputy that there is no doubt that our actions in the present impact on future generations. This includes those who are not yet born and those who are too young at present to be able to fully take part in the democratic process. The impact on future generations arising from our current actions or, indeed, inaction - it is important to note that inaction can be as damaging and devastating as action - is even more pertinent in the world we now live in, which is changing so rapidly. We face a magnitude of risks, some of which are geopolitical, economic, societal, environmental and technological in nature. Many of these have emerged or intensified in recent years. In many instances, it is future generations who will face the consequences of how we respond to new and emerging risks. These risks include a changing geopolitical order, lower levels of trust in Government and in institutions more widely, climate change, biodiversity loss, Ireland’s changing demographic, disruptive technologies and more. We have a once-in-a-generation example of how risks and changes can impact on us in the Covid-19 pandemic and the massive impact it had on all of our lives over those months and years and subsequently through changes to society, some of which have been positive although many have had a lasting negative impact.

Ireland is already fully committed to achieving the sustainable development goals. Indeed, it had a significant role in the development and adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as, together with Kenya, we were co-facilitator of the intergovernmental negotiations in September 2015. The objective of sustainable development is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Agenda 2030 uses a five-dimensional model of sustainable development based on the five Ps: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. The SDGs cover three dimensions of sustainable development: economic growth, social inclusion and the protection of the environment. They are universal in application and aim to address poverty, hunger and food systems, health, education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, energy, economic growth, decent jobs, industrialisation, inequalities, cities and human settlements, sustainable consumption and production, climate change, oceans, ecosystems, and peace and justice. Ireland has adopted a whole-of-government approach to SDG implementation with overall political oversight provided through the Cabinet. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has responsibility for promoting the SDGs and for overseeing their coherent implementation across Government.

As the Deputy referred to, at UN level, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2022 to hold the Summit of the Future on 22 and 23 September 2024. That summit will be the centrepiece of the UN General Assembly high-level week this September. The aim of the summit is for member states to recommit to the multilateral system and to the 2030 agenda in particular. The outcome will be an action-oriented pact for the future, which will be endorsed by Heads of State and Government at the summit, pointing the way for the innovations and reforms required over the coming years. The declaration on future generations will be annexed to the pact for the future and will be one of the outcome documents of the Summit of the Future. It aims to protect the interests of future generations in national and global decision-making while strengthening co-ordination and global governance for the common future of present and coming generations.

The UN Secretary General published 11 policy briefs between March and July 2023 intended to propose concrete actions and to inform the discussions of members states in advance of the 2023 SDG summit and the Summit of the Future this September. The first brief, entitled "To Think and Act for Future Generations", provides a number of suggestions and practical steps to ensure that intergenerational solidarity becomes the guiding star of sustainable development and renewal of the multilateral system. It seeks to shed light on why it is so important to adopt a future generations approach in policy design as a way to achieve long-term sustainability and to examine how the UN will embrace this approach in practice. Responding to questions raised by member states on balancing responsibility between the current generation and future generations, those living today and those not yet born, the policy brief highlights that the needs of present and future generations are not at odds and argues that efforts to consider the future will leave all generations, both now and then, better off.

The brief recognises that we do not lack commitments to take future generations into account, but the practical mechanisms and concrete steps. How we do it is probably the big outstanding question. The UN brief proposes four steps to be taken at the global level, one of which is the appointment of a special envoy to represent and advocate for future generations. This approach is now being adopted at UN level. The brief recognises that there are many examples of approaches from member states. The UN singles out the approach of Wales as a model of good practice.

The concept of considering future generations is not new to us in Ireland. I have already spoken of our commitment to the sustainable development goals but there is significant work going on across government that takes the impact of policies on societal well-being, now and in the future, into account. In 2021, we launched Ireland's well-being framework, a programme for Government initiative to measure progress and policy impact in a more holistic way. The framework is made up of different aspects of well-being and is supported by a dashboard which brings together economic, social and environmental statistics in an integrated way. I think we are all well aware of the inability of basic measures like GNP and GNI* to provide a rounded view of where our country, society and environment is. That is why the initiative the Government is taking is so important. It is led by the Department of the Taoiseach in conjunction with the Department of Finance and the Department of public expenditure, and there is an interdepartmental group that brings all Departments together in furtherance of the framework.

Work is progressing on embedding the well-being approach into policy development and decision-making. This includes integration into key points of the budget process, contributing to cross-government understanding of expenditure allocations and helping to inform prioritisation considerations and to enhance transparency. That is important because, while indicators and statistics are valuable in themselves, where they inform the budget, one of the biggest political decisions the Government makes every year, they are of particular value.

As children's Minister, I particularly support the inclusion of the voices of children and young people in policy decisions. Ireland is a world leader in participation practices and was the first country in Europe to have a dedicated participation strategy for children and young people. The action plan on children's participation was recently published and will further progress this important focus. The ambitions of this action plan will see the voices of children and young people embedded in decisions made across more Departments and agencies than ever before. Having said we are talking about people not born or those who are born but cannot directly influence the democratic process, we must ensure their voices are heard on all issues. We consulted children and young people during the Covid pandemic about their views on mask-wearing, as well as on reform of the curriculum and wider issues like our response to climate change. Young people are now consulted in our country about policies in this area. That is an important step towards future-proofing decision-making but I recognise it is just a step. What is proposed by Deputy Ó Cathasaigh goes significantly further.

The national risk assessment, which was inaugurated in 2014, provides a whole-of-government framework for the identification of national-level significant risks, with a particular focus on strategic or structural risks which may arise in the short, medium and long term. There is a whole-of-government approach to the mitigation of these risks.

There is a lot going on across government to understand the impact of current decisions, threats and actions on future generations and getting that input into policymaking. I reiterate the importance of this future generations approach. As agenda 2030 emphasises:

The future of humanity and of our planet lies in our hands. It lies also in the hands of today’s younger generation who will pass the torch to future generations.

I thank the Deputy for bringing forward the proposal. I look forward to working with him on the concept he has set out and taking it through the legislative process in the months ahead. We have strong examples of this approach working in similarly sized and structured countries. It is a good initiative and I look forward to working with the Deputy on it.

3:40 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for bringing forward the Bill. I am getting my head around it. I received the briefing note from Coalition 2030. It gives a context for this coming before the Oireachtas and says the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action in its report on the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss recommends the establishment of a new ombudsman for future generations, with the resources of an office or future generations commission, to protect the long-term interests of human and ecological well-being for current and future generations. I completely get why the committee made the recommendation. It is because we are in a crisis of biodiversity loss and climate, which means a million species are disappearing off the natural planet every couple of years and, on top of that, the earth is warming up faster than scientists ever thought it would. The consequences of that are disastrous floods, droughts and famines, rising sea levels and other disastrous consequences for human and natural life.

I understand it but I want to comment on why it should not be necessary but has been made necessary. The briefing note suggests we should ensure public bodies and politicians are required to have a long-term lens on their plans and asks what if we had an office and person with sole responsibility for ensuring our country's policies had positive effects for today and tomorrow. I am sorry but I think every politician elected to this House and beyond should be concerned about tomorrow anyway and already have in their manifestos what they think about what will happen tomorrow.

Each day this week we have had another report published in this country from Barnardos, housing bodies, etc., on the impact of poverty and neglect on children. The latest one looked at the impact on children of living in poor and overcrowded housing conditions. It referred to levels of depression and alienation, lack of concentration on schooling and poor health outcomes. That is happening now to the future generations in a certain sector of society. Not the entire society is affected by it but the most impoverished and alienated sectors are cruelly feeling the cost-of-living rises on food, clothes and essentials. Parents, as Barnardos has shown, cannot afford to give children the money to go to swimming lessons, dance classes or school trips. Parents themselves are going without food or a social life.

I was at a public meeting of the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament during the week at which Age Action illustrated how the spending power of those on pensions has depleted by 25% in less than ten years. Each time there is a budget the Government gives the pensioners another tenner. If they are lucky, it is a bit more, maybe €12.50; if they are unlucky, they will get a fiver. We as the political class are failing not just future generations but current generations, including those who have retired and those who built this State before us. I do not think the answer to that lies in the creation of an ombudsman for the future; it lies in cop on for the present and a realisation that what we have in society is a neoliberal attitude to democracy. It is not that democracy has entirely failed but that it has adopted a neoliberal approach to running society. By that I mean everything in the here and now must make a profit for a certain cohort. They are called the 1% globally. That cohort makes vast profits off fossil fuels; in the case of vulture funds by owning and buying up property; from bank shares; or by developing a fast new car like Tesla and Elon Musk.

Whatever it is, there is a 1% cohort hurtling us towards a disaster. They are given every leeway by a modern democracy that recognises the neoliberalism method, where profit comes before people and before the planet, as the only one that is viable. Unfortunately for this planet all of the political class, including the party the Deputies belong to, have bought into that. There were young people of future generations in the Public Gallery earlier and it made me think back to the Fridays for Future demonstrations, which has inspired a lot of this. This is where schoolchildren, in line with Greta Thunberg's activity, were outside parliaments every Friday shouting "We need system change not climate change". I believe they understood by "system change" that the economic system, the way we fuel our world with fossil fuels taken out of the ground, and the economic system at its heart is not working and we need to change that system. This is why they were screaming at us.

Fair enough. If the Deputy and the Fridays for Future people believe that this requires a special office of an ombudsman for future generations then we would not oppose this Bill but we would seek to seriously amend it. By its very title it would imply that the office should be run by people under the age of 16. Otherwise it would be skewed in favour of those adults who are currently making a mess of the economic, political and environmental world we live in.

The Deputy and the Minister talked about an agenda that considers and addresses poverty, hunger, food systems, health, education, gender equality, clean water, sanitation, energy, economic growth, decent jobs, and the list goes on and on right up to climate change, oceans, ecosystems, peace, and justice. Surely to God that is our job to address all of those and now. If it is not happening then we are failing. The political class is failing the future generations and that is what needs to be addressed. I look forward to the summit of the future from the UN in September. It should make for interesting contributions from those who currently rule and run the world.

There is a difference between neoliberalism and how things can be done. My sister lives in Malmö, Sweden. We all in the past have admired Sweden for its approach to planning, to how it develops its country, and to the way it runs its economic and political system. Her neighbour is a town planner and there is not a plan that she works on in that city that does not start with "Where are the schools, where is the transport, where are the clinics, where are the playgrounds, and where are the parks?" That all comes first and the homes come in later. I have never seen that happen in Dublin or in Ireland. I would imagine it is the norm across Europe and other developed countries that one puts in the facilities, plans for the future, and thinks about the generations that will grow up there and live there. This never happens in Ireland. Why? It is because our planning is led by developers, by their needs, and by their greed and drive for profits, not by the future generations and what they need.

This country needs a wake-up call. It is not about following Sweden because, unfortunately, most of the other systems in Sweden including care of the elderly and crèche facilities are moving towards a neoliberal model and the privatising of a lot of the public services. Ireland needs a wake-up call to see how all our public services could be run in the interests of the public and in the interests of people and the children of the future, not in the interests of profit. This is what needs to be done.

I am keen on seeing this Bill progress, I am keen on amending it and I am keen on the discussions and the dialogue that we have around it. To be honest it is trying to put a plaster on a gaping wound rather than addressing what we need, which is system change, as the young people said. The Bill is trying to put another body in that would probably be run by older men and women who will look to what to future generations want. I will not use bad language in here but I believe the Bill is going about it the wrong way around. I will not go against the Bill but I will seek to amend it so it recognises a different type of approach to politics and not one that says: "We failed so let us try to put a plaster on a gaping wound".

3:50 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I congratulate Deputy Ó Cathasaigh on bringing forward the Bill. I welcome the principle behind what it is the Deputy is trying to do here. I am not sure if it is the exactly correct mechanism but it is important that we here in this Parliament and globally look to the future and look at the impact of the decisions we make today not just over our term in politics but the impact it has for future generations. The single biggest criticism I have about the political system is that we work on five-year cycles. It is all about the impact one can have over a five-year period rather than looking at the long-term implications of a decision and taking decisions in the long-term strategic interest of a country.

I am not sure about the actual mechanism Deputy Ó Cathasaigh is proposing for the establishment of an ombudsman. Quite a number of parliaments across the world now have established committees of the future where the parliament itself looks at the long-term projections around issues. They then work back from there with legislative, regulatory and policy steps that can be taken in the short term to achieve them.

I believe, however, that the principle behind the Bill is well warranted and I would like to see this legislation progress beyond this stage and have a far broader debate. Sadly, at global level today we see in society a restructuring of the pillars of society we had in the past. This is due to dealing with huge social and political changes, the financial crises and the pandemics. We see too that a shake-up is taking place in many democracies across the globe with an increased rise in populism. In tandem there is a huge technological shift taking place in automation, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. There is also the undermining of global institutions on a day-to-day basis. We see this with the United Nations, the UN Security Council, and the World Trade Organization that have now become effectively obsolete.

We now need to recalibrate everything and look to the future generations to see how we can work to achieve the goals we want to achieve in the future. That would help to bring about a completely different paradigm in human and planetary security. It would prioritise resilience, holistic well-being, and safety and stability, not just for individuals and for communities but for nations and for future generations to help them navigate the multifaceted challenges and opportunities that we have today. A number of these opportunities are emerging at the moment, including artificial intelligence, with its positives and negatives. In the past few days we saw the opportunities in human augmentation when a young child had a limb replaced, but where do we draw the line on that? There are also huge opportunities in the development of quantum computing. From a climate perspective one future development that will cause a huge geopolitical shift potentially is the whole area of geoengineering. What implication will this have for large countries in effectively controlling rainfall, where the rain falls and when the rain falls? This has a potential impact for conflict in adjoining countries, an environmental impact, a food impact, and - as a result of that - a political impact. We are now living in a world with huge environmental threats, huge geopolitical tensions and massive technological disruptions.

We need to look from a very different perspective to a more secure and prosperous future that will require new cross-border alliances, improved relationships between governments and businesses and, more important, national and institutional collaboration to mitigate some of these growing threats. The prism through which to look at some of these challenges is that of future generations rather than that of what is in a country's self-interest, which is the prism many countries look through today. Part of the reason many of our global institutions are being undermined is that societies right across the planet are becoming far more insular rather than global in their views.

One of the concepts that the UN has espoused, that of human security, represents a prism through which we might be able to look very differently at solving problems. That includes the foresight Deputy Ó Cathasaigh has spoken about, the long-term thinking, and feeding it into the short-term decisions we all have to make when around the Cabinet table. However, it is also about prioritising the security and well-being of individuals and communities regardless of their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, age, gender identity or geographical location. It is about ensuring communities most affected by decisions have a privileged voice in what happens and are listened to. This is imperative when it comes to the global south and the global rule-making that takes place daily.

It is also a matter of listening to local people, indigenous perspectives in many parts of the world and local communities in parts of Ireland in a way that challenges the groupthink we have for so long seen in this country and many others, where there is only one approach or solution rather than trying to bring people on the journey with us. If Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's legislation facilitates much broader engagement and a far more generous approach that involves listening to individuals and communities so we can work with them to provide long-term sustainable solutions that address not only the challenges we face today, including climate change, but also those faced by future generations, rather than just hearing what they are saying so we can respond to them, it is commendable. For that reason, I commend it to the House and hope it passes on Second Stage and that we can have a far more detailed discussion on Committee Stage. Well done to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh.

4:00 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I, too, join Members in praising Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for his farsightedness in developing and introducing this important legislation. If I have one regret, it is that I did not have the opportunity to do that myself. The Bill relates to an area I have been considering very closely in recent years. I have always taken an interest in the approach taken by our comrades in the Welsh Assembly and Government. The Welsh legislation was initiated by colleagues in the Labour Party in Wales. Several people in the Visitors Gallery this afternoon have an interest in our Bill and may have assisted and advised with respect to it. That is a good thing. I assure these individuals that having so many Deputies and a senior Government Minister contributing to the debate is, from my experience as someone who regularly contributes to debates on Thursdays and who has had some Bills drawn in the lottery, is a good sign. I hope it is indicative of genuine interest in the legislation and the requirement for our national Legislature and Government, and indeed future governments, to take the kind of approach in question.

It was once a given that each generation's lot would be better than that of the generation that went before it, or, rather, that the next generation would always be better off and doing better more generally than the one that went before it, but sadly that is no longer the case. The Legislature needs to take this more seriously and be more responsive. That is not easy. The social contract – the idea that by studying and working hard and making a contribution to society, you benefit from all the awards people should be able to obtain in a just, fair and equal society – is fraying for many reasons. We can talk all day about the impact of the so-called neoliberal agenda and the changes in politics and economic thought over the previous generation. There has, of course, been an impact and we all need to be concerned about that. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh has not overstated what this legislation can and would be expected to achieve. That is reasonable and fair. However, the Bill is an important contribution to creating a better, fairer and more equal society and to formalising a process we do not have at the moment. The Deputy proposes to introduce what is effectively a watchdog or, more appropriately, a guardian of the future to be put at the heart of government. It would keep governments honest in their approach to future generations.

As has been said, the Welsh Assembly passed the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act eight years ago. Under that Act, it established a commissioner, as this Bill seeks to do, to protect the interests of future generations in developing government policy. The Welsh asked themselves the question we must ask ourselves. What kind of country do we want to pass on to future generations? The Welsh decided on seven principles that would guide its new commission. It wanted to create a country for future generations that was prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal and globally responsible, as well as one that had more cohesive communities and a vibrant culture. It wanted to create the kind of country or globe we all want to see. To achieve these laudable goals, the new commissioner was asked to ensure policies would take account of the long term, to prevent problems from occurring and the worsening of existing problems, to ensure a collaborative and integrated approach across government departments and state agencies, and to consider the inclusion of people of all ages and diverse backgrounds in policymaking. While the results in Wales have been mixed, the commissioner has been vocal in calling the assembly and Executive to account regarding the long-term goals of the legislation. That goes to the heart of the point of the Bill before us.

Last year, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Derek Walker, said Wales was not making enough progress towards delivering on the promises of its legislation. His annual report can help to signpost pitfalls for this country and prevent us from making the same mistakes. Mr. Walker's 2023 report points to the cost-of-living crisis and its impact, particularly on those on low incomes, as having the greatest negative impact on pursuing the goals of the Act. Mr. Walker said:

This flagship report shows a mixed picture of progress across our well-being goals. Some of it is understandable given the exceptional circumstances we have just faced. However, seven years have passed since the Well-being of Future Generations Act was established and I am disappointed that we have not been able to make more progress, and for its impact to be felt consistently by communities across Wales.

That was considered by politicians in Wales to be a fair assessment of where they are at. A confident government and Executive confident in its own work and approach should not fear criticism and informed critiques of that nature. It leads to better policymaking, undoubtedly.

The establishment of a commission for future generations is an aim of Coalition 2030, an alliance of over 70 civil society organisations and trade unions in Ireland.

The Labour Party certainly subscribes to the coalition's aims and, in fact, our raison d'êtrefrom our formation is contained in those aims, ambitions and aspirations.

The coalition believes that establishing a commission that safeguards the interest of future generations will help Ireland to meet at least one of its sustainable development goals, that is, that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Coalition 2030 has stated that the biggest challenges facing our country and our world will not be solved by short-term thinking and has called for what it calls "cathedral thinking" that enables us to plan and initiate large-scale projects, which take a long time to realise, and to think about the future in concrete terms and not as something distant and abstract. We must make the shift from short-term election-cycle thinking to more long-term thinking and planning or the decline of the lot of future generations is guaranteed.

We in the Labour Party supported not just the principle but at every Stage supported the legislation introduced by this Government to establish the future Ireland fund and the climate, infrastructure and nature fund, which will be critical for the sustainable development of this country and for meeting the challenges of which we are too well aware. It is disappointing that no representatives of the largest Opposition party are here for the debate. They repeatedly claim to command the support of cohorts of younger people in this country. I do not think it is right or acceptable that there has been no contribution from the largest Opposition party, with all the resources it has at its disposal in terms of the number of TDs it has. This is not about short-term thinking but long-term thinking, and perhaps that is why. Some people in this Chamber specialise in tactics and not strategy, and specialise in short-term thinking to the neglect of the long term. They avoid the sacrifices and honest thinking that needs to be done if we are serious about the long term.

The Summit of the Future will take place at the UN in September 2024, as the Minister mentioned earlier. It is expected that a UN special envoy for future generations will be created. UN members will be asked to commit to taking future generations into account in their decision-making at national and international levels. Wales has been a pioneer in that regard, and Ireland could be the next early adopter by creating its own commission for future generations, as envisaged in Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's Bill. Coalition 2030 has stated, "We call on the Irish State to be visionary and to think beyond the usual 3 to 5 year political cycle." I and my Labour Party colleagues wholeheartedly echo that call. We urge the Government to establish on a statutory basis the position of future generations commissioner, with a strong mandate to ensure that no actions taken today undermine the sustainable future of generations to come. We would like to see an Oireachtas committee for future generations and the carrying out of generational tests on those decisions most likely to have a long-term impact.

I congratulate Deputy Ó Cathasaigh and wish him every success with the progress of this Bill, which the Labour Party wholeheartedly supports.

4:10 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I again thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for bringing this matter to the Dáil. I acknowledge, as Deputy Nash did, the range of contributions from across the House. We heard different but valuable perspectives, all of which pointed to the importance, significance and worthwhile nature of the proposal before us.

Across the Oireachtas, we all come from different political backgrounds and have our own views. However, by and large, everybody in this House has a common belief in leaving the country better off for future generations. In debating, developing and implementing policy and in how we approach our work as legislators, that has to be a central consideration. As Minister for children and youth, it is something of which I am always conscious. That is why I am proud that Ireland is a world leader in enabling youth participation and involving young people in policymaking, as I described earlier.

Some of the contributors in the Chamber spoke about the short-term nature of the electoral cycle here in Ireland and how decisions are too often framed around the four or five years of a programme for Government. There was also a criticism that an office or role such as that proposed by the Bill should not be necessary. Is it a failure of politics that we work in a cycle? Potentially, it is. It is certainly a symptom of politics, and has been for as long as people have been coming together and voting to decide on a leader. That symptom, with all its challenges, can be mitigated. That is why we put other institutions into our democratic structure. While this is the pre-eminent democratic structure, we put in place other institutions. We have put in place a range of ombudsmen offices, including the Ombudsman and the children's ombudsman, which provides important advice to me as Minister and puts real pressure on me and my Department to think of the things the political cycle does not pick up as quickly as it should. We also have a Garda ombudsman and a financial services ombudsman. We see the value in a role that is outside the political cycle and which has the capacity to influence, highlight and draw attention to key issues. That is why I particularly like the approach that Deputy Ó Cathasaigh has taken today. He is not being absolutely prescriptive in terms of what this office should look like. He is creating a commission for which he has a vision, and which includes an ombudsman, but he is not creating that role. He is creating a group that will look to see whether the best structure will include an ombudsman. Perhaps something else will be involved. Perhaps it will involve an Oireachtas committee and perhaps it will not. The Bill is open-ended in terms of the final result but it is recognising the cyclical nature of politics here, elsewhere and, in fact, everywhere, does not allow enough for the long-term thinking required to address the needs of future people and to take their importance into account. Those are things that do not happen enough although we try. All of us can cite examples where we did it well and are proud of what we have done. Many of us have achieved some element of future thinking but it is about doing that in a co-ordinated way across all decisions. That is where the real challenge is because there are areas where it is easy or doable to look to the future but there are also areas where, politically, making those long-term decisions is hard. That is why having an office to draw our attention, as a polity, to the need to do that is hugely valuable. This proposal has real merit and as I said in my earlier contribution, I look forward to working with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh as we bring this Bill through the legislative process.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Before we go back to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, I congratulate him for the futuristic nature, as it should be, and the thought-provoking nature of the debate. His proposal is important in the time in which we live. The Deputy has ten minutes.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach. I do not propose to hold all the long-suffering Members quite as long as that. I thank all the Members who have attended to make a contribution this evening. This is very much the graveyard shift, a Thursday evening before recess, and I know all Members would prefer to be out on doorsteps and making the case for future candidates in our local and European elections.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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Making the case for the current ones too.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I appreciate the time they have given to be here this evening. I have found the debate very constructive and interesting, and I am glad the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach found it so as well. I am glad there is, for the most part, a consensus developing around the idea that this could be a useful approach.

The Minister spoke about the steps we, as a Government, have taken to move beyond GDP, that simple conception of how we measure the success of our economy through material throughput. That is an essential piece of work we are going to have to accomplish sooner rather than later, not just in Ireland but across the world. We are going to have to conceive of a way where society works for people in a way that is consistent with our planetary boundaries. We know that with the obsessive focus on GDP, it is difficult to make those two things meet.

The work we are doing on the well-being framework is valuable. I reiterate, but this time in the English language, that there is a deficit in terms of the 12th indicator around language and culture. We have seen that adopted in the model in New Zealand. We have seen an excellent example in the Welsh framework and that is something we should be concentrating on.

This is a digression but I do not think we can properly understand someone's sense of well-being if we do not have comprehension of their ability to access culture, be it a session in the pub, a match in Croke Park, a play at the Abbey Theatre or from wherever it is that people want to access their culture and have that sense of self-expression. Similarly, our well-being as a nation is greatly enhanced by the existence and persistence of the Irish language and I would like to see this built on.

The Minister mentioned the obligations we have under the sustainable development goals and the key role that Ireland played in negotiating them and the obligation that comes with this. The Cabinet has a role in overseeing their implementation and ultimately it lies with the Minister for the environment. However, it is not always the case that they are front and centre in the development of policy. Very often we get retrospective matching, whereby instead of starting with the 169 subtargets that really are the meat and drink of the sustainable development goals, we find a policy is written and somebody finds which nice colourful badges we will be able to apply in retrospect.

The Oireachtas committees are beginning to play a very important role in holding Departments' feet to the fire in terms of the implementation of the sustainable development goals. This is something I included in the Standing Orders of each committee at the beginning of this term. The Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, which Deputy Naughten chairs, was one of the first committees to do this rigorous investigation of a Department in terms of the subtargets for which it is the main lead or stakeholder Department. It is a very useful exercise. I have also seen it happen at other committees since. The Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment has looked at it and the Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is looking to do it also.

This comes back to the central point of what we are trying to achieve in the legislation. As Deputy Nash said, it is to put in place a guardian or a watchdog. It is all well and good that we have this well-being framework, and that we will hear it reported on in the Summer Economic Framework. How this really tracks through to the budget and the decisions made in the budget remains to be seen. We have not really seen how the well-being framework will be fully incorporated into the budgetary cycle.

Similarly with the sustainable development goals, in some places and in some Departments we get a first principles approach, whereby they really are incorporated right from the off in terms of policy development. In other areas we get retrospective matching, lip service and box-ticking exercises. The role of the ombudsman would be to hold the Departments' feet to the fire and to hold public bodies to account. This is another significant area where the Welsh model has made great strides.

I will comment on some of the contributions made by other Members. Deputy Bríd Smith references the fact it is a recommendation included in the Oireachtas joint committee's response to the citizen's assembly on biodiversity loss. I was very happy to see it in there. I was very happy to see the idea getting wider traction. She questioned the necessity of an ombudsman and the role that person would have. The Minister has already countered this very effectively by citing the example we have in the Ombudsman for Children and the useful tension between the role of the Minister and the role of the Ombudsman in terms of advice and constructive criticism. We also see it in other walks of life. I could also cite An Coimisinéir Teanga, who plays a very important role. I accept the Deputy's point of view but I disagree with it. There is a role to be played by an ombudsman.

Deputy Naughten spoke about Finland's Parliamentary Committee for the Future, which is a very good example of this.. This was brought to my attention by Dr. Tadhg O'Mahony. The Committee for the Future has a very powerful role in terms of advising the Government on its programme for government. The Prime Minister must report to it on progress. It is a very interesting model and it is within the legislation that the commission could consider it and come back and make a recommendation on it.

I thank Deputy Nash for his kind words. He points out that we stand in danger of violating the social contract. It could be that the next generation is the first generation to be less well-off than their forebears. This is something we need to counteract and plan for. It is already part of the discussion when we look at the housing crisis at present.

I am delighted to have had this debate and to have heard the positive feedback. I do not wish to be presumptive, but I am also delighted to have an indication that the Bill will be allowed progress to the next Stage. I spoke about Dr. O'Mahony. One of the central ideas he put to me is that thinking about the future is a way of building a political consensus. We may all disagree violently over the small things concerning decisions on today and tomorrow but if we focus on some 30-year or 50-year goal and what we want our society to look like then, perhaps we will be able to build a consensus around it across the aisles and maybe we will then be able to work backwards.

In fact, we have seen a model of this type of approach in Sláintecare, even though the implementation is slower than I think we would all like. Perhaps, by doing this we can come to an understanding, arrive at this style of cathedral thinking and come to a way of doing politics that is beyond just being a Punch-and-Judy show approach day after day. We could focus on these long-term goals and begin to plan backwards. Perhaps, this is a way we could create a more constructive and useful politics that really does put the principle of sustainability right at the heart of our decision-making here.

4:20 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for a very interesting debate. It is very appropriate for this particular time.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The question has been carried and the Bill will be dealt with in the usual way in due course.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 5.07 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 11 Meitheamh 2024.

The Dáil adjourned at at 5.07 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 June 2024.