The Commissioner’s view on the EU referendum
If the UK Government were bound by the Well-being of Future Generations Act, would the EU Referendum have gone ahead?’ Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner reflects on what the Brexit result means for Wales’ future
As the implications of the Brexit result are fully understood and explored in the immediate weeks following June 23rd’s monumentally generation-changing result, the consequences for Wales are yet to be fully realised. It is clear that despite the large amounts of EU funding received by Wales, the myth that ours is a pro-EU nation has been largely dispelled, with 52.5% of Wales voting to leave the EU and with just five areas voting to remain, despite the Welsh Government’s recommendations and Brexit forecasts.
Bound and governed by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000), I have been previously unable to comment on either side of the EU referendum campaign. The Well-being of Future Generations Act came into force just a few months before the referendum vote took place and whilst it applies only in Wales, it is a piece of legislation considered to be internationally ground-breaking and is something I believe could have led to alternative decision-making if there was a similar piece of legislation in place at a UK level.
In short, the Act requires public bodies, including the Welsh Government, to think about the impact of the decisions they take on future generations – ‘a body must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. It requires public bodies to embed what are known as the sustainable development principles, requiring them to plan for the long term, to integrate and collaborate how they plan and deliver services, to prevent problems before they occur and to involve people in the decisions which affect them. It also puts in statute a set of well-being goals which include plans for a more prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, cohesive and globally responsible Wales. I believe that the results of the vote will have profound implications on almost every one of these goals, and the lives of future generations.
Following the vote, issues we need to particularly watch out for surrounding children and young people include the extent to which high quality education training, skills facilities and programmes will be delivered without EU funding as well as the question of living, studying and pursuing career opportunities abroad. As the Welsh Government conduct their curriculum review, perhaps we need to reconsider our ideals and views of global citizenship, of what it means to live in an inclusive society and our understanding of other languages and cultures. Of course given recent horrific racist incidents across the UK there are also immediate concerns about ensuring cohesion within the many diverse communities in Wales and UK right now.
It is also imperative that both the Welsh and UK Governments do not allow the Brexit vote to become an excuse to dismiss the Paris Agreement and forgo their commitments to tackling climate change, with Director of Sustainability from PwC Jonathan Grant warning ‘there is a risk that this could kick EU ratification of the Paris agreement into the long grass’. Friends of the Earth have declared ‘the fight starts now to make sure the UK doesn’t water down environmental safeguards from the European Union.’ We need a guarantee that we will not back-track on these progressive policies aided by the EU, and that we are cautious of the amount of ground we give to parties who are openly less convinced by climate change. Ironically, those most sceptical of climate change are those most eager to close our borders. As more and more experts predict mass-global migration as a consequence of climate change, a failure to recognise and act on this quickly could well be storing up huge problems of mass migration around the world whether you’re part of Europe or not.
Closer to home, Cardiff Council leaders raised questions on Friday regarding the funding of the City Deal for the Cardiff Capital City Region and similar redevelopment and infrastructure projects that were set to bring in millions of pounds in future investments for Wales. How can we follow through on the sustainable development goals and guarantee a more ‘resilient’ and ‘prosperous’ Wales- what will happen to the £136m fund, backed by the EU, secured by Finance Wales to back growth-focused SMEs?
But aside from these economic challenges what the result largely says to me is that we have a substantial problem with the contract that our public institutions have with the public. Despite the fact that almost every credible institution warned about the dangers of leaving the EU the public have not taken this on board. And when you look at how the votes went in Wales you will see that those areas in most need were the ones voting in their masses to leave – symptomatic, I would suggest, of a growing perception of mistrust of the mainstream and a failure of our institutions to listen and to respond to their needs.
One of the 5 ways of working that form part of the Act is ‘involvement’, the requirement placed upon public bodies to place those most affected at the heart of the decision-making process. Underscoring these feelings of apathy and discontent with the current political establishment are statistics from IPSOS MORI that revealed only 13% of the public felt that they had a stake in the services they received. This portrays a public whose decisions are made and ‘done to’ them, with the Brexit vote heralded as the protest vote that the disenfranchised were waiting for.
And that brings us to the ‘elephant in the room’, the great peril that we raise yet another generation for whom decisions are made and over which they have little say or control. YouGov statistics reveal that 75% of 18-24 year olds voted to remain, with just 39% of over 65’s. We run the risk yet again of creating a UK in a wider context that fails to plan for the long term.
On Monday morning, teenagers and young people, many too young to legally vote in the EU Referendum, protested outside the Senedd, understandably angry at the decision made on their behalf and potentially at their expense. Perhaps a larger question for the UK Government is whether the Referendum should have been called in the first place, given the knowledge of older voting trends. If the Well-being of Future Generations Act applied to the UK Government, would elected officials have been able to call a Referendum that encourages such short term thinking, reactionary decision-making and a failure to fully prepare the foundations for a Wales and UK that is built for our future generations? And even if there was a determination to proceed then, I believe the application of the principles of the Act would have led to mitigating steps being taken to prevent such a generationally disproportionate result.
In my view that mitigation could have been in the form of extending the right to vote to 16 year olds. There were several attempts during the passage of the European Union Referendum Bill 2015-16 to allow the EU franchise to include 16-17 year olds, with Baroness Morgan warning ‘they will possibly never again get a say on their country’s future relationship with the EU.’ These changes were denied, with the Government citing the ‘time-consuming operational work that would be required to register these young electors.’
As a mother to five young people whose lives are going to be far more heavily affected by these changes than mine or any of the politicians currently wrestling with the Brexit fallout, the necessity and strengths of the Well-being of Future Generations Act seem all the more evident. From the public and politicians there are calls and petitions for a second Referendum, along with questions over the legitimacy of the Brexit vote. There is clearly a democratic duty to listen to the 52.5%, but I can understand the anger, particularly from our young people who feel that they have been denied a say.
This anger, coupled with the fact that the vote last week did not deal with the terms of the exit I believe that a second Referendum should be called. When there is clarity on what those terms may be, at that point we must respond to the need to take into account the views of our future generations. The constitutional wrangling post-Brexit may call into question the future of the Wales Bill which could provide powers for Welsh Government to legislate to lower the voting age. If this does not progress, then the UK Government should take steps to implement legislation to lower the voting age for the whole of the U.K. This is an issue so significant for our future generations that much more needs to be done to balance the views of the older majority who voted to leave with the young majority who wish to remain. It is only then that we can be confident of shaping a Wales which is outward and forward-thinking, a Wales that does not resemble a country of the past but one that is built for, and built by the Wales of the future.