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Loneliness and Local Communities

Volume 631: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2017

We will move immediately to the next debate, which is very heavily subscribed. I want as many Members as possible to have the opportunity to speak, but that will of course depend on interventions and other speakers. I ask Members to bear that in mind.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of loneliness on local communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to see so many colleagues from across the House here to support a debate on the incredibly important issue of loneliness. More than 9 million people in the UK report that they are always or often lonely. The Office for National Statistics believes that the UK is the loneliness capital of Europe. I hope that the debate will be an opportunity for colleagues from across the House to share the impact of loneliness in their communities, but also to celebrate the local interventions that are making such a difference to so many people.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. I see so much work in my constituency by local groups that bring people out of their houses and give them company to deal with loneliness. Will she join me in congratulating all those groups that do so much work in that respect?

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating all the groups across our constituencies, including Bramley Elderly Action in my constituency, which has turned a struggling day centre into a thriving community centre, bringing old and young together.

As well as celebrating what is happening in our own communities, we are also here to support the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, of which I am co-chair with my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). As Jo Cox said, loneliness is an urgent issue. As I see it, loneliness is a warning sign that our needs are not being met. Hunger is a sign that we need food, thirst is a sign that we need water and pain signals that our body is sick and needs healing and repair. Experiencing loneliness tells us that there is a gap between our need to connect and the reality of the connectedness that we have at that moment.

This is not a call to end loneliness, even if that were indeed possible, because if we never experience loneliness—that need for human interaction—we would not know how it felt to be connected again. However, for too many, loneliness is a feeling that lasts too long or never quite seems to go away. Loneliness is today’s silent epidemic; it is both chronic and acute. However, being lonely is not necessarily the same thing as being alone. Someone may be far from home and family and feel lonely, but they might be surrounded by people and feel lonely too.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I am very concerned about loneliness in younger people. I wonder whether she will come on in a moment to the effect of social media, which can increase the feelings of worthlessness and loneliness, which are fundamental and long term?

Indeed; I think something like one in six calls to ChildLine are from young people who feel lonely or isolated. Loneliness is something we should worry about not only among older people, although that is a significant issue, but among younger people. The connection searched for on social media is sometimes not a real connection, which should concern us, although we should also recognise that things such as Skype can help to keep people connected. I definitely share some of those concerns.

Last week, I visited the Newcastle office of Independent Age and I heard how its friendship service actually has more volunteers than people registered to receive its support. People of any age can volunteer. Does she agree that volunteering benefits not only those who use the befriending service but those who volunteer and provide that befriending service?

Absolutely. I met a group of befrienders in Bramley in my constituency. They talked about the impact that their befriending has on those people whom they support but also the real impact that building those connections has had on their lives.

As we all know, loneliness is bad for our mental health, but it is bad for our physical health as well. Research suggests that loneliness is worse for us than obesity, in terms of mortality, and that being acutely lonely is as bad for someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Just last month, Helen Stokes-Lampard, head of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that loneliness can be as bad for someone’s health as a chronic long-term condition.

It is close to Christmas, which can be a particularly difficult time for those who are lonely and alone. I celebrate the Kirkby Christmas lunch, which is the brainchild of somebody called Pip Forbes in Kirkby. It brings people together, spreads festive cheer and gives them a Christmas to remember. I put on the record my thanks to people such as Pip Forbes who are addressing this.

I know my hon. Friend is a proud champion of the people of Ashfield and the people there who do so much work in our communities. The reality is that, without work like that by her constituent and others, more people would feel lonely at Christmas and throughout the year.

The truth is that loneliness could be killing us, but no one is talking about it. However, somebody talked about it: our friend and former colleague, Jo Cox. Jo said that loneliness was an urgent but solvable issue. Jo came into Parliament in 2015 wanting to do something about so many issues, including loneliness. For Jo, it was personal. Jo’s grandfather was a postman in Cleckheaton, and as a young girl during her holidays, Jo used to accompany her grandfather on his rounds. She realised that, for many people, her grandfather was the only person they saw that day.

Later, when Jo went to university, she experienced loneliness. Most of us will remember Jo as a confident, fun-loving person who was always full of life and energy, but it was not always like that for her. When she went to university, away from her friends and family and, particularly, from her sister, Kim, whom she was so close to, Jo too felt the chronic loneliness we are talking about.

I thank the hon. Lady, who is my friend, for giving way. I pay tribute to the partner organisations that have worked with the hon. Lady and me on making the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness such a success. I thank Ruth Price, Julianne Marriott and Danielle Grufferty for all their dedication in supporting the commission’s work. I know it is not normal for the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary to speak, but I put on the record that, although it is a burden I would never have wanted to carry, it has been the honour of my professional life to carry on work in Jo Cox’s name.

I thank my friend for that intervention. I also thank her because, in Parliament after Jo died, I said that it now falls on all our shoulders—Jo’s friends and family; all of us—to take forward Jo’s work. The hon. Lady heard that speech and approached me in the Members’ cloakroom the next day to ask whether I would become co-chair of the commission.

Until then, loneliness had not been something I had worked on or championed, but I agreed to meet the hon. Lady for a cup of tea to discuss it. Later that day, I received an email from Jo’s former researcher, Ruth Price, who said it was fantastic that I was happy to step into the role. Even later in the day, I received another email from Kirsty McNeill, one of Jo’s closest friends, saying it was wonderful and that all of Jo’s friends and family were delighted I had taken it on. The hon. Lady is indeed a great lobbyist and the Prime Minister has in her a great PPS.

Later, when Jo became the MP for Batley and Spen and was knocking on doors and attending community events, she saw that loneliness was a lived reality for many of her constituents. Jo was determined to put loneliness on the agenda as the Member for Batley and Spen. Jo was essentially a practical person who worked across parties. She said in her maiden speech that

“we…have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]

That was the way that Jo approached politics as well as life. Jo worked with the hon. Member for South Ribble in setting up the commission in the first place, and it is my pleasure and privilege to carry forward that work.

Jo’s view was that, young or old, loneliness does not discriminate, and that is the guiding light of the commission’s work. Over the last year, we have shone a spotlight on some of the different groups who experience loneliness. Loneliness can often be triggered by moments of transition in our lives, whether it is losing our job, going to university, having a child for the first time or bereavement. All those things can be transition points for loneliness.

As I said earlier, loneliness often acutely affects older people, many of whom feel invisible between the four rooms of their home. Age UK has shown that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and that half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend every day alone.

Does the hon. Lady agree that loneliness is a particular issue in rural communities? For older people, it is not only the fact of their age, but that there is little transport and often no broadband. I pay tribute to my communities, and particularly my churches, which have done such a fantastic job and done the right thing by getting groups together and making sure that people are not on their own at Christmas.

There are particular challenges in rural areas, as the hon. Lady says, but there are also issues in towns and cities, where we have so many people around us but we do not perhaps have the close-knit communities that are so important for combating loneliness and isolation.

The commission has also shone a spotlight on loneliness among men. The hon. Member for South Ribble and I visited a Men in Sheds project in May. Some of the men who attended the project lived alone, and others lived with family, but they came together to share craft and companionship. Projects such as those, which do something to tackle loneliness, are not always badged that way, but they are helping people to make connections, often engaging them on issues they have in common.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for the fantastic work they are doing in this area. Another very important initiative connected with the Jo Cox Foundation is the Great Get Together, which made a massive impact last June. I believe that something like 9 million people participated in it. I am sure my hon. Friend is already reflecting on this, but I wonder whether there is an opportunity to join some of the work around loneliness with the work of the Great Get Together and plan something with even more impact in June next year.

My hon. Friend is right. We all came together last June on the anniversary of Jo’s murder as part of the Great Get Together to share food, laughter, companionship and friendship with our neighbours and friends. That was a really powerful moment in paying tribute to Jo and everything she stood for. There are, indeed, plans to take that forward, which I will come on to later.

As well as older people and men, loneliness affects disabled people and carers. Our partners in the commission, Sense, found through its research that 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day, while a staggering one in four people admitted to avoiding conversations with disabled people, feeling they will have nothing in common. Carers UK surveyed carers around the country and found the sobering statistic that eight out of 10 carers felt lonely or isolated as a result of caring or looking after a loved one.

I thank the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for all the work they do in this area. The Great Get Together certainly brought communities together in my rural area, as does the great work of the Rural Coffee Caravan, where a coffee shop is put in a caravan and taken round communities. The hon. Lady very articulately made the point that sometimes things happen to us in life that cause us to be lonely, as our horizons diminish. Carers do not ask to care. People who suffer from Alzheimer’s also fall into this group, along with young children at school, with the pressures of social media. Does she agree that this can happen anywhere and to any one of us?

I thank the hon. Lady for that powerful intervention. She is absolutely right that loneliness does not discriminate; it can happen to anybody. I pay tribute to the work in her constituency in Suffolk through the coffee caravan.

As well as having a direct impact on those experiencing it, loneliness has a social impact. Lonely people tend to visit GPs more often. Seven out of 10 GPs say that at least one in 10 people coming to their surgeries are there primarily because they are lonely. Lonely people stay longer in hospital and find it harder to cope and heal, adding even more pressure to our national health service.

Outside of my life in the public sector, I have worked in the hill livestock industry. I remember, from the period of foot and mouth disease, how people in that industry were simply working alone most of the day. I remember the impact that I had as a public representative simply by ringing up those who I knew were on their own and struggling, just to talk to them. A practice that all of us can enter into, especially at Christmas time, is simply to ring people up and say, “I’m the MP. I’m just ringing up to see how you are,” and speak for a couple of minutes. That has a huge impact, enables people to talk about it to their friends and makes them more a part of things. That is a real plus and all of us can do it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. So many of the stories today are about things we can practically do, as individuals, as part of our communities and in our role as MPs.

In the last few weeks, in other Westminster Hall debates and in their constituencies, Members have done work to tackle loneliness. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke in a Westminster Hall debate last month about the need for English classes for refugees and asylum seekers. She described how in Glasgow, welcome letters are sent to newly arrived refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) held a loneliness summit, bringing stakeholders together from across Liverpool, and the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) used the commission’s “Happy to Chat” badges to get older people to chat to someone new at an annual fair in his constituency. The solutions to loneliness have to come from the communities who experience it at first hand and have to be relevant to the communities in which they operate.

Loneliness affects around 2,500 people in Barnsley. Does my hon. Friend agree that as Christmas approaches, local projects such as Age UK’s Barnsley Christmas friendship café play an important role in tackling loneliness?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I know that in her short time as a Member of Parliament, she has already made a real difference in her community on this issue and so many others.

Yesterday I participated in a live discussion on Facebook and asked for suggestions for tackling loneliness, ahead of this debate. Loads of fantastic ideas came through, with hundreds of people getting in touch. People spoke about work to bring children and older people together. Someone mentioned the Friendly Bench, which is funded by the Big Lottery and is a mini kerbside community garden specially designed to connect the lonely, isolated and people with limited mobility with each other and with nature. I also heard from Mush, an app for new mums that encourages them to connect over social media to share their worries but also their happy moments.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I have to say that her former colleague would be very proud of her and of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). This point has been made before, but I wish to make it again. Charities in my constituency and in all our constituencies do so, so much work. They are often unsung heroes. I wonder if the hon. Lady would pay tribute today again to the work they do.

I am happy to pay tribute to the work that happens in Maidstone and around the country to tackle these issues. There is, though, undoubtedly a role for Government, too. Support at the top level is vital if we are to see the vibrant community and local authority-run projects and interventions such as those mentioned today.

We also need systems in place to measure loneliness properly. At the moment, loneliness is measured in the English longitudinal study of ageing. However, we have spent this year talking about how loneliness affects us all, not just the elderly. We need Government commitment to measure loneliness at a national level, and we need local authorities supported and resourced to do more locally. By supporting local authorities to uncover what is working, we can pump resources into interventions that really make a difference to all our constituents.

As the Royal College of General Practitioners has said, loneliness should not be disregarded as a minor problem. Our GPs need to be supported to give not just clinical prescriptions but social prescriptions as well. They could encourage patients to get out into the community, using volunteers—befrienders and others—to ensure that people who are struggling most get the support and access to the local services that so many people have spoken about powerfully today.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. It has almost brought a tear to the eye of an old firefighter as well; this is a very emotive subject. Loneliness, as we see, has no borders. My accent tells people that I am from the other side of Hadrian’s wall, and we have the same problem there. It also spans the generations; it spans the age range. Could I mention just one initiative? There are many groups that try to tackle this issue, such as befriending societies, but in Ayr we have Street Pastors, who play an early-intervention role on the wettest and most miserable nights, at 2 and 3 in the morning. I am sure that Street Pastors operate throughout the United Kingdom and I commend them for their good voluntary work. The Government and we all as parliamentarians need to work hard to ensure that this country loses its title as the loneliness capital of Europe. We need to talk to and befriend people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Jo very much believed that the solution to loneliness is in each and every one of us. We all have to do our bit to reach out to an elderly neighbour who we know is on their own, perhaps particularly at Christmas time, and to phone someone who we think might be struggling. Actions such as that can make a real difference to people’s lives, and I again commend everyone who is doing such work.

There is a stigma attached to loneliness, and a taboo. One reason for the commission is to try to tackle that and to encourage people to talk about their feelings and experiences. Some of us struggle even to tell our loved ones how we are feeling. A Gransnet survey suggested that the vast majority of people would rather share their feelings of loneliness online than with their friends and family. That might be the quintessentially British thing to do, but it also means that too many people suffer in silence. As I said, Jo thought that solving the issue of loneliness starts with each and every one of us. That is why we use the slogans #HappyToChat and #StartAConversation —to encourage people to do just that.

I am sorry to interrupt the flow of a wonderful speech. The hon. Lady talks about people not being willing to talk about their feelings—not being happy to chat. As I know, an issue that often arises is that one partner in a relationship can be suffering from loneliness, for example, following the birth of a child, and the other partner is not knowledgeable about or aware of the issue and does not know how to deal with it. That can exacerbate the situation—it can make things worse—and lead to issues in the home, which reinforces how important it is that we are able to talk to each other in our homes.

That is absolutely right. Issues of post-natal depression are sometimes linked to loneliness. What should be the happiest time of your life is not always like that for a lot of people. That is the point: a lonely person is not always the figure that we might have in our mind of an elderly lady outliving her relatives. Loneliness is all around us. People who are lonely will be seen as much on a busy street as in the living room of a house with an older person living there. Part of the role of the commission over the last year has been to do just that—to remind people that loneliness does not discriminate and to get people to be more willing to talk about these issues, because only if we talk about them, as we now do much more about mental health, are we likely to solve them.

I want to conclude by saying a little about the Great Get Together and the work that is coming up with the Jo Cox Foundation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said, 9.3 million people took part in the Great Get Together this summer. The Jo Cox Foundation will be building on that with the Great Christmas Get Together next month, to ensure that no one has no one at Christmastime.

In December, the loneliness commission manifesto will be launched by the hon. Member for South Ribble and me, so that we start to give some of the answers to some of the questions that I have posed today, building on the work that the commission has done over the year, but also with the input from all the hon. Members who speak today and the different groups that they talk about.

Loneliness is a blight on our society, and too many suffer in silence, so it is up to all of us, from Westminster to our constituencies, to come together and take the action necessary, and do Jo proud.

Before I call Neil O’Brien, followed fast by Tracy Brabin—I just want to give you warning—I am going to impose a three-minute limit on speeches. The three Front-Bench spokespersons, including the Minister, have agreed that they will not take much time at all; in fact, I do not intend to call them until 5.23 pm at the earliest. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind. Taking interventions will mean that we move to two-minute speeches, which as Members we know is utterly useless, but that is where we will end up if Members take interventions. I call Neil O’Brien.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing this important debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). I will be as brief as possible, Mr Paisley.

Many hon. Members present will have had the experience of knocking on doors and finding someone who wants to carry on talking to us because we are the only person they have seen for a long time. There are many statistics in this area, which the hon. Member for Leeds West is more knowledgeable about than I am. The statistic that always strikes me is the one from Age UK that 3.6 million people over the age of 65 say that the TV is their main form of company. This is a profound problem, and in my constituency it is one that many people want to do something about. There are brilliant organisations such as Voluntary Action South Leicestershire, which has a befriending programme that helps not just the befriended but the befriender. The Churches do so much, and there are groups such as Age UK, which has great programmes, including Elderberries.

I would like to turn the conversation a little towards solutions. Loneliness is increasingly recognised as a problem. The hon. Lady is right to say that the first step is to measure the problem more, so that we know what interventions best address it. In the short time available, let me suggest just a few different things that we might want to discuss.

We could expand the National Citizen Service—a brilliant initiative from David Cameron that sees young people doing more in their communities. We could think about how to encourage more multigenerational living. Multifamily households are the fastest growing type of household in the UK today. By bringing younger and older generations together in one household, we potentially address not just the problem of loneliness, but some of the questions about the costs of an ageing society, because we would have younger people looking after older people.

We could think about the challenge of ensuring that everyone in our communities has a good ability in English. As I go round my constituency, I am often sad when I knock on the door and meet constituents who are not really able to have a conversation with me. That is not just bad for their ability to take part in our economy and our society, but incredibly isolating for them; they are often women. We could think about how we provide English for everyone.

We could think about how to spread initiatives for young mothers. I am thinking of organisations such as the NCT. This is something that I have experienced in my own family: we have absolutely relied on the network that we built up of other young parents through the NCT. Not everyone is able to access that, because it is a paid-for service, but I wonder how we could spread that kind of service and network to more people. Perhaps related to that, but much broader, is the question of how we can use technology as a tool to fight loneliness. I have been very encouraged in that respect by some of the projects in my constituency. Older people, who always say that they do not want to get involved—

Thank you for calling me, Mr Paisley, in this important debate. I am grateful for all the work that my hon. Friends have done in continuing the work of the late Jo Cox in tackling loneliness.

The truth is that loneliness is a widespread problem. When I was a 26-year-old actor, I was probably not an obvious suspect for suffering from loneliness. However, I had been living in London and I split with my long-term boyfriend of five years. In a mad weekend, having saved a deposit from a long theatre tour, on impulse I bought a ticket to Brighton, saw three tiny flats and put in an offer on one that day. I was obviously still heartbroken and not thinking straight. In the first few weeks, I was delirious with joy. I had bought my own place with money that I had earned as an actor—a huge achievement. But when summer faded and autumn and winter set in, the steady stream of London pals visiting for the day dried up, and I was alone and desperate. I cried myself to sleep with loneliness more nights than not. I am a gregarious can-do person, so I would force myself to go to gigs and events, libraries and coffee bars just on the off chance that I would meet someone I vaguely knew, but it was excruciating. Superficially, I may have been smiling, but inside I was screaming, “Be my friend” and then, conversely, “Don’t look desperate!”

At the time, I could never have imagined admitting that I was lonely, but I was. I was embarrassed about being needy, about not winning, about looking like a loser. I tell this story to illuminate how loneliness can affect anyone, at any age. It can affect toddlers, teens, young mums, carers, children in care, disabled people, widowers and widows. Loneliness is a gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach, a loss of companionship, a realisation that days have gone by and you have not spoken to anyone. My feelings of loneliness definitely added to my stress. I felt anxious and depressed. I probably drank more than I normally would; I probably ate more, as a comfort; and I felt overall dissatisfaction with my life.

With the Jo Cox loneliness commission, I am very proud to say that Batley and Spen is a brilliant community tackling loneliness. The Royal Voluntary Service has more than 170 volunteers, of whom 100 support older people as community champions. Local community groups and drop-ins are run by volunteers, none more effective than the RVS. The same service offers community companions and individualised one-to-one support for older folk, taking them shopping and to appointments, working in partnership with Batley Old People’s Centre.

Loneliness can strike anyone at any time. For anyone who is listening who feels lonely, please do not be shy. Reach out to organisations that can help—they are waiting to hear from you.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Paisley. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on the work of the commission, which looked into this important issue.

I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for ageing and older people and this issue has been a focus of our work, too. We held an inquiry last year looking at the issues of social isolation, which clearly is different from loneliness, and at the context in which many people can become lonely, which has become worse as there have been so many cuts on services. We really need to focus on those issues, on taking down the barriers to loneliness and on enabling people to go forward.

Currently 1 million people in later life are lonely—they describe themselves as often or always lonely. That is an issue that we obviously need to tackle. There are 1 million people today who are ageing without children. We know that the rapidly changing demographics mean that that will be 2 million by 2030. There are some serious issues coming to us, which we really need to get a grip on. Indeed, 49% of people living alone are over the age of 75. I will work with the commission and with the all-party parliamentary group to ensure that we tackle these issues for people in later life.

There is a positive side to this story, too, and that comes from our communities. I witness in my constituency of York Central the amazing work that is being done to support older people. I hold it up as a good model. York Neighbours, which came out of the churches, carries out jobs for people across our community, makes regular calls on people in our community and arranges trips to enable those environments where people can start forming relationships and friendships. We have Lidgett Grove church, which has an intergenerational café, so youngsters are mixing with older people. Revitalising new families are giving people the connection that they need. We have the St Sampson’s Centre, which is there for the over-60s, providing food and drink throughout the day, where anybody can come into our city and gather; anybody passing by can sit down and they are welcomed and form new friendships. That is open throughout the week. That is something that is really special in our city.

We have heard about the Men’s Sheds. York Men’s Shed, which I helped get off the ground, has been an incredible place where people come to tinker and talk. It is a great place for men to gather. They perhaps would not openly talk about the issue of loneliness. Of course, organisations such as Age UK do incredible work as well.

We know that there are serious issues. Looking at older people and the challenges they face, particularly around this area of loneliness, has driven me throughout my life. There are so many challenges and so much good is coming from that work. When we work together, we can really make a difference and ensure that older people have the support they need.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing the debate and on all her work on this issue, alongside the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) and so many others, including, of course, Jo Cox. I did not have the privilege of knowing her—our time in Parliament did not overlap—but even as someone who did not get to meet her personally, it is so clear how her inspiration shines through and lives on in initiatives and debates such as this.

I love the practicality of the hashtag, #HappyToChat, about empowering individuals to make small changes that together can add up to become a big solution to a problem such as loneliness. We all pay tribute to the many volunteers in our communities running the lunch clubs, the faith groups, the youth groups and the community spaces that provide opportunities for people to interact and to help to combat loneliness.

I am conscious of time, so I am afraid that I will not.

I remember my time as a new mum on maternity leave. It is so easy to understand how loneliness can creep in and how you can feel like climbing the walls with a new-born. Despite the fact that you are spending 24 hours, 7 days a week with another human being—perhaps it is not despite that, but because of it—challenges arise. It is so easy to feel isolated. At the other end of the age spectrum, I recall my grandfather Matthew Marshall, who, after my grandmother died, I think did feel loneliness. It was compounded by the fact that he suffered from deafness. Particularly as part of a generation that was not able to embrace the internet, that became a massive isolating factor and another layer of difficulty.

On the positive side and the value of social interaction, my grandmother Gladys Swinson—my dad’s mum—lived independently on her own to the age of 99 and then for a further two years in a home. I think one of the secrets to her longevity and long good health was that every day she made a point of going out on the Broadway and going into the shops to get her messages and speak to the individuals. I think the value of that to health is so significant.

The key message we need to learn from this is the value of human interaction. In an age of tablets and smartphones, of technological developments, it is so easy to overlook the importance of a kind word, a friendly conversation, a smile or a hug in all our daily lives, in our public services and in our interactions in shops, at the bus stop, at the school gate, in the queue at the post office, with neighbours, friends and family. Those have such an impact on our quality of life, yet they are not captured in the economic data that too often drives decision making to the exclusion of all else. We cannot be reduced to pounds and pence, to figures on a spreadsheet. Our humanity matters and connecting with others matters. We must all ensure that the issue of loneliness stays on the political agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing this debate and on all the work that she and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) have done on this agenda in memory of our friend Jo Cox.

As we have heard, loneliness is by its very nature hidden and can affect just about anyone in society, although some groups are more likely to be impacted than others. I do not want to repeat the substance of the many excellent contributions; I just want to reflect on some of the issues I have heard about locally.

I was fortunate enough last week to talk to a number of health and wellbeing co-ordinators in my consistency, and much of what I will say is based on what they told me. The sad truth of the matter is that, for all the effort and focus going into tackling loneliness, there are a number of reasons why the many great initiatives we hear about are not always as successful as we would like them to be.

The No. 1 challenge I heard about from wellbeing co-ordinators was transport. They had a real concern that, although they could refer people to particular groups and activities, in order to access these the patients often rely on public transport or community transport groups, both of which have been decimated in recent years. Part of the issue with transport was not just that the community groups are not as well funded to provide the services, but that there are not enough volunteers to meet demand. That is a common theme in many voluntary organisations. Often, we have fantastic people doing a great job running them. I would like to place on record my appreciation of the great work that they do, but we must remember that these volunteers are just volunteers and they have their own lives, too. Sadly, sometimes things happen in their own lives—illnesses, new caring responsibilities or changes in working commitments—which mean that they can no longer commit the time to volunteering that they would like to. Sometimes, because that person has been the driving force of that particular organisation, the organisation suffers. I would like to see much greater capacity building among volunteers, so that we can overcome these challenges.

It is about putting organisations on a sustainable footing. The question of sustainability also applies to funding. There are lots of pots of money out there to support good causes, but they are often time-limited or for specific purposes and frequently are not able to be used on day-to-day running costs. It is also the case that a certain level of dexterity needs to be applied to actually access the funding in the first place, so I would like to see greater support for people to successfully apply for these pots of money.

There are lots of great people in my constituency who freely give their time to help to tackle loneliness—luncheon clubs, befriender schemes and Men’s Sheds are just three of them—but we have lost other organisations for a variety of reasons in recent times, such as Endeavour, which was doing an excellent job in my constituency in reaching out to older people but sadly had to shut down over the summer. It has not been replaced, which is hugely concerning, and because it is not a statutory service, the only way we will see an equivalent scheme is if there is somebody out there who decides to start another one from scratch. That hardly seems to me a coherent or sustainable way to tackle one of the biggest challenges in our society.

Thank you, Mr Paisley, for calling me in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing the debate.

Over the next five weeks, in the build-up to Christmas, we will see many adverts on television and online promoting all sorts of products, with the backdrop of a happy family sitting around a well-stocked dining table, ready to tuck in to their Christmas dinner, all happiness, smiles and laughter. For many people, that will be the ideal they strive for, but for others that representation of Christmas could not be further from the truth. We now have an estimated average of 1 in 3 people living alone in the UK, and many of them are not alone by choice. Christmas can be a very strong and unwanted reminder of the cause of their circumstance and lead to increased stress and sadness.

The stark reality of loneliness was brought home to me some years ago, on Christmas day in 1996 to be precise, which I had the misfortune of spending in hospital at St Mary’s in Paddington. On that Christmas day I was lucky enough to have friends and family visit, but it was noticeable to me that other patients on the ward had no one. It then struck me that even though those patients were at their most vulnerable, some having had major surgery, on such a significant day of the year no one was coming to see them—to take an interest in them, comfort them, listen to them, share their hopes and fears and bring them news of friends and family. The late Mother Teresa expressed it perfectly when she said:

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”

Loneliness can affect anybody, in any profession, at any time. No one is immune to it. Being a MP can lead to periods of loneliness, especially for those who have to travel long distances every week and are without their children, partners or family members on a regular basis. It can also be very debilitating.

I am reassured by the number of charities and campaigns that are attempting to tackle loneliness in older people, including the Campaign to End Loneliness. In my constituency we are lucky to have the Ruth Winston Centre, which provides so many wonderful activities for the over-50s, and of course we have heard about the amazing work that the Jo Cox commission is doing, and will continue to do, in tackling loneliness and social isolation.

We all have a role to play, especially at this time of year, as we reflect and remember others, whether by sending Christmas cards, phoning people we have not spoken to for a while or buying presents. Perhaps we should also try to remember our neighbours who may be living alone in our street and whom we may not have spoken to in a while. We could all be making a big difference just by spending a little time with them, especially at this time of year, which should always be about giving. I would encourage everyone to think of someone they have not spoken to for ages or who they know is alone and to make contact and start a dialogue with them. Those minutes spent making contact could be saving someone’s life. We should all be happy to chat.

Thank you, Mr Paisley; it is a pleasure to be called. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on setting the scene, and I congratulate all those involved in this issue on behalf of Jo, who we knew from this place.

No man is an island; no woman is an island. The truth is that while we can do things, we simply do not need or want to do them alone. In the short time I have, I want to focus on a couple of things, and in particular the statistics from Northern Ireland, where alcohol-related deaths among women have almost doubled in three years. The figure went from 6.4 per 100,000 females in 2013 to 11.8 in 2016. Addiction NI says that over-55s are quietly drinking themselves to death. They do not cause any bother or get involved in antisocial behaviour, but they sit at home alone and simply drink. That is symptomatic, I believe, of the scourge of loneliness in our nation. Addiction NI says that it is due to relationship break-ups, bereavement and redundancy. People feel alone, with no hope.

We have this every day in my constituency, as indeed we do in all constituencies. People come in who have lost their partner of 40 or 50-odd years and who feel loneliness greater than they ever did before. I want to commend some of the organisations that do tremendous work. Others have referred to churches, and the churches in my area are very active in dealing with people who are bereaved and making sure they have someone to speak to.

In one case, for example, the church was wonderful. They sent someone round once a week—they would have loved to do more, but they could not. I wrote to the GP and the health trust to ask whether the care package could be uplifted. As usual, funds were not available, but that is a fact of life. I contacted the local charities, which were struggling to provide the time for house calls, although they were able to do some. One thing we did get done through other charities was to put in place a phone system. We need to have more of those systems in place.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) referred to Street Pastors. They do great work in my constituency. They meet vulnerable people in the streets at night, when they are probably feeling at their lowest and most vulnerable. It is important to see those things. Community groups have senior citizen nights and craft nights too.

That lady was able to get help through our office, not because we are more important than anybody else but because we were able to do that. How much harder must it be for those who are not asking—never mind screaming —for help?

I make this call on the Minister, ever mindful that in Northern Ireland 20% of people are often lonely, according to stats from the Co-op and British Red Cross. I believe those stats are probably representative of the whole of the United Kingdom. I ask the Minister to look, as I know he will, at how we can help voluntary organisations, how we can ensure their funding and how we can encourage everyone across the whole of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to help one another. Reach out and make a phone call to a neighbour—that is a start.

Order. Before we move to the next speaker, unfortunately I will have to reduce the time limit to two minutes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing this important debate.

While none of us is immune to being lonely or socially isolated, we know that older people are especially vulnerable, primarily because they face greater personal or wider societal barriers. In Coventry, which is ranked 59 out of 326 at a local authority level on the loneliness index, it is estimated that more than 3,400 people aged 65 or over are often lonely.

Over recent years there has been a greater focus on loneliness among older people in our communities, and that has been accompanied by a shift in our understanding of its impact. We know there is an established link between loneliness and poor mental and physical health. It affects a person’s wellbeing and quality of life, increases the onset of frailty and functional and cognitive decline, and has serious implications for a person’s mortality and morbidity. The consequences of loneliness are felt not only by the individual directly affected, but by society, through our public services, as lonely individuals are more likely to visit their GP, use A&E services, have higher use of medication and undergo earlier entry into residential or nursing care.

Thankfully, in Coventry there are some faith and third sector organisations that offer preventive, responsive and restorative services, such as the collaborative Good Neighbours Coventry scheme. The befriending, practical support and group activities offered through the scheme can prevent loneliness; but even where problems already exist, it can be responsive to them. Finally, it can be restorative, by helping individuals with entrenched problems to build new and meaningful friendships and regain confidence.

If we are ever to get a grip on this wholly avoidable problem, we need the Government to ensure that adequate resources are available in each and every community to prevent anyone from being lonely or socially isolated—

Thank you, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing this debate on such an important topic, which she has championed so well.

I would like to start by reading a short excerpt from one of my favourite stories:

“‘Yes,’ said the bear. ‘I emigrated, you know.’ A sad expression came into its eyes. ‘I used to live with my Aunt Lucy in Peru, but she had to go into a home for retired bears.’

‘You don’t mean to say you’ve come all the way from South America by yourself?’ exclaimed Mrs Brown.

The bear nodded…‘You can’t just sit on Paddington station waiting for something to happen.’

‘Oh, I shall be all right… I expect.’ The bear bent down to do up its case again. As he did so Mrs Brown caught a glimpse of the writing on the label. It said, simply, Please look after this bear. Thank you.”

That is an extract from “A Bear Called Paddington” and it is something that we all need to take notice of. Mr and Mrs Brown saved a lonely bear from deepest, darkest Peru. They gave him friendship, love and something he could call a family.

As we talk today about loneliness, we need to listen to Michael Bond’s words. He was someone I knew well, who took inspiration from lonely refugee children with tags around their necks fleeing London during the second world war. That inspired his stories about Paddington. His stories are more than a great child’s favourite; they are stories about how each one of us can play a small part in reducing loneliness, like Mr and Mrs Brown did for Paddington.

Loneliness occurs across the globe, from refugee children in war-torn countries who have lost their family and belongings to places close to home in my constituency of Colne Valley. Clem’s Garden in Lindley is a community project designed to reduce loneliness in over-50s through the simple act of gardening. It is a not-for-profit enterprise set up and run by my constituent Vicky House—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for securing the debate. I am proud to be hosting a Jo Cox loneliness summit in my constituency tomorrow, specifically on parental loneliness. I will bring together national organisations such as Action for Children and the Young Women’s Trust, and local organisations such as Bromley Maternity Voices, Mummy’s Gin Fund and the local women’s institute, as well as a lot of local parents.

This issue is close to my heart, as I suffered from loneliness after I became a mum. I now know that I was not alone in feeling lonely after having my son almost three years ago. Recent research from Action for Children found that 52% of parents admitted to suffering from loneliness, with a fifth saying that they had felt lonely “in the past week”. Its survey of 2,000 people found that the majority felt cut off from friends, colleagues and families after the birth of their child.

For me, the shift from being a busy lawyer, working to strict deadlines with a daily task list to work through and a really good social life, to being at home every day, suddenly with a lot of time to fill and little structure, was quite a shock. Were it not for coffees and play dates with friends I had met through my National Childbirth Trust antenatal class, I would have found things very difficult. However, my struggle with loneliness really started after my maternity leave finished and I set up my own business and started working from home. I could sometimes go for days without having a proper conversation with another adult, and the only time I would leave the house was to collect my son from the childminder. It became a vicious circle, where the more isolated I became, the harder I found it to go out.

Thankfully, with support I was able to get back on track, but it is that experience that has driven me to want to tackle loneliness in my constituency. I hope that this debate encourages other people to reach out to their communities to help to combat isolation and loneliness, and that it helps people to know that it is okay to say they feel lonely and to ask for help and support.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing this important debate and on the work that she and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) have done as co-chairs of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.

I had the privilege to be part of the Jo Cox women in leadership programme. What Jo said was absolutely right:

“young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate…it is something many of us could easily help with.”

In what seems like a lifetime ago, but in reality was only a little over two months, I gave my maiden speech. I spoke about how my parents arrived in this country from the Punjab in India and how they understood what it felt like to feel new, alone and lost. I also spoke about the issues surrounding mental health and emotional wellbeing that can lead to loneliness and how they can be cruel and indiscriminate.

Although loneliness is often automatically linked to old age, it in fact permeates the whole of society—young and old, rich and poor, male and female. According to the Office for National Statistics in 2010, more than half of all people over 75 lived alone, with nearly 4 million older people saying that television was their main form of company. However, new research conducted by Action for Children reveals that more than half of UK parents have suffered from loneliness, with more than a fifth having felt lonely “in the past week”, while more than a third of children also say that

“they have felt lonely in the last week”.

Given that loneliness affects every corner of our society, both mentally and physically, it is imperative that every effort is made to rid ourselves of the concerns presented by loneliness. It really does not take much. We all lead busy and hectic lives, but by taking just five minutes out of our day to speak to someone who might not have any human interaction, we can all make a real difference to someone’s life. I applaud the work being done by various organisations—some of which I have mentioned, but there are many others—on what is a truly preventable problem. I am pleased to have been able to participate in this debate and I will continue to support the battle against loneliness in any way I can.

Thank you very much, Mr Paisley, and I thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) for organising this debate. I will not say any more about that; I want to get on to the meat of what I have to say.

Loneliness and isolation are widespread across all levels of society and all ages. We know that there is a link between loneliness and poor physical and mental health and that it impacts on everyday life for everyone. Among older people, loneliness doubles the risk of developing dementia. A 2006 study found that women without close friends were four times more likely to die of breast cancer than those with 10 friends or more.

Loneliness can have a particular impact at Christmas, when moods are lower because of darker and colder days, and when getting out can be much more difficult, especially in Scotland. Families may be at a distance or non-existent, so in 2016, the SNP Scottish Government set up a fund to tackle loneliness and isolation. They used £300,000 to help young and older people who become lonely and isolated, giving money to existing organisations to help their work. The great thing about that funding is that it is being distributed to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, to older people—everywhere.

Last Christmas, there was a great campaign that those who were in Scotland at the time will remember. It was about asking older people to get involved—I have a personal interest in the subject, being an older person, so I embrace that. Sometimes, physically meeting people does not help, but we have organisations such as Breathing Space, which people can phone up to talk about issues and get help, and there is also the Samaritans. Money is not always the answer. I am a bletherer—for those who do not know what that means, many people in the Chamber and across Parliament know me because I talk to them. It is great. People generally talk back, and as leaders in our communities, we should be doing that.

I commend the organisations in my community that I have worked with, including churches, the blether and friendship club, and the knitting club. We really need to take a lead on this—loneliness kills people—and Jo Cox should be remembered in this way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on securing this important debate. There have been some moving personal stories. We have heard about great community groups, and I would like to commend two in particular in my area: Abram Ward community co-operative, which has a Men’s Shed project making some great go-karts; and Wigan and Leigh pensioners link, which connects the over-50s, but gives them practical help as well, including helping them to use the internet to connect with people who perhaps are away.

This debate has highlighted the work of the Jo Cox loneliness commission, which is ably chaired by my both my hon. friends—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy—and is another link in the chain of connections that brings us all together to combat the stigma and the actuality of loneliness. It shows us that we can all do our part—the Government, local authorities, community groups and individuals. “Happy to talk” perfectly described Jo Cox. If we can take that spirit out into our local community, for me, that is the perfect way to remember her.

On a personal level, I thank the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), and I put her on notice that I will give her a minute to close the debate. There are few days when I come into work—I have been coming here for seven years—and walk out at the end of the day thinking, “I am really proud of this House of Commons where we all work.” Today is one of those days, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of such an important debate.

It has been absolutely clear during the debate that the societal norms that we have here in the UK are isolating people in our community, but it is also clear how many brilliant people we have in the communities we serve. They are determined, like us, to tackle this issue. It is good that we have had the opportunity to discuss this issue, and the brevity of the contributions from the Front Benchers does not mean we do not take it seriously. It means that every single Member of the House has something to add to the debate and that their voice should be heard.

The support and cross-party nature of this issue is exemplified by the work of the Jo Cox commission, led by the hon. Member for Leeds West and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). Jo’s life here in Parliament was marked by compassion, but more importantly by a passion for a fairer, kinder and more tolerant world. The work of the loneliness commission, which I commend, will ensure that her passion and vitality will never be lost.

As a Government, we welcome the Jo Cox commission’s work. It has kick-started a national conversation on loneliness here in the UK. That is why we look forward to receiving its recommendations when they are published next month. Although it is absolutely correct that the commission should expect the Government to respond formally and in full to those recommendations, I do not believe that today is the day to do so. When we talk about loneliness, we must ensure that we do not just talk about strategies and Government programmes. We must use the capacity that every single one of has to intervene on a personal level when someone is facing a lonely time in their life; we must take the opportunity to make things better, even if we can only do that in a very small way.

I thank the Minister and everybody who has made such impassioned contributions, either about their experience or the wonderful things that happen in their constituencies. Thank you, Mr Paisley, for chairing this debate.

It has been a huge privilege to co-chair the Jo Cox loneliness commission. As the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) said, it is not something that either of us wanted to do, but we have both been very proud to take forward our friend’s work. There is so much happening in all our communities, and I hope that next month, when we publish our manifesto, we can reflect all that great work, build on it and, with the Government’s support, help to ensure that this is a country and a world less lonely.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect of loneliness on local communities.

Sitting adjourned.