[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered loneliness and isolation in elderly and vulnerable people.
Imagine a room of people of all ages and demographics. In this gathering, there will be vulnerable people. It is reasonable to say that a small child is vulnerable. People with visual and hearing impairments could be described as vulnerable. People with severe learning disabilities or lifelong debilitating conditions could be described as vulnerable.
In that room full of people, we would also find those who feel vulnerable and withdrawn simply because of the way we do daily modern society. They are being left behind. They can no longer access what they may have taken for granted just a few years ago. Modern life has potentially destined many of them to a life of loneliness and isolation. I want to focus my thoughts this afternoon on those people, because their vulnerability does not need to be accommodated or catered for; it is entirely avoidable.
First, I thank my constituent, Chris Goninan, who has been the driving force behind the Penwith 50+ Forum for many years. This remarkable organisation celebrates its 20th birthday this year, after two decades of enhancing the quality of life for older people in Penwith. A vital part of improving their quality of life is tackling loneliness, whether that is through driving people to church or social events or starting a local radio station to keep them in touch. I was a district councillor when we started Penwith Radio. It is now Coast FM, but it has stuck to its core mission of connecting the local community, giving good local news, information and advice to people, and reassuring them, in their homes, about their local area and the part they play in it.
In three weeks’ time, the 50+ Forum will be hosting its Christmas lunch at Pengarth Day Centre for older people who would otherwise be spending Christmas alone. I look back with fondness at the work of the 50+ Forum. I had a role as the champion for children and young people on Penwith District Council. Together with Chris Goninan, the champion for older people, I organised intergenerational events such as car washes at the fire station in Penzance and St Buryan Garage. I also supported the St Ives 50+ Forum’s efforts to secure a minibus from the Department for Transport, which enables volunteers to ferry older people to meetings and appointments, which makes such a difference to the lived experience of many elderly people in my constituency.
It is appropriate to be holding a debate on loneliness among older people at this time, as Christmas can be the hardest time for those without family around them. According to Age UK, 1.6 million older people find Christmas day the toughest of the year, with over 1 million elderly people feeling lonely over the festive season.
Chris is among friends, as the British Red Cross has recently published a call to action on tackling loneliness and building community, which has been supported by over 90 sector partners, including Age UK, Mind and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Together as a sector, they are calling for renewed national leadership on loneliness and connection, and a dedicated Minister for loneliness to lead a refreshed national strategy, overseen by the Prime Minister and supported by a cross-governmental team. The strategy would set out measurable objectives to be delivered across Government to address loneliness across all ages and among key risk groups. The sector is also calling for accountability for delivering on loneliness, and annual reporting by the UK Government, against their delivery of key strategic objectives, on how Government Departments have contributed to tackling loneliness and building connection, and national monitoring on levels of loneliness.
The Centre for Ageing Better is promoting a good home hub, which would offer practical support, advice about financial support, home assessments, trustworthy signposting—particularly to tradespeople and others who would work in the home—and support to get the most efficient and appropriate housing. This kind of model would ensure proper engagement and care that can specifically address isolation and loneliness.
Age UK is also fully engaged in the issues that Chris and his 50+ Forum friends are campaigning on, and has its own campaign, “Offline and Overlooked”, which focuses on ensuring that older people who are not online have fair and equal access to public services. An example of how Age UK is trying to address the problem is the telephone friendship service, which matches older people with a volunteer for a regular chat each week. Many older people say that the calls are the highlight of their week, and their volunteer friend might be the only person they get to speak to. In 2022, Age UK supported 239,656 telephone friendship calls, and 94% of people said that their wellbeing had improved since they started receiving the calls.
Age UK also runs the Silver Line helpline, a 24-hour, free, confidential service for older people. The Silver Line provides friendship, conversation and support for people aged 55 and over, especially those who may be experiencing loneliness and isolation. In 2022, the helpline handled 183,280 calls, but even this service is at risk, as we ditch copper landlines and switch to wi-fi-only connectivity in our homes.
There is no concern when the power supply is maintained. However, even this week, thousands of homes lost connectivity to the electricity supply due to the severe weather. I have some very concerned constituents, especially on the Lizard peninsula, who fear being completely cut off when this technology is fully adopted. I have yet to get an adequate response to inquiries that I have raised in order to reassure people that they will not be left in the dark without a phone or any means of communication. Age UK’s telephone friendship service or the Silver Line helpline is no use at all if a power cut kills people’s telephone connections.
Anyone can be lonely, but the elderly and the disabled are particularly vulnerable. One in three people over the age of 75 says that their loneliness is out of control. Life events such as the loss of a partner, combined with reduced mobility or managing on a fixed income, isolate people from social contact, which we all need to combat loneliness. Those factors can converge and reinforce themselves; loneliness affects mental health, which causes people to lose confidence in their ability to socialise, or to feel overwhelmed in social settings, and so they become more lonely.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on this vital topic. As he will know as a fellow member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, we published our report this year on rural mental health. Rural isolation is a real risk factor, in terms the pressures it places on people’s mental health. We stress the importance of connectivity, whether physical in terms of transport, or virtual in terms of broadband or the mobile phone signal. I have been privileged to welcome new bus vehicles to my constituency—the Border Rambler and the Fellrunner vehicle—which were provided by volunteer networks and offer people a lifeline. Does he agree that it is important to support rural bus networks at central and local government level, as well as at volunteer level? They are a lifeline for people, and we should strongly support them.
I support that, and my hon. Friend is right to refer to our report from the EFRA Committee. In my constituency, we have a number of community-led bus schemes. Douglas Woolcock, for example, runs two buses that allow people to get to appointments and other things that they need to lead normal lives and fulfil normal functions. It is right to welcome broadband and all the things that connect homes and communities, but so often we rely on community organisations and volunteers to provide some of these services—things that it is important that only communities can do—but they should not be welcomed at the expense of things that maybe the state should continue to support and foster.
To support that point, the Minister’s own Department has reported that loneliness can contribute to early death. The effect of loneliness on mortality is thought to be on a par with that of other public health priorities, such as obesity and smoking, and it also increases the risk of depression, low self-esteem, reported sleep problems and an increased stress response. Loneliness also creates a greater risk of cognitive decline and the onset of dementia, all of which are good reasons to be discussing the issue today and trying to find solutions to address loneliness and isolation as much as we can.
We referred to fibre and broadband connectivity, and some older people are able to break the cycle through technology. That is a fantastic thing. Like many of us, one 70-year-old in my constituency discovered Zoom over lockdown. Now her family has to work around her busy schedule of Zoom calls to friends old and new all over the world. Evenings are out because she talks to America, and early mornings are for new friends in New Zealand. But—and this is a big “but”—she was only able to do that because she had a grandson who could talk her through setting up Zoom on her computer. I would like to meet him so he can help me. She also had a daughter who could talk her through buying a computer. I could not say how often I go to my 16-year-old just to try to set up wi-fi calling on my phone.
For many elderly people, that is not the case. Social isolation leads to digital exclusion, and digital exclusion leads to further social isolation. Life becomes more difficult for the 2.4 million people aged 65 or over who do not use the internet. The more they are cut off from everyday activity, the lonelier they become. The same is true of people with disabilities, who make up 60% of internet non-users.
The Government have not published a digital inclusion strategy since 2014, yet so much of our lives is online now. We can all give anecdotal evidence and examples from our own lives, but the statistics show an increase in average monthly data usage of 731% since the 2014 strategy was published. As many of us do more and more on our smartphones, it is easy to forget that more than 3 million people aged 65 or over do not use one, and 1.6 million do not even possess a mobile phone.
Another point that tends not to get much airtime is the dramatic shift in how some letter and small parcel delivery companies have evolved their business. The delivery man or woman rarely takes time to wait for someone to answer the door or even check if anyone is in. Instead, they use their technology to record the delivery and move on to the next address. Although it is not the job of delivery drivers to look after the wellbeing of residents, this is another aspect of human interaction lost to people who might not see anyone from one day to the next.
We are all familiar with the recent campaign against ticket office closures on the rail network, and we will remember the argument that 86% of train tickets are now bought online. However, we need to remember who is buying the other 14%—or, as is the case in Penzance, who is buying the third of tickets that are sold in the ticket office. As one of my constituents wrote to me when Penzance ticket office was under threat,
“Not everyone has computers or mobile phones, especially in Cornwall where mobile reception can be poor and many older people aren’t computer-savvy. The staff in Penzance are professional, kind and thoughtful. They demonstrate an understanding of levels of ability both physical and mental. They are never impatient or unkind and frequently find a much better deal than friends do online!”
The hon. Member is making an excellent speech that really strikes a chord with all of us. In my constituency, and indeed in the whole of the north of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland has announced that it will remove all its mobile banks. One can imagine what that means for old and vulnerable people experiencing loneliness in my vast and scattered constituency. That is why I will be raising the matter repeatedly in this place.
I appreciate that intervention. I was in a meeting this morning about finances, and there was an audible desire to get everything digital—that is, until we start thinking about the very people we are showing we care for today. They will never be in that space, and will never be confident or comfortable, or even feel—I will cover this later—that the risks of banking online are worth taking.
As we race towards a potentially digital-only platform, it is our job, and the Government’s job, to pause and ask who will miss out or be left behind, and to ensure that that does not happen. As I have said, my main concern is those whose loneliness and isolation can be completely avoided if we get this right. Although change is welcome, we must be sensitive, take people with us, and accommodate those who cannot jump on in the same way that perhaps we can.
The testimony about ticket offices given to the train companies’ consultation persuaded the Government that they should ask train operators to withdraw their proposals. People object to moving everything online. Indeed, they might not even be able to do that. There will always be some people who struggle with the internet, and they need to be catered for. . I want the Department for Transport’s example to be followed by all Departments, and I ask the Minister to take a lead on that. We have protected elderly people who cannot navigate the internet but want to navigate a journey to see friends or relatives; now we need to help them to navigate their day-to-day lives.
As public services increasingly move online, day-to-day essentials such as banking, making an NHS appointment or even paying for parking become more difficult for those who are offline. All Government services should be accessible to those who are not online. At the moment, many councils provide no offline access to housing benefit, council tax reductions, rebates or blue badge applications. That is completely unacceptable.
Last month, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will ensure that people without internet access can use Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services, such as paying road tax or renewing their driving licences, after the DVLA contract with the Post Office expires in March next year. The response was that the “vast majority” of licences were renewed online, and there was no guarantee that the contract would be renewed.
I recognise that there is a commercial discussion to be had about the cost of renewing the contract, but the Government should factor in the cost to older people whose social lives depend on the ability to drive—as is the case for many in rural constituencies such as mine, as was referred to earlier—and the cost to the Post Office itself. Six million customers access DVLA services across post office counters, and half of them pay in cash. Removing those services from post offices will not just impact vulnerable people, but remove an important source of revenue for such vital and often very rural services, which provide people with access where it is not otherwise available.
Post offices have always been important to rural communities. They have become even more important as a backstop for those who cannot access essential cash, postal and Government services elsewhere. Recent research found that only 47% of those aged 65 and over said they could find an alternative way of accessing pensions and social benefits. The Government should be doing everything they can to support the network. Access to cash is essential for elderly people, many of whom cannot or will not bank online. Even those older people who are comfortable with email feel uncomfortable banking online or transferring money electronically. We have heard many examples from our constituents of fraud and scams, which quite rightly concern more vulnerable people. Age UK’s research shows that 27% of people over 65 manage their accounts via a branch or physical location such as a post office.
Without banking services, those who do not bank online are cut adrift and are less able to participate in society, so the roll-out of banking hubs must increase at pace to avoid leaving communities to become banking deserts. At the moment, Link will consider a banking hub only after all commercial banks have left, as they have in St Ives and Helston, in my constituency. Helston Town Council and others deserve credit for convincing Link to provide the town with a banking hub. It will open next year, but that means that the town will have been without a bank for a whole year. There should be a more proactive approach that ensures that no one is left without a counter service.
If nothing else, the Government should ensure that all Government services are easily accessible to everyone, even those without access to the internet, and nowhere more so than in the NHS. Last week, I had an email from an 81-year-old constituent. His wife, who is not computer literate, received an email that she did not understand. Luckily, he was able to cope, but he complained that he had to jump through hoops to download a document even to understand what the email was about. Other older people do not have a helpful spouse. As my constituent wrote:
“I find it staggering that the NHS in Cornwall insist on trying to communicate with patients via email, text messages and mobile phone—when some of us don’t have a signal or are too old to deal with so called improved services. Frankly, a simple telephone call would suffice or at least if any form of communication contained a telephone number.”
Because of the work we do for our constituents, we all know that “improved services” are not necessarily improved. Last month, the journal BMJ Quality & Safety carried a report about the safety incidents resulting from remote consultations: missed, inaccurate or delayed diagnoses; delayed referrals; and underestimates of severity or urgency.
But even when remote consultations are medically justified, they do nothing to combat social isolation. A face-to-face consultation is more than an evidence gathering exercise: it can be the only social interaction many older people have. I met with a number of people from the Penwith 50+ Forum last Saturday, and one lady made a very important point. She said that when she went to see her GP face to face, he picked up other medical conditions of which she was completely unaware and which could not have been picked up on an online or telephone consultation. In the long run, social isolation will cost the NHS and the Government more. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure and reduced immunity against infections. It increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%. We know that loneliness can be as dangerous as obesity or smoking: it increases the risk of early mortality by 26%.
I recognise that I have covered a lot of ground, but it needs to be said that the Government have the ability to fix this and help many of our older and vulnerable constituents to avoid a very bleak existence. As the Government consult on eliminating smoking altogether, for example, will the Minister commit to a similarly aggressive approach to tackling loneliness? Will he engage with Age UK, the British Red Cross, and others who are concerned about the current direction of travel and make a proper assessment of how many of our constituents, especially those over 65, are impacted by so many services moving online? In conclusion, I am convinced that the loneliness and vulnerability that so many people face would be eliminated if we responded adequately and effectively to this challenge.
It is an honour to serve under your guidance, Mr Sharma, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who made an excellent speech. I congratulate him on securing a debate of such value and importance.
Loneliness and isolation can affect any one of us at any given time, and over periods of time. They can be caused by all sorts of things. None of us is immune to them. If we are to value the dignity of every single human being, we need to accept that, sometimes, the person affected could be us, or someone we know or come into contact with. These people are valuable, and we need to care about them. The consequences of loneliness and isolation are often physical as well as emotional, so we should care deeply. The hon. Member for St Ives is right to point out the particular susceptibility of younger people to loneliness and isolation.
Westmorland and Lonsdale is, of course, the most beautiful place in the whole of the United Kingdom, if not the planet, and definitely in north-west England. It is also the oldest place in north-west England: we have the oldest population of any constituency there. Nationwide, 19% of people are above 65. In Westmorland and Lonsdale, the figure is 28.5%. My average constituent is 10 years above the national average age—I am above that age now, but never mind. The consequences are significant. Look at what happened last weekend. It shows that while age and other forms of vulnerability can be triggers for isolation, so can rurality, as my neighbour, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), and the hon. Member for St Ives have said. Isolation was massively multiplied in Cumbria over the last few days, during which there was pretty extreme weather, even by our standards.
This is the moment to pay tribute to all those across our communities in Westmorland who sought to meet people who were snowed in, often in desperate and isolated circumstances: the police, all Westmorland and Furness Council workers, and people working for Electricity North West. I also thank all those who opened the doors of schools, village centres, community buildings, and indeed their businesses for strangers in their hour of need. It is a reminder of how important community is, how difficult it is to construct, and that it is an organic thing. It is a reminder of how precious it is, and in the last few days in Cumbria, we have seen it at its best, but we remember too that community is under extreme threat, especially rural communities such as ours.
I got a call a few weeks ago from an older gentleman; he was 80. He rang my office team for advice on something fairly basic. He lives in a community of about 14 houses, not too far from Hawkshead in the Lake district. He apologised—he should not have done—for ringing us and said, “This is the sort of thing I should’ve been able to find out myself. I would’ve called my neighbours, or knocked on their doors, but I haven’t got any.” There are 14 houses, but only one of them is lived in, and it is lived in by a single widowed man. I thought that was desperately sad. Across our communities, there are so many people like that gentleman.
Second home ownership has grown to the extent that many of our communities are hollowed out. Coniston, for example, which did a brilliant job for all the people stranded there over the weekend, is a wonderful community, but 50% of its properties are not lived in all year round. We need to think about how loneliness is effected—how we create isolation by allowing the market to let rip on our housing stock, and by not having full-time residential communities.
There are things the Government can do about that. The Government have promised to do something about short-term lets. The problem is that they are taking quite a while. Perhaps when the Minister sums up, he will address the fact that the Government made a promise—the Minister at the time made a promise to me during the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill’s progress through the Commons—to change planning law so that short-term lets would become a separate category of use from long-term lets. That is important, because tenants of long-term lets are long-term community members, whereas the tenant of a short-term let will change by the week. That can have a big impact on our community as a whole, but it also reduces the sense of community and the number of people living in it.
Will the Minister say, in his remarks at the end, whether the Government will keep that promise to bring in a change to the planning law in April, so that communities like mine, right the way from Appleby to Coniston, and from Windermere to Kirkby Stephen, can have a high number of homes that are always lived in, and so that our communities can fight against isolation?
A knock-on effect of so many properties in our communities in Westmorland and the rest of Cumbria not being permanently lived in is that the workforce is hollowed out. We already have an older population, which therefore has greater care needs and vulnerability. We also have a smaller reservoir of people of working age to care for them, who can afford to live in the area and serve those needs. That adds to the sense of isolation. Tackling the housing crisis is also about tackling the care crisis and the loneliness crisis.
For many vulnerable people—not just older people, but people living with long-term chronic conditions or learning difficulties, and all sorts of people in vulnerable circumstances—the presence of overnight NHS care is of great significance. I raise this for a reason: at Westmorland General Hospital, Cumbria Health on Call, which covers our out-of-ours service, has chosen in the last two months to end overnight doctor cover on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so those living in our communities can expect nobody from Kendal to come and help them, and for there to be fewer doctors available across the whole of Cumbria. If they could find a doctor to travel at 4 o’clock in the morning to someone with palliative care needs, or someone with a learning difficulty who has some kind of illness, they would have to come from Barrow or Penrith, and would probably only come to the south lakes—to Grasmere, Grange or Kendal—having already dealt with their local patients. That is deeply troubling, and puts the most vulnerable people in our community at risk.
Immobility and ill health obviously make it harder for people to get out and engage with others in and around their community, and make them more isolated. I am sure fellow hon. Members here could say the same, but I know from local statistics that one in nine human beings in my constituency is on a hospital waiting list. Not every single one of those people is housebound as a result, but a very significant number of people are significantly less mobile because of the length of time it takes them to get treated and made well, and to be able to function in our society.
I want to talk about farmers quickly—I hope it is not too jarring. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) asked an excellent question in the main Chamber the other day about the mental health of farmers, who are, by definition, an often isolated group of people. They tend to be older, although we would love to get more young people into farming and are desperately trying to do that. The transition from the old farm payments scheme to the new one is leaving the average hill farmer in my constituency over 40% poorer than they were three or four years ago. That is intolerable.
Just imagine a gentleman in his 60s who has farmed for 40 years and is the fifth or sixth generation of farmer to look after the farm. Because of the transition, he sees his business disappearing and feels that he will be the one who loses the family farm. What does that do to his mental health? What does it make him feel like? The sense of isolation and of having no one to talk to is critical, and we need to challenge that. We need to get the public policy right, so that we do not put people in those positions, but we also need to reach out to people in the most isolated situations.
The hon. Member for St Ives made a really important point about ticket offices. I will not reiterate everything he said, but because it was a railway-related issue, it made me think about the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. What we learn from that mistake is that we can be too quick to dispense with the old when we have been beguiled by the new. The new in the 1960s was the bright, new, shiny motorways, and the old was these useless old railway lines. We were wrong. What is the new and the old today? The new is obviously digital connectivity and all that. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is super good, or capable of being so for many people. The old is human interaction, and the danger is that we are losing that. As we have heard, switching to digital voice and digital-only communication leaves people completely and utterly isolated when the electricity goes off in a snowstorm. I would like BT, Openreach and the Government as a whole to think carefully about how to ensure resilience.
Post offices in communities are enormously important, and I am delighted that we are making progress. The Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), has very kindly helped on this matter. In Shap and Hawkshead, we have been able to reopen post offices that were under threat of closure or had closed. That is a reminder that we should invest in post offices as community hubs, and revise the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s withdrawal from them. Post offices will have a mosaic of sources of funding, and the DVLA will be one of them.
High street banks have withdrawn from all but two of the communities in my vast constituency. Banks have saved, as a conservative estimate, £2.5 billion a year by closing down their high street networks. Why is not more than a tiny fraction of that being ploughed back into post offices, so that they can become community hubs in every single village and community? That would hopefully tackle isolation.
Bus services are obviously vital too. Post pandemic, pretty much 100% of under-65s have gone back to using buses, but there is only a 70% return for those over 65. That means that 30% of older people who were using the bus network before the pandemic are not doing so now. We need to encourage people back on to buses, and we need the buses to be there in the first place. What use is a £2 bus fare or a bus pass if there is no bus? The fact that we have not devolved to councils such as Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness the power and resources to deliver their own bus services keeps those communities isolated.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about bus services, but does he agree that one of the challenges for bus companies right across the UK is that it is very difficult to recruit and retain bus drivers? That has a real impact on services, which have not yet quite returned to pre-pandemic levels, and will never do so with this constant pressure on staffing. Of course, the Government are not addressing that with their new work visa rules.
The big problem in areas such as mine is that the workforce is too small. There are various reasons for that, but the two principal ones are the lack of affordable homes for local people to live in and the silly visa rules, which prevent the economy from working properly. If we are going to control our borders, why do we not control them in our interests, rather than just make silly points? I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which is not silly but very important. If we are to staff rural services, we need a workforce big enough to do that.
Digital connectivity is vital for maintaining face-to-face human contact, which can mitigate loneliness and isolation and build resilience. Digital connectivity is so important. As the Government move towards Project Gigabit, which is a good thing, we should not think that one size fits all. There are communities that would be better served by switching back to the voucher system that we used before, and by our allowing community providers such as B4RN in Cumbria to deliver services. I was at a public meeting on Saturday in Murton about the communities in Murton, Hilton, Ormside and Warcop. How can we connect those communities? We can wait years for Project Gigabit to catch up, because they are in the deferred scope, or we can invest now and use the voucher system and B4RN.
Finally, we have heard a lot of talk about Margaret Thatcher in recent days and weeks, for all sorts of reasons. She once famously said that there was no such thing as society. Much as I admired the lady, I disagreed with her, but sometimes things can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Over the last 40 years—I certainly do not blame just the late Prime Minister for this at all; it is something we all bear responsibility for—there has been a privatisation not so much of our economy but of ourselves, an atomisation and a loss of community that is deeply troubling.
Places like mine are very beautiful, but are therefore expensive to live in. Another former Prime Minister, Lord Cameron, talked about the big society. The problem is that if we do not intervene in our communities and our housing market, they are available only to people from high society, and not to the big society. I want a community that is accessible and available to all. Particularly at this time of year, if we believe in the innate dignity of every single human being, we need to think practically about how we include people. We need a public policy that builds community, rather than knocking it down, and that intervenes when the market builds the opposite of what we want.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on opening today’s debate and focusing on the digital economy.
We must remember that digital can be used as a positive, as well as a negative, and we need to focus. As we move at an even greater pace into a new age of AI and so many other technologies, we need to make sure that they work for everyone. The inequality that has been driven through the digital sphere has really shown itself, particularly among more marginalised groups.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who focused on public services that have been withdrawn. Many of those services, such as post office and rail services, were once in public ownership, and the Government could drive the opportunities to enable connectivity. I think particularly of Royal Mail and the opportunities that we have there, if we see it not as a business, but as a public service that serves communities and checks in on individuals who are elderly or isolated; we know that would make a significant difference.
I thank the organisations that contribute so much, both locally in our communities and nationally. Age UK, the Marmalade Trust, the Jo Cox Foundation—it is a real pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) here—and the Red Cross do phenomenal work. My local community group, York Neighbours, helps with one-off projects, ensures that there are regular phone calls to individuals, and arranges connectivity groups and outings.
I take issue with the point that the hon. Member for St Ives made about needing a new national strategy. We have a very comprehensive national strategy. In fact, it is exhausting to read, because it covers every single Department in detail. We have that as a background, but the question is whether it delivers and meets the needs of people in our communities. I think we need to take a different approach, and to bring it into a public health framework. We should look at how we can deliver more locally. Ultimately, we can talk about grand plans, but this is about delivery. We have the structure; we know the problems; we have identified the need; we understand the causes; and we have definitions. We need to move beyond that now.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does she agree that we have achieved a great deal in this place on the issue of loneliness and, crucially, that that has been on a cross-party basis? I am extremely proud of the work of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which resulted in the world’s first Minister for loneliness, my good friend the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), and the first cross-Government loneliness strategy, which my hon. Friend referred to. Does she agree that, whoever forms the next Government, we must ensure that this issue is kept firmly on the agenda? We need to ensure that it is embedded in all Departments and across all sectors. My hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to the voluntary sector, which does a lot of the heavy lifting around loneliness, but every sector has a role to play. Will she also join me, as I hope everybody else in the House will, at the Tackling Loneliness Together festive fair at 2 pm next Monday in the Attlee Suite?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who never misses an opportunity. I pay tribute not only to the incredible work she does in this place, but to Jo, who put this agenda on all our radars and did a phenomenal piece of work in raising its importance.
Another major point I want to make is about the interventions that we need—I have been reading a speech I made in this place two and a half years ago, and it feels like we have not moved the framework forward since that time. Recently, in the Health and Social Care Committee, we had some incredible witnesses, who talked about dealing with suicide among men, although there is a lot of cut-across and move-across. I was struck by a piece of data we were given showing that 45% of males who take their own lives live alone. That really brings out the pain and the isolation. People have not asked questions, so others are left very much in the margins.
Young people are now the group who experience the most loneliness in our society. What are schools doing to intervene and ensure that there is good socialisation? Children are so stressed at the moment because they are having to meet the requirements set down by the state, but are they confident individuals who can make social connections? How do we facilitate that to help them to navigate the ever more complex world in which they are growing up?
What about the GP and every other connection, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, for those who need support—not least the disabled people in our communities? What about local authorities? If a question was asked in every interaction to find out whether people were experiencing loneliness or isolation, we could start to put strategies in place to address those needs.
There is a real need to look at statutory services and to ask how we can build a framework, but also to look at what is happening across society. As we get older, these issues get more difficult. As we have heard, there are 7.8 million people on waiting lists. People are frailer and they get more withdrawn and isolated from communities and society, so it is harder and takes more effort to make those connections. It is important that we really look into that to find out not only the scale of what is happening locally and to ask those difficult questions, but to provide the necessary services, and particularly youth services. There used to be luncheon clubs for older people, but they have just gone. The funding crisis in local authorities is making things even more difficult, so my third request is that we invest in a public health strategy that enables pilot projects to move forward and to make those connections once again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. Having heard the excellent speech from the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), I feel he has taken away most of my speech.
First, I want to re-emphasise the point about mobile banks being taken away in the north of Scotland. The county of Sutherland covers 2,028 square miles of the United Kingdom. It has one bank branch—the Bank of Scotland in Golspie. It is a huge area, yet they are going to take away the mobile banks. For all the reasons pointed out by the hon. Member for St Ives, that impacts on the old and the vulnerable. I just repeat that point to underline how such bad decisions can be taken from time to time.
I want to think about another group who are vulnerable: the young. In 1997, a very good and laudable organisation was set up called TYKES Young Carers. It, too, is based in Golspie, in east Sutherland, where the bank branch is presently. Over the years, it has supported young carers, who we define as those between the ages of five and 25. It now covers the whole county of Sutherland —a vast area. TYKES Young Carers advocates for, and raises awareness of, issues by engaging with community and statutory agencies and with other organisations. It is there to highlight the challenges faced by young people, perhaps because a parent is unwell or because the young person is going to school but then, after school, is going back to look after their family.
I want to give one example. For obvious reasons, I cannot give names, but living in an isolated house in my constituency, there is a mum who is disabled. She has three children—one aged 10, one aged six and one aged five. The 10-year-old displays quite strongly what might be called attachment disorder: she does not want to be away from her mum, because she feels she is there to care for her mum. That in turn interferes with her education. She is only 10—God help us all—but she does all the cooking and cleaning in the house and looks after her younger siblings.
To give an example of something that went wrong in the home, the cooker recently blew up at the beginning of the weekend and no longer worked. What does a young child of only 10 do about that? TYKES, bless it, got another cooker to that location, which—we should remember—is remote. But then—would you believe it?—the oven went off. Again, TYKES stepped in. What I want to say is this: I had a happy childhood, and I remember being 10 with pleasure—I remember going off to Cubs and being with my mum and dad—but just think what things are like for this child, right now in our society. But for TYKES, her life would be unimaginable.
What does TYKES do? It gives fantastic support, and I will give some examples. Each of the families involved—there are a number of them, for different reasons—will get £100 to help with the cost of living and to pay for Christmas. TYKES has its base in Golspie, and in that base there is also a cosy room where young carers can get together. If it were not for TYKES, some young carers would go home from school and be on their tod—if that is not loneliness, I do not know what is—looking after a parent, siblings or whoever. TYKES gives them a place to get together, talk and share their troubles with each other—a trouble shared is a trouble halved. They can get under a blanket, they can do their homework or they can use the pool table—they can just have something of a normal life. Finally, TYKES gives out parcels of food and helps in so many other ways—it does advocacy, engages with social services and engages with anyone who can help those families.
To conclude, this organisation—this is perhaps like what my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) was saying—is a shining example of people getting together for the good of others, because they care about them for fundamental reasons of human decency. My hon. Friend was quite right: the notion of society is precious, and I am sure that, in all our constituencies, there will be examples of groups similar to the one I have just described that are willing to do good to help. If we can remember and build on that, perhaps we can reach out to the lonely and vulnerable and do something to help them with their lives. If the child I mentioned, aged 10, had not been reached out to, God alone knows what it would have meant for the rest of her life. It could have caused damage that could never be repaired.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow all the hon. Members who have spoken so far? They have made some fantastic contributions —particularly the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who led the debate. By requesting it, he has allowed us all to participate and to make our own contributions.
Like the hon. Member for St Ives, I represent a rural and coastal constituency, with many homes situated out of the way, isolated from the centres of towns and villages. When the Minister kindly visited my constituency, he had the opportunity to travel through it, but he perhaps did not see all the things that this debate is about, although we were pleased to have him and we look forward to him coming back—such are the memories made on these occasions. In many of the houses in my constituency, there are older couples who have lived in their homes for years—we would say years and years and years; that is how long it is—but despite that there is still a sense of loneliness in the area. So it is great to be able to discuss what more we can do to combat that.
I cannot even begin to count how many fantastic community hubs and men’s sheds there are in my constituency to support and assist the elderly, those who are lonely and those who may not have any drive or focus and who, in some cases, may have depression, anxiety and mental health issues. I have worked closely with Cathy Polley, who manages the Ards Community Network in Strangford. She is an instrumental figure in the community, providing a safe place for people of all ages, not just the elderly.
Community support is absolutely essential. When constituents live more rurally, it is crucial to have those hubs in villages, where they are closer to home for the elderly to access. We have often talked in this place about the struggle of rural transport, and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), asked about rural transport in her intervention. That is an issue for all our constituents, and ensuring that local connection will make all the difference. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred to the £2 pass and asked what good a £2 ticket is if there are no buses. It is a good question. We need to have real access; that is important.
There have been so many advances in society recently that ultimately cause a feeling of vulnerability and isolation in the elderly population. In Strangford, I have witnessed the closure of many high street banks because everything is now online or seems to be heading that way, and local shops have closed because we have less footfall and an environment where most services are provided through the internet. That is further isolating the elderly population, and it saddens me immensely to think of elderly couples who may not have any family and who may struggle to renew their passports, sort out online banking and so on.
I have had people come into my office for help with these things—rest assured, we are more than happy to help, and we do so regularly. I suspect that all Members do the same, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to one such occasion. Sometimes our constituents just need someone to talk to, but sometimes they need someone to sort things out as well. We have the staff, and we have the online contacts, so why not just do that? They are always grateful, which makes our job 10 times easier. I have to say that it brings me a lot of joy as well.
I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) is present. I had intended to speak about my next point even before she came in—I knew she would probably read Hansard tomorrow and catch up anyway—but I am pleased that she is here now. I want to speak about the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Many of us are aware of it, and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to it. During her time as an MP, Jo Cox was dedicated to combating loneliness in the UK. Jo formed an independent cross-party commission of MPs and artists to highlight the fact that we can all do something to help lonely people in our community. I remember Jo’s words: she wanted to
“turbocharge the public’s awareness of loneliness”.
By bringing together all those MPs, bodies and charities, that is what she did. It really is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Batley and Spen in her place today.
Following Jo’s tragic murder, the commission was taken forward in her memory by the right hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and Seema Kennedy, the former Member for South Ribble. It is fantastic that the campaign that Jo started, which has left a legacy for her—her sister, the hon. Member for Batley and Spen, will carry that on—is being supported and that more is being done to tackle loneliness across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
There are so many fantastic services available for elderly people, but it is right to ensure that those services are accessible to them and that they are encouraged to avail themselves of them, especially in the run-up to Christmas, when feelings of loneliness are heightened as we remember those we have lost. When I say to somebody, “Have a lovely Christmas,” I am always conscious that it might not be. Christmas might be the time that they lost someone, and that will be their eternal memory of Christmas—every Christmas, repeated forever and ever, amen. I am therefore always a wee bit hesitant when I say, “Have a nice Christmas,” or whatever it may be. I hope that their Christmas will be a nice Christmas.
At a time of year when there is supposed to be so much joy, we often forget that there is an older population who are struggling. We can all do something small this Christmas, such as make a phone call. About three weeks ago, I read a suggestion in the paper that we not just call an elderly neighbour but call round and see him or her. That is something that we should all be doing and that each MP should encourage people to do—I put a press release out along those lines, because I thought it was important to do so. We should support an elderly person we know and give them some company. It is a joyous time of year, because it is when our saviour was born, and that is important, but it is also a time when people need support. The hon. Member for St Ives is to be commended for bringing this debate forward; he has done something to which we can all relate and on which we can all act.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. He makes an important point. Will he join me in paying tribute to the many volunteers and organisations that will be reaching out to people over the festive period and ensuring, as far as is possible, that no one feels lonely or alone? Does he also agree that January and February can be very lonely months for people? Because there is so much going on around Christmastime, it can be easy to stay connected; as we approach January and February, it can feel a little harder, and sometimes people feel even more isolated.
I was anticipating that the hon. Lady would intervene and I am happy that she did. She is right: Christmas is over, the new year comes in and very quickly people are thinking about paying off their debts, but the loneliness that was there before Christmas is still there in January and February. With that in mind, I conclude, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.
I, too, am delighted to participate in this debate on the loneliness and isolation faced by elderly and vulnerable people. I echo the thanks to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for bringing this important debate forward.
Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which have a serious effect on their physical and mental health, as we have heard. Hundreds of thousands of elderly people, and especially those over the age of 75, are lonely and cut off from society across the UK. According to Age UK, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than 1 million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. Some 282,000 older people in Scotland feel lonely some or most of the time. More than a quarter of people over 75 said they felt lonely some or most of the time within the previous week, and almost one in five of those aged 60 to 74 reported feeling very lonely. One in four people aged over 60 said they do not meet a friend, relative, neighbour or work colleague socially with any regularity.
Those living alone are most likely to feel lonely: four in 10 of single pensioners—38%—report feelings of loneliness. More than a third of those with long-term health conditions feel lonely, and people who live in socially disadvantaged and deprived areas are almost twice as likely to feel lonely as those living in the least socially deprived areas. We know that loneliness is associated with a 50% increase in the risk of dementia, a 29% increase in heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke. Of course, we know from previous debates that loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Those stark and frightening statistics remind us that loneliness is a public health emergency. Loneliness among heart failure patients is associated with a nearly four times increased risk of death, whereas 68% of lonely people have an increased risk of hospitalisation and 57% have an increased risk of visiting the emergency department.
People can be lonely for a variety of reasons: getting older, losing mobility, no longer having the hub of family around them, retiring and not having the social contact that work often brings, the death of spouses or friends, friends moving away, or disability. Whatever the cause, it is shockingly easy to be left feeling alone and vulnerable, which can lead to depression and, as we have heard, a serious decline in physical and mental wellbeing.
Someone who is lonely probably feels it is difficult to reach out because there is a stigma surrounding loneliness, despite its prevalence. Older people tend to find it difficult to ask for help because they often feel it compromises their pride. It is worth pointing out that, although my focus today is primarily on older people, loneliness affects people of all ages, as we have heard. However, it is truly shocking to think of the hundreds of thousands of older people across the UK who go a week or more without meeting a single friend, relative or neighbour. I have to say at this stage that taking away the free TV licences for over-75s did not help. TV is not a replacement for social contact, but it provides an important connection with the outside world, and older people who live on their own often rely on the television for company.
The Scottish Government’s loneliness strategy is a great start, but there is still a long way to go, as the statistics tell us. Tackling loneliness should be a public health priority across all Governments and Departments. The fact is that society has changed. The social fabric that once bound us together is not as strong as it was. We are much less likely, no matter our age, to know who our neighbours are or to speak to them. Each household is much more detached from the households in its vicinity, so neighbourhood support is not what it once was. That even applies in my lifetime—I have seen that change.
Since 2000, the number of people in Scotland aged 65 and over has increased by a third, while the number of children being born has fallen by 6%. In my local authority of North Ayrshire, the projection is that in the next 10 years, 35,000 people will be aged 65 and over, which will be a quarter of North Ayrshire’s entire population. That has huge implications for tackling loneliness and for our social care provision. There will be a 50% increase in over-60s in Scotland by 2033. Currently, 21% of rural dwellers are over 60, and that is of course set to increase. There are huge challenges for us in those shocking statistics, and we need a plan and strategy for how we as a society will deal with that, because it will put a huge strain on our ability to tackle loneliness and to reach out and care for older people. That work of reaching out to care for and support people who are lonely is going on across our communities, as we have heard.
Digitisation and the technical revolution have often left old people feeling more isolated and more left behind. Social spaces are now being replaced by machines—self-scanning at tills in supermarkets is the work of the devil in my view, and online banking again takes away yet more social contact. Even libraries are under threat—libraries where people can go not just for heat but for a kind word and a conversation. The ticket offices referred to earlier were never really an issue in Scotland, because in Scotland our railway is under public ownership. When the idea of closing tickets offices was mooted, the Scottish Government consulted the people of Scotland and decided to protect every single ticket office that was open at the time.
There is a problem with digitisation, and I want to pay tribute to the organisations in my constituency that do wonderful work to combat loneliness in towns across North Ayrshire and Arran, such as Arran Community and Voluntary Service, the Beith Community Development Trust, CLASP HOPE—the Community Led Action and Support Project’s Helping Older People Evolve scheme—in Stevenston, the dementia cafés that operate in Ardrossan and Saltcoats, and Cafe Solace in Kilbirnie and Ardrossan, which provides a nutritious three-course meal for a couple of pounds. As important as that healthy meal is, people do not really come for the food—they come for the banter and the chat. I occasionally have the pleasure of serving food in that café, and I can assure everyone that it is not really about the food, nutritious as it is.
Of course, there are also the men’s sheds, which have been mentioned already. We have wonderful men’s sheds in my constituency in Garnock Valley and Ardrossan. We also have a vibrant allotment sector, which includes the Elm park allotments in Ardrossan, the organic growers of Fairlie, and the Kilbirnie allotment in Sersley Drive. I also pay tribute to the Silver Line helpline service, which has already been mentioned. I know that Age Scotland offers advice, friendship and support, and I want to pay tribute to its impressive “Share What You Love” campaign.
Loneliness is a blight that we must continue to tackle, and we are perhaps more mindful of it as Christmas approaches. For many people, it is true that Christmas is the most difficult time of the year with the jollity surrounding us simply reminding those who are lonely just how desperately lonely they are. The condition is prevalent all year round, regardless of seasons. It truly is a public health issue, and we need to recognise the work done by our volunteers each and every day to help combat it. We need to keep shining a light on it to ensure that we are mindful of the issue in our communities every single day.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Sharma. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate and setting out the very real challenges that many older and more vulnerable people face with a lack of social connection, particularly in the context of an increasingly digital world. As others have said, the debate is timely. As we approach the festive season, we are bombarded by images of joyful social gatherings and family parties, but for many people, Christmas is anything but merry. I welcome the call made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for all of us to reach out to our neighbours.
Across the country, millions of people, including at least 1.4 million older people, feel lonely every day. While loneliness—
“the subjective, unwelcome feeling of a lack or loss of companionship”—
is a normal human emotion that most of us experience at some point in our lives, when it becomes persistent, it can have profound consequences for our health, happiness and wellbeing. Chronic loneliness, as has already been said, is associated with a greater risk of physical and mental ill health. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) rightly highlighted, there are links between social isolation and suicide. Regularly feeling lonely is as bad for us as obesity or smoking—it has been suggested that its impact compares to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Therefore, it is right that the Government have recognised loneliness as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.
Like other public health issues, loneliness is a systemic problem. If someone is poor, has a long-term illness, is disabled, faces discrimination, is unemployed, or lives in inadequate housing or in a deprived area, they are more likely to experience loneliness. In recent years, work has been increasingly undertaken across the country to raise awareness of the problem of loneliness and to begin to tackle it. It has also been a regular subject of debate here in Parliament. That builds on the pioneering efforts of Jo Cox, the foundation established to continue her work, the all-party group on tackling loneliness and connected communities—so brilliantly co-chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch)—and organisations working across the sector, including the British Red Cross, the Campaign to End Loneliness and many others that have been mentioned.
The Government’s 2018 loneliness strategy set out clear objectives and plans to meet them, but despite the actions of organisations in the public, private and community and voluntary sectors, the problem has not gone away. In fact, following the pandemic it has got worse. Analysis by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of people who are chronically lonely has risen to 3.83 million—half a million more than in the first year of the pandemic—and that more than 7% of the population now say they are always or often lonely.
Given that people are feeling lonelier than ever, it is important to re-examine the strategy to ensure it is fit for purpose and meets the new challenges we face, including the combined impacts of the pandemic and the ongoing cost of living crisis. That is not just the right thing to do because we want stronger communities in which people enjoy better lives; it makes economic sense too. Keeping people healthy reduces pressure on the NHS and social care services. People who feel connected and part of their community are more productive, which reduces the cost to business of high staff turnover and sickness absence, so we all stand to benefit from more connected communities.
Loneliness is subjective—we all experience it differently —so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Anyone can feel lonely, although there is evidence to suggest that it is most widespread among young people. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) movingly described the needs of children and families.
It is important that we examine loneliness among different demographics, including the elderly and those with vulnerabilities, because if we understand the causes and experiences, we can improve the effectiveness of initiatives to prevent and address it. For older people, loneliness can often start when they retire from work or suffer bereavement, particularly if they lose a spouse or close friend. The grief of losing loved ones can lead to people feeling they have no one to open up to. That can be compounded by other factors: people over 50 are more likely to be lonely if they are in poor health, unable to do the things they want, feel they do not belong in their neighbourhood or live alone.
Maintaining or making new connections in our local community can be more important than ever as we get older, yet many neighbourhoods are not designed to be age-friendly or accessible. Social infrastructure is not strong enough to help those at risk of loneliness get out into their community safely, and local transport does not always support connection. Even where community facilities and opportunities for connection exist, the rising cost of living acts as a barrier to accessing them. Age UK found that older people are being pushed into debt, are living in cold homes and are cutting back on time with friends and family. Two fifths of respondents to a British Red Cross poll said that they had restricted how much they socialised because of the increased cost of living.
Disabled people are also at particular risk of experiencing loneliness. There are 16 million people in the UK with disabilities, and 45% of pension-age adults are disabled. That means that a significant and rising proportion of the population is at higher risk. Disabled people face barriers in daily life that make them more likely to be chronically lonely than non-disabled people. Mobility difficulties can restrict people’s ability to access or participate in activities. Hearing loss affects more than 11 million people, predominantly among older demographics. It is often undiagnosed and untreated, making social interaction increasingly difficult.
Living with chronic pain can also cause people to withdraw from social activity. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, that is exacerbated by long waiting times for NHS treatment. If people repeatedly encounter barriers when they try to engage in social activities, it understandably leaves them not wanting to try again. Bad experiences can cause people to lose their confidence and feel that they do not belong or are not accepted, which leads to more loneliness.
Of course, it is not just individuals’ impairment that restricts their participation; too often, our communities are not built to be accessible. For example, a walk to the shops, the café or the local library can feel impossible if there is no bench to stop and rest on along the route, if there is no seat at the bus stop, if the street lighting is inadequate, or if the pavement is uneven, potholed or obstructed by parked cars. All hon. Members said that access to public transport is particularly important for the elderly and those with disabilities. There has been a marked decline in local bus services, particularly in rural areas, and again, a free bus pass is no help if there is no service to use it on.
As we better understand the problem of loneliness, we need to refocus on the measures needed to overcome it and I welcome the loneliness sector’s call to action. It is clear that tackling loneliness would benefit everyone in society and that requires a concerted effort across Government Departments. We must also ensure that those with expertise, particularly the organisations in the community and voluntary sector that best engage with and amplify the voices of those with lived experience, are involved in helping to develop a revised strategy.
There are real challenges to be confronted. Over the past decade, much of the infrastructure that supports communities has been eroded. That includes the loss or decline of critical social shared spaces in local communities, such as youth centres, community centres, libraries and parks, which are the foundation for connected communities. I wonder how such facilities have suffered in places that have large numbers of second homes, as was highlighted. I hope the Minister will set out the policies and investment that he plans to grow the social infrastructure needed to support positive outcomes for local communities.
Charities and voluntary organisations are operating under increased strain as they face rising demand for their services and higher costs at precisely the same time that there is a reduction in charitable giving and a decline in volunteering. Can the Minister set out his plans to ensure the organisations we rely on to bring people together, which deliver many of the initiatives to tackle loneliness and help people engage with them, can survive this winter? It is increasingly clear that local authorities are operating under extreme financial pressures. Social care is in crisis and the extra spending required to meet rising demand is not only leaving vulnerable people without the support they need, but leading to cuts in other vital but non-statutory services. Again, what do the Government intend to do to address that?
I wanted to mention the lack of access to digital and online services, but that has probably been covered by previous speakers. I will reference the importance of Government doing all they can to increase access to digital technologies and the skills to use them and protect those who need additional support. There is much for this Government and the next to do to ensure that we build the strong, resilient and connected communities that will enable everyone to lead happy, healthier and more fulfilling lives, even as we grow older.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. This is my third Westminster Hall debate today; clearly, I am the only Minister on duty. However, that brings with it a personal achievement because it means I have been in this room more often that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate and all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions on this important issue. It really is important to raise the profile of loneliness and isolation among elderly and vulnerable people. I welcome the opportunity to talk about what we are trying to do in that area.
Loneliness does not discriminate. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can benefit from the power of meaningful connection, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society. Loneliness is a complex issue that we can only address in partnership and across sectors, and I want to celebrate the meaningful work being done in many of our constituencies to further and encourage those social connections. Much of that work is carried out by the civil society sector: for example, Age UK, which we have heard about and which has been referenced today for its excellent work, and those organisations that are vital in the mission to tackle loneliness. The Jo Cox Foundation, of course, has done tremendous amounts of work on that important area.
Research that we have commissioned shows that those who are most vulnerable and at risk of loneliness include those who live alone, disabled people, LGBT people, young people—which is why we have focused very heavily this year on a campaign for students going to university for the first time—and those on lower incomes, to name a few. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) rightly raised the issue of young carers. I also want to think about young people who are in care. I was really struck when we heard from a young person in care at the APPG meeting. The most heartbreaking thing she said was, “I’m never going to be in a place long enough for it to be worth trying to form friendships.” That should not be something we hear from young people.
However, people of all backgrounds can experience loneliness at any time of life. There are also certain life events that can trigger loneliness, such as retirement, divorce and bereavement. If people feel this way always or often, it can have a serious impact on physical and mental health and wellbeing. Government action to tackle loneliness among the most vulnerable in our society is driven by the three key objectives set out in the world-first strategy for tackling loneliness of 2018: to reduce the stigma of loneliness by building the national conversation, to drive a lasting shift so that relationships and loneliness are considered by organisations across society, and to improve the evidence base to make a compelling case for ongoing action.
To reduce the stigma of loneliness, the Government have a national communications campaign that has reached millions of people to raise awareness and provide advice on what people can do to help themselves and others if they are feeling lonely. Last year, our campaign became part of the Department of Health and Social Care’s “Better Health: Every mind matters” campaign. This year, we published research exploring the prevalence of stigma associated with loneliness in England. That research found three types of stigma: self-stigma, perceived social stigma and actual social stigma. One of the key findings was that older people feel stigma around loneliness driven by concerns that they will be a burden to their family and lose their independence. For example, some older people felt that their role as a parent meant that they were not meant to seek support from their children. That research is informing our work on building the national conversation on loneliness.
During loneliness awareness week this summer, I shared my personal experience of loneliness with The Times and The Sun. I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the response I had from people right across the globe. It revealed that, despite awareness raised during the pandemic, it is still unusual to speak about loneliness in public. I hope that my small contribution will play a small part in helping to reduce stigma around loneliness. As the Minister responsible, if I cannot talk about it, how can I get everybody else to start talking about it?
We are committed to driving a lasting shift in Government and across organisations in society to ensure that loneliness is considered as a matter of course in all policymaking. Since the publication of the strategy in 2018, the Government and their partners have invested almost £80 million into tackling loneliness. At the local level, we have supported community projects, such as song-writing groups in Devon and dance classes in Bedfordshire, which benefit vulnerable older people in the community. We have also supported health and wellbeing projects, such as online chat services in Durham, and projects that support education, climate and the environment, such as nature walks in Lambeth. We have also taken nationwide action, such as expanding the social prescribing programme, which connects people to activities and services in their communities to meet their wellbeing needs. That helps to tackle loneliness at its source and reduce the impact on public services.
While digital technology can be a great resource to connect people, that opportunity is not equally available to all, as we have heard from many here today. That is why we recognised the importance of it during the pandemic. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport invested £34 million to help the sector adapt to get more people online by giving them the support, devices, data and skills they need to be able to connect. We are continuing to work closely with stakeholders to understand the challenges that digital inclusion presents, and I will raise the matter continually with my colleagues to consider how the services we provide can be more mindful of those challenges. This must be a cross-sector effort. I applaud Sky for its “Sky Cares” initiative, which incorporates befriending into the roles of its call centre staff, and Barclays for its “Digital Eagles” initiative, which involves visiting existing groups to bring digital banking skills to those who need it most.
We are committed to tackling loneliness for all, and in March 2023 we launched the know your neighbourhood fund, a package of up to £30 million to create volunteering opportunities and help reduce loneliness. It will go to new and existing activity in 27 of the most deprived areas. I recently visited one of the projects in Hull, where Age UK was running a befriending service. It was creating volunteering opportunities for younger people to befriend older people who have been feeling isolated, and make them feel part of the wider community. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Waterside Farm Leisure Centre on Canvey Island, one of the recipients of Sport England funding designed to bring investment into local communities. I had the chance to take part in an exercise class with elderly people, many of whom were coming together simply because it was an opportunity not only to be active but to meet with other people.
In 2021, we launched the tackling loneliness hub as a dedicated online forum to connect individuals and organisations working to tackle loneliness. Members can develop relationships, learn and upskill from events and workshops, and share the latest research and insights on what works. Organisations represented include Age UK, the English Football League Trust, the Co-op Foundation and the British Red Cross. Membership now stands at over 600 organisations from the public, private, academic and charity sectors. It is worth highlighting the fact that we are recognised as world leaders. I have been pleased to welcome and have conversations with people from Sweden, Japan, Finland and the United States, and we continue to work across countries to learn from each other.
I am conscious of time and the need for my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives to be able to sum up, but I will just say that we recognise the fact that loneliness can affect all people, regardless of their background. We know that there are specific issues around each set of people we are talking about, but we will continue to work closely together, right across Government. I have brought together Ministers from 11 different Departments, and we will continue to work closely so that we do not lose momentum, but do everything we can to tackle loneliness in this country. As others have said, as we approach Christmas, if we see someone alone, we should just stop and say hello; it might be the only gift they get this Christmas. But let us continue that in January, February, March and the rest of the year.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions. We have covered a huge amount of ground and we have been able to demonstrate our understanding and care for lonely people of any age or demographic, wherever they live. It is heartening to hear what is going on to try to address that. I thank the Minister for his response, particularly his point that this is a cross-Government matter. One thing that concerns people is the fact that different Departments have different responsibilities, but getting all those Ministers together under his leadership is really encouraging.
Most of the tea, coffee and cake I have had as an MP has been in small community groups that are trying to address this situation. Let us demonstrate that we are on their side. The Government and all parties are determined to address this and make loneliness and isolation, where possible, a thing of the past.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered loneliness and isolation in elderly and vulnerable people.