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Loneliness Strategy

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their loneliness strategy.

My Lords, the launch of the loneliness strategy in 2018 marked a lasting shift in the Government’s approach to tackling loneliness. Since 2018, the Government and their partners have invested almost £50 million in tackling loneliness, including in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We have reached millions of people through awareness-raising campaigns and have developed a network of more than 150 organisations to join us in this work. Our latest annual report provides further detail on its impact.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Loneliness remains endemic, with the Office for National Statistics reporting that the long-term disabled, widowed homeowners, unmarried middle-agers and young renters are those who are most likely to experience social isolation. While the strategy suggests that it is a government priority, I note that loneliness is no longer featured as a ministerial responsibility on the department’s website. Does the Minister agree that it is more important than ever to keep focused on tackling and preventing loneliness as we emerge from the pandemic? Will the strategy be reviewed, so that no one is left behind as the world continues to open?

As the noble Baroness said, the pandemic has thrown into relief the importance of tackling loneliness. We were aware of it before the pandemic, and the pandemic made it more urgent. My honourable friend Nigel Huddleston, the Minister responsible, sees himself very much as the lead Minister, but not the only Minister, for it, because this is a cross-government effort. That is the reason for the cross-government strategy, and work has been done in all departments. Of course, we continue to evaluate the work to see how we can do it better.

My Lords, the strategy highlights family well-being as crucial in preventing loneliness and the need to support families. The Children’s Commissioner has just been tasked with reviewing family life, following the finding of the commission on race and ethnic disparities that high rates of family breakdown are a major risk factor in loneliness and are key to outcome disparities. Some 63% of black Caribbean children grow up in a lone-parent household. Will measures to prevent family breakdown be included in her remit?

My noble friend is right to point to the importance of family in tackling loneliness. Of course, family events such as bereavement, becoming a parent and moving house can have an impact. Research also suggests that people of colour are more likely to experience certain barriers, which can cause loneliness for them, including access to community services, harassment, discrimination and feeling disconnected from the community. I will discuss the point about the Children’s Commissioner’s review with my noble friend Lady Barran, who is responsible, as the Minister in the Department for Education, and who of course, as a previous lead Minister for Loneliness, has done so much herself to tackle awareness of this important issue.

My Lords, will the Minister take into account the fact that sporting and artistic voluntary groups are almost by definition an answer to this problem? What are the Government doing to allow them to rebuild their capacity after Covid and how far across government does it go?

The noble Lord is right. Community and volunteer groups of all shapes and sizes play an important role. Since April 2020, we have continued to grow the membership of the Tackling Loneliness Network to over 150 members. Last year, we published our Tackling Loneliness Network action plan, setting out actions that members of the network committed to take to tackle loneliness during the pandemic. We will continue to review that and see how that work can be furthered.

There can be no more lonely experience than that of CFS/ME sufferers, for whom crushing fatigue is just one of a long list of symptoms that interfere with—and I would say prevent—normal social interactions. NICE recently issued guidelines for CFS/ME sufferers. Will the Minister agree to contact NICE to see if it would consider adding a section on loneliness for these particular sufferers—as I understand it, it did not include that issue within its guidelines?

I shall follow up that point with my honourable friend Nigel Huddleston and colleagues at the Department of Health. The noble Baroness is right: we know that people with long-term health conditions are significantly more likely to report feeling lonely. Through our loneliness funding, we have supported groups that work with people with disabilities and long-term health conditions to support them to feel more connected, including Mencap, the National Autistic Society, the British Deaf Association and the RNIB, to name just a few. I will follow up the point that she makes about NICE as well.

My Lords, this Question is a tribute to the late Jo Cox MP. It is shocking that 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative for over a month. I am old enough to remember when, in the north-east, most family members lived nearby, in close-knit communities. If I cut my head as a child, my mother would run three doors down the street and consult granny, who would tell her what to do. In a sense, this is the negative side of social mobility. Does the noble Lord agree that, by properly addressing the question of loneliness, we will reduce a burden on the National Health Service?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to remind us of the important contribution made by the late Jo Cox in driving forward cross-party work in this important area. Through our loneliness funding we have supported groups that work with older people to help them connect, including the Alzheimer’s Society and the English Football League Trust. Last year, members of our Tackling Loneliness Network formed a group focused on loneliness among older people to explore the issue further. The group’s recommendations were included as part of the action plan which I mentioned earlier, and an update on progress to deliver that was included in our most recent annual report.

My Lords, there can be no doubt that the subject of loneliness is very well worth discussion in this House, and we are all grateful that it should be raised. I would like to endorse the comments of my noble friend Lord Farmer when he pointed out the relationship between loneliness and family. Surely the most important unit of all in social policy considerations should be the family. I would like to hear my noble friend endorse that and say that family considerations will be taken into account in all future consideration of social policy.

Family is vital, not just in this area but across so many areas of social policy and the Government’s work. We know that peoples’ family situations can have an impact on their experience of loneliness. We are looking to improve the evidence base to understand the challenges that people face through loneliness, including the impact of their family situation. We have brought together experts and academics in the tackling loneliness evidence group to identify what areas we need to look into further, and what research should be done, to see how we can address the remaining evidence gaps.

My Lords, the Government’s idea of a socially connected society is a good one, but do they recognise enough, or recognise at all, the key role that poverty plays in disconnecting society? Has the Minister seen the recent study by UCL and the University of Manchester which found that older people in the poorest sector of the population in England were more than twice as likely to feel isolated as those in the richest, and that this was true both during and before the first lockdown?

The noble Lord makes an important point which links to the Government’s wider work in levelling up to ensure that people of all backgrounds, across the country, have access to the services and the opportunities that they need. The levelling-up White Paper set out clear ambitions to improve peoples’ well-being, their pride in place and sense of community, and to create opportunities across the country. We know that connected communities provide people with opportunities to develop strong social relationships, and this is an important point. We will continue to explore opportunities to embed loneliness in the Government’s thinking on our important work on levelling up.

My Lords, have the Government made any assessment of the likely impact of the cost of living crisis, including energy prices and all of that, on family breakdown in this country?

I am very mindful that my right honourable friend the Chancellor has, in another place, been setting out the Spring Statement, the details of which I have not yet had a chance to acquaint myself with. From what I have seen, I know he is addressing the pressures on public finances and household budgets, including the point made by the right reverend Prelate.

My Lords, I wish to follow up the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on people with ME, and to include other long-term conditions. Does the Minister think it possible to give guidance to the new integrated care systems in the health service to develop a local strategy to deal specifically with the issue of loneliness for people with long-term conditions?

Local councils, local health systems and voluntary and community sector organisations all have important roles to play in tackling loneliness. I will follow up the point made by the noble Lord, as I will the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, in relation to health.