Before I call the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Tracey Crouch, to make the next statement, let me say that I know the House will appreciate the significance of its subject, the loneliness strategy. More particularly, Members across the House will remember with great respect that the late Jo Cox prioritised this issue and set about its pursuit, as she did in respect of all her activity, with a crusading zeal that we all immensely admired.
I know that colleagues will want to bear that in mind today, as well as the fact that Jo’s sister, Kim, and Jo’s parents, Jean and Gordon—the Leadbeater trio, if I may so describe them, whom it has been my privilege to meet and to admire for their extraordinary stoicism, fortitude, dignity and love—are listening. My friends—I think the House regards you as friends—we are proud to see you, and what the Minister is going to address is done not least in the name of, and with everlasting respect for, Jo.
I should like to make a statement on the publication of the Government’s landmark strategy to tackle loneliness.
This is a very emotional statement to make. I am standing here at the Dispatch Box with a clear line of sight to the coat of arms representing our colleague who took this issue of loneliness and catapulted it into the stratosphere. I have dedicated a brief nine months to developing the strategy, but Jo Cox dedicated her whole life to tackling loneliness, and the publication of this strategy, which bears her photo, and a copy of which I have set aside for Jo’s children, is dedicated to her. I hope she would be proud.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was set up with a vision to carry forward her important work, and in January the Prime Minister welcomed its report and many of its recommendations, including the appointment of a cross-Government ministerial lead on loneliness, a post which I was overwhelmingly humbled to be offered. I would like to take this opportunity to thank in particular Rachel Reeves and my hon. Friend Seema Kennedy for their vital work as co-chairs of the commission. Their dedication and passion have been essential in leading and driving forward action, and I am personally grateful to them for the cross-party support they have given me since I have taken on this work.
Since then, our work in the UK has gained global attention. Loneliness is increasingly recognised as one of the most pressing public health issues we face across the world. Feeling lonely is linked to early death, with its impact often cited as being on a par with that of smoking or obesity. It is also linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that between 5% and 18% of adults in the UK feel lonely often or always, but they are frequently hard to reach and suffer in silence. The Government are committed to confronting this challenge. The strategy published today outlines the Government’s vision for England to tackle loneliness, complementing the work being done in the devolved Administrations, and creating a place where we all have strong social relationships, where families, friends and communities support each other, where organisations promote people’s social connections as a core part of their everyday role, where loneliness can be recognised and acted on without stigma or shame, and where we can all make an effort to look out for each other and ensure that moments of contact are respectful and meaningful.
To get there requires society-wide change, which is why the strategy recognises that Government cannot make the necessary changes alone. It sets out a powerful vision of how we can all play a role in building a more socially connected society. But there is no quick fix to achieving this vision, so it is very much a starting point rather than the end. It largely concentrates on the role Government can play and how we can set the framework to enable local authorities, businesses, health and the voluntary sector, as well as communities and individuals, to support people’s social connections. But it also describes the important responsibilities that we all have as individuals to our family, friends and communities and gives some examples of the great work already under way across the country to create strong and connected communities. It is a cross-Government programme, rather than a programme of one Department, and sets out a number of policy commitments ranging across policy areas such as health, employment, transport and housing and planning, and I am pleased that so many of my colleagues involved in the strategy are sitting alongside me on the Treasury Bench this evening.
I wish briefly to draw five areas to the attention of the House. The strategy sets out a commitment to improve and expand social prescribing across England. It is estimated that GPs see between one and five patients a day because of loneliness. This is a policy that has been very much developed in response to some of the brilliant work by the Royal College of General Practitioners, frontline health professionals and others, and it will change the way patients experiencing loneliness are treated.
Social prescribing connects people to community groups and services through the support of link workers, who introduce people to support based on their individual needs. By 2023, the Government will support all local health and care systems to implement social prescribing connector schemes across the whole country. In addition, the Government will explore how a variety of organisations, such as jobcentres, community pharmacies and social workers, refer people into social prescribing schemes and test how to improve this. The Government will also work with local authorities to pilot and test how the better use of data can help to make it easier for people to find local activities, services and support.
The Government will also grow a network of employers to take action on loneliness, working with the Campaign to End Loneliness. The Government strategy includes a pilot with Royal Mail and sets out details of a new pledge that employers can sign up to, demonstrating their commitment to helping their employees to tackle loneliness. I am really pleased that a number of businesses and organisations have signed up, including Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, National Grid and the British Red Cross, along with 18 or so others, as well as the UK Government civil service.
Earlier this summer, we announced that £20 million of funding would be made available from the Government and other partners to support initiatives to connect people. In the strategy today, I am pleased to announce that a further £1.8 million will be made available to support even more community spaces and used to transform underutilised areas, including creating new community cafés, art spaces or gardens.
Furthermore, the Government will build a national conversation to raise awareness of loneliness and reduce the stigma. We will explore how best to drive awareness of the importance of social health and how we can encourage people to take action. In addition, Public Health England’s forthcoming campaign on mental health will explicitly highlight the importance of social connections to our wider wellbeing.
Finally, the strategy sets out the Government’s ongoing commitment to this agenda. The ministerial group that steered development of the strategy will continue to meet to oversee the Government’s work on tackling loneliness. The group will publish an annual progress report. My ministerial colleagues in the group, from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, will have their portfolios extended to include loneliness, to show the importance of the agenda across a wide range of policy areas. My colleague at the Department of Health and Social Care, who already has loneliness in her portfolio, will also continue to provide invaluable support on this work.
The Government’s intention is to embed consideration of loneliness and relationships throughout the policy-making process. From next year, individual Government Departments will highlight the progress they are making on addressing loneliness through their annual single departmental plans. The Government will also explore other mechanisms for ensuring that loneliness is considered in policy making, including through adding loneliness to the guidance for the family test.
The Government strategy is a significant first step in the national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes. An enormous number of people, organisations, voluntary groups and others have helped to produce the strategy; the list published in the strategy of my thanks extends to four pages, so I cannot mention them all here. As there is no way they would have written it into the speech or the strategy themselves, I would like to place on the record a huge thank you to the team of officials who have been enthusiastic secondees from across Whitehall to work on this strategy. They have brought with them invaluable energy and expertise from their Departments, and it has been an enormous pleasure to work with them.
The strategy builds on years of dedicated work by many organisations and individuals. It sets out a powerful vision on how we can all play a role in building a more socially connected society and is supported by important policy commitments to make that vision a reality. I call on all hon. Members across the House to join me in taking action to defeat loneliness. Together we can address one of the most pressing social issues of our time. I commend this statement to the House.
I start by echoing your words prefacing the statement, Mr Speaker, and by welcoming Jo’s family to the Chamber.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, and am grateful to her for advance sight of it. Loneliness is one of the great social ills of our age, and the Government are right to put forward a strategy to tackle it. It is encouraging to see Ministers representing so many Departments and committing to ensure that the strategy makes a difference.
Loneliness affects people of all ages: disabled people who are unable to get out of the house; older people who lose friends, become housebound, and feel they lack purpose in their lives; young people moving away for work or education; teenagers coping with the challenges of growing up; and people who lose their jobs. It can affect any of us and all of us, and it can have a devastating effect on people’s mental and physical health.
The Minister was right to observe that this is an emotional moment, because we are all of course thinking about our former colleague, Jo Cox, who set up the Commission on Loneliness before she was so tragically taken from us. She said:
“I will not live in a country where thousands of people are living lonely lives, forgotten by the rest of us”.
She recognised that loneliness does not discriminate between young and old, and that it can affect anyone at any time. Jo’s commission set out to find a way forward, and we all echo the Minister’s generous and heartfelt tribute to her. I would also like to recognise the outstanding work of my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy, who have taken Jo’s work forward as co-chairs of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. Their work, together with that of many charities and community organisations, has inspired and helped to shape today’s announcement.
The Minister is right to say that the Government cannot tackle loneliness on their own. It is a social ill, and it requires social action to end it, but the Government certainly have a role in facilitating, engaging and supporting groups who can help. Too often, however, we see the Government ignoring the impact of their decisions on people experiencing loneliness or on the organisations best placed to tackle it—I presume that that is why we are now seeing a group of Ministers assembled to look into the issue—and they will certainly have to change their approach if we are going to see the real difference that we all want to see in tackling loneliness.
The Minister referred to local government, which is certainly a key partner in this agenda, but cuts to local government since 2010 mean that councils are facing a £7.8 billion shortfall by 2025. Councils have lost 60% of their funding since 2010, with a further £1.3 billion in cuts due over the next year. Those cuts have already led to the closure of 428 day centres, 1,000 children’s centres, 600 youth centres and 478 public libraries, and we have also seen cuts in funding for countless lunch clubs, befriending services, local voluntary groups and community centres. Those are all places and services that have a role to play in tackling loneliness.
I applaud the Minister for saying on television this morning that she was not there to defend cuts made in the past, and I know that she shares my concern about the impact of difficult decisions on services that we all care about. What assessment has she made, in order to get things right in the future, of the impact of ongoing Government cuts to local government and community services to tackle loneliness? She is also right to talk positively about the role of civil society in tackling loneliness, yet Government cuts since 2010 have had a significant impact on voluntary and community organisations. Funding cuts already planned for the coming year will lead to further cuts to the voluntary sector. On top of that, we now have the uncertainty associated with Brexit, as we heard from the Prime Minister this afternoon. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the loss of EU funding for services in the voluntary sector that support tackling loneliness, and will she tell us whether the Government are in a position to commit to fully replacing that funding when it is lost?
It is welcome that the Minister has announced an extra £1.8 million funding for community projects to help to tackle loneliness, but that is a pretty small drop in the ocean compared with the projected £3.5 billion shortfall in funding for social care. That £1.8 million would reopen just four of the 1,000 children’s centres, or nine of the 428 day centres, that have closed under this Government. Unless the Chancellor reverses cuts in public health funding in the Budget, the flourishing of social prescribing and community projects that the Minister wants to see will never happen. Will she explain what steps she and her colleagues are taking, particularly with the Budget approaching, to ensure that adequate funding will be available for these services? Will the Government adopt Age UK’s proposal to apply a binding loneliness test to all future decisions to ensure that they do not increase loneliness or decrease our capacity to tackle it?
The Opposition welcome the Government’s decision to adopt a loneliness strategy. There is much in it that is good, and it is certainly a step in the right direction, but the fine words that it contains will not reduce loneliness to the extent that we all hope for unless the Government stop cutting the services and organisations that are helping to tackle loneliness in our communities.
I am grateful to Mr Reed for welcoming the strategy. It has involved nine months of extremely hard work from nine different Departments to support the 9 million people who identify themselves as lonely. We know that this issue is enormously important to people. One in five people identify as lonely, and young people between the ages of 16 and 24 now identify themselves as being more lonely than older people. There are many groups in society that, through various life changes, suddenly find themselves suffering from loneliness. Jo herself said that loneliness does not discriminate, and trigger points can happen at any particular time—no one is immune to that sense of overwhelming loneliness.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to read the whole strategy and to examine its 58 recommendations, including the policy test, which will answer many of his questions. We recognise that difficult decisions were taken during difficult times to try to regain an economic balance, but those decisions may have had an inadvertent impact on loneliness. Going forward, we want to ensure that we recognise loneliness, make policies responsibly—just as we do for other issues in society—and consider all that as part of the policy test.
I commend the Minister for her statement and her work on this issue and welcome a cross-departmental strategy on loneliness. Does she agree that one of the greatest antidotes to loneliness is stronger families? In the opinion of many of us, it is the greatest antidote and can help many linked problems, such as homelessness, addiction and mental health challenges. As the strategy is implemented, will my hon. Friend commit to ensure that her Department and others actively consider how they can promote the strengthening of family life? As a start, will they also ensure that the family test is properly and comprehensively applied across Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We recognise the importance of families in tackling loneliness, and it is true that the fragmentation of families and the way in which we all live and work may well have contributed to loneliness. Many young people leave their home communities, often for study or work, and that in turn can have an impact on families. We are an incredibly busy society, and we can quite often forget members of our family, so all that is at the heart of the strategy.
I join the Minister and shadow Minister in thanking you, Mr Speaker, for a beautiful tribute to our colleague Jo Cox, and I welcome her family. As someone who came to this place as part of the 2015 intake, I assure Jo’s family members that she will be remembered quite simply as a bright and brilliant Member of Parliament.
I thank the Minister for her statement, and I am sure that she will agree that social isolation is often little understood and can have an enormous impact on people’s physical and mental health. In January this year, the Scottish Government published a consultation on their new national strategy—one of the first in the world to help tackle loneliness and isolation. However, in a similar vein to the questions from the shadow Minister, we know that poverty can be a key factor in social exclusion. The less money someone has, the less likely it is that they can afford to meet people. They might not have the money for a coffee with a friend or even be able to afford to take public transport to visit a friend. Will the Minister commit to look at the impact of poverty on social exclusion as part of the strategy? Will she also consider the impact of the Government’s social security policies and investigate any correlations between cuts in income and increases in social isolation?
The Government have been working closely with the Administration in Scotland, and we have looked at Scotland’s work on this issue, too. We will continue to work with all our devolved partners to come up with a comprehensive strategy for the whole United Kingdom.
As I said in response to the hon. Member for Croydon North, we know there are trigger points. One of them is debt, about which I spoke very personally in an interview with The Sunday Times over the weekend. I completely recognise and understand how it is difficult for people with no money to go out and make connections with others, which is why this is a cross-Government strategy. We are looking at all the different aspects, and nothing is exempt from the strategy to tackle loneliness. Supporting those in debt and on low incomes is definitely part of the strategy.
First, does the Minister agree that, although the challenge of loneliness is big, the public’s appetite to do something about it is great? It is not just the brilliant work of the Jo Cox commission. When I have done things to address loneliness in my constituency, I thought half a dozen people would come, but actually hundreds came. People really want to do something about this.
Secondly, does the Minister agree that involvement in fighting loneliness not only helps those who are being helped but helps those who get involved? People involved with the befriending scheme of Voluntary Action South Leicestershire, a charity in my constituency, have made lots of new friends—it has been great for those who have got involved, as well as for those who are being helped.
Thirdly, does the Minister agree that we need to change the culture if we really want to tackle this problem? Schemes such as the “chatty café” at Zeph’s café in my constituency are a brilliant tribute to Jo Cox’s work, because they encourage people to start a conversation with those who are lonely. That is a great thing.
This is a great opportunity to celebrate the work being done across the country. In fact, I have just met members of VASL at the strategy’s parliamentary launch. The “chatty café” scheme is fantastic, and there are lots of similar initiatives. Having worked on loneliness, it is incredibly heartwarming that a number of organisations out there have just been getting on with it for a significant length of time. When we announced the strategy, I was contacted by thousands of organisations similar to those in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I commend my hon. Friend’s work with the all-party group, and long may addressing this issue continue to be on the agenda of all politicians.
If Jo were still here today, she would have been a Member of Parliament for almost three-and-a-half years. She was in this House for just one year, but in that short space of time she achieved more than most of us could hope to achieve in a lifetime.
Tackling loneliness is part of Jo’s legacy, and it is a tribute to her approach to politics and her approach to life, which is that we have more in common than that which divides us.
I am proud to have played a small part in taking forward Jo’s work on this very important issue, but I want to build on what other Members have said this afternoon. The good thing about loneliness is that it is something we can all do something about, one conversation at a time.
Will the Minister join me in encouraging all of us in this House, and all of us in all of our constituencies, to live our lives a little more like Jo Cox lived hers, by putting other people first and by always thinking about what we can do? Whether it is people in our friendship groups, our families or our communities, we should have one conversation at a time to try to reach out and help those who are struggling with loneliness. If we do that, we will all help to secure Jo’s legacy and help to build a world that is a little less lonely.
I cannot pay enough tribute to the hon. Lady’s work in taking forward the work that Jo started. Like me, the hon. Lady was rather daunted when she started on the journey to tackle this incredibly complex issue. There is no single cause of loneliness, and there is no single solution. The more we can talk about it in this place and beyond, the better. We are on loneliness where we were on mental health 10 years ago, and where we can reduce stigma by going out to support our constituents, our friends and our families, we will be all the better for it.
It would be interested to hear more from the Minister about what she thinks the role of social media is. Social media can often have a negative influence, particularly on young people, but does she think it could have a positive role to play in tackling loneliness?
I said that there is no single cause of loneliness and therefore there is no single solution, and the same logic applies in respect of social media. We know that 16 to 24-year-olds are more lonely than other groups in society, and that is quite often attributed to the fact that they are much more digitally connected. At the same time, social media can also provide solutions for those who do find themselves lonely. A huge number of apps have been developed to support various groups in society, including Mush, which helps young mums. Technology has also been developed to keep older people connected to their families. As much as social media can be described as a cause, it can also be the solution.
I have great respect for the Minister, and never more so than today, and I thank her for the words in her statement. Austerity has undeniably led to a reduction in the number of facilities available in the community, but today I want to pay tribute to the incredible volunteer groups, community groups and friendship groups in my constituency and in the neighbouring constituency of Batley and Spen, because the work these volunteers do is absolutely phenomenal—they are simply plugging a gap, particularly at the moment. Will she therefore join me today in thanking all those groups, including More in Common, which was formed after the tragic death of Jo?
Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to do so. We need to remember that difficult decisions have been taken over the past eight years to tackle the deficit, and that has forced many people to rethink how some of the services have been delivered. In some cases they are now being delivered better, because there has been an evolution in service delivery. That is thanks to many voluntary organisations and charities, which have helped to create a more imaginative response to delivering some of those services. I recognise that that is not the case across the board, and it would be churlish not to do so. We also have to recognise that there are lots of different reasons, not all of which are funding-related issues. But we are where we are, and we have now taken this forward to try to ensure that we have a strategy that futureproofs these services in order to help tackle loneliness for all age groups across our society.
I thank the Minister for an excellent statement, but may I press her on two things? First, I ask her to make a strong and robust case to the Treasury and our colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to set up some ring-fenced funding for local councils to bid into, in order to evolve and deliver bespoke loneliness strategies? We have done this in other areas of local government policy and this one particularly cries out for it. Secondly, may I urge her always to keep in mind the need to sculpt bespoke rural policies and take into account the geography of our rural constituencies? Although I appreciate the challenges that exist across the whole of our country, they are that much more difficult to deal with in that widely spread, low population, rural setting.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is sitting next to me on the Front Bench, and I am sure he heard the calls for him to have another conversation with the Chancellor—I am sure he will do that with great interest and enthusiasm. The issue of rural loneliness is fascinating, because statistics show that there are slightly higher loneliness levels in urban communities than in rural communities. Whereas rural communities might face greater levels of isolation, the loneliness does not necessarily follow; these are two very different issues. That said, there are unique issues faced by rural communities, which is why the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been one of the Departments involved and why it is working on tackling rural isolation and loneliness.
It is rather moving to be here in the Chamber this afternoon, and I cannot think of anything better to honour Jo’s memory than getting this right. Last Wednesday was World Mental Health Day. Tackling mental health issues can be incredibly difficult and very lonely to deal with. What efforts is the Minister making to ensure that the UK provides more access to opportunities for people to reach out and seek support?
That is a good question. We are working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care on the link between loneliness and mental health. The two are not always linked and it is important that we do not badge loneliness as a mental health condition; it is certainly a public health condition. We are working with the DHSC on its development of the strategies on mental health and we will continue to do so.
First, let me thank the Minister for what was a really excellent statement. Obviously, many of us were not Members of the House when Jo was a Member, but it is abundantly clear that she was held in the very highest regard—and rightly so—for what she did. It is incredibly impressive to see the unifying effect that she still has today; it feels very much as though she is, in some ways, still part of today’s statement, and the message that this sends out is incredibly powerful.
Will the Minister join me in thanking the work of organisations such as Men’s Shed Redcar, which covers the East Cleveland part of my constituency? It is a space for men—sometimes we men are not very good at reaching out to each other and being communal—and a really good way of making sure that they have a space to come together, congregate and, in the words of the organisation, create.
I love Men’s Sheds—a little bit too much to be honest. I could quite happily spend my time in a Men’s Shed learning how to craft bird boxes and various other things, and having a good old chinwag about the football. There are many organisations out there. It is really important that we do recognise—again, repeating the words of Jo—that loneliness does not discriminate. It impacts enormously on men as well, and there are some fantastic organisations out there supporting them.
The Department for Transport is very heavily involved in this strategy. As the hon. Gentleman will have heard in my statement, one of the Transport Ministers will now have loneliness as part of their portfolio. It is important to recognise that rural bus services are incredibly important. They are a matter on which local authorities make decisions. I appreciate that, quite often, those decisions can be difficult, but if a rural bus service, a late evening service or an early morning service is axed, it can clearly have an impact on people’s ability to stay connected to their community.
I thank the Minister for the very honest comments that she made in her interview at the weekend about the loneliness experienced by new parents—both mums and dads. That is something with which both my wife and I can empathise, as I am sure can parents right across East Renfrewshire. Given that loneliness does not discriminate, will she ensure that, when rolling out the strategy and creating measures to raise awareness and tackle loneliness, those initiatives are bespoke to people, age groups and locales, and this is not simply a one-size campaign?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is new parents who can feel loneliness, not just new mums. In the strategy, we highlight a case study involving Mush, an app that supports new mums, but we use an infographic of a dad pushing a pushchair because we do recognise that becoming a new parent can be as lonely for a new father as it is for a new mum. Community groups and services are quite often available for mothers and babies, but there is not necessarily the same thing out there for dads and babies. We need to make sure that we look at all people within society, and that is what this strategy and vision do.
Some of the early work on social prescribing was undertaken in Dursley in the Stroud constituency by Dr Simon Opher and his partners. We also did some work on village agents that was initiated by the Department for Work and Pensions, which involved going out into the villages and making sure that older people were, first, looked after, but, secondly, able to claim the benefits to which they were entitled. Will the Minister have a word with the DWP and give some greater impetus to that particularly good scheme?
We are working very closely with the DWP on some of these initiatives. We do actually see it as one of our front-line providers of solutions on tackling loneliness across the board. I would be very interested to hear more about the scheme that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and, if he would like to write to me, I will look further into it.
There are many groups within the Glasgow Central constituency that I could highlight for tackling loneliness. Brilliant groups are working very hard, but I would particularly like to mention the Citizens Theatre’s community collective, which received Big Lottery funding this year to run drama classes to tackle social isolation. I understand that those classes will happen every Friday for the next four years, which is absolutely brilliant. I mention that because the Minister is meeting Citizens Theatre at an event tomorrow afternoon.
That is very much on the positive side of things and great community work is ongoing, but the loneliest people I see in my surgeries are those with immigration status issues. I met an incredibly sad young man at my surgery who was awaiting his wife coming here from very dangerous circumstances. Will the Minister look into what can be done to speed up these processes? It is incredibly debilitating and a cause of loneliness for many people I see at my surgeries when their spouse or family member is so far away and they are not able to reach them.
A colleague from the Home Office is part of the group. Refugees and others within the immigration system were actually considered as part of the strategy, so I encourage the hon. Lady to look at the report in detail to see how we are tackling that particular issue. Like her, I commend all the organisations out there that are getting together in imaginative and creative ways to reach parts of the community through a variety of initiatives, including drama classes.
The Minister will be more than aware that the issue of place is raised in the Government’s civil society strategy, as is the infrastructure of the voluntary sector, which varies enormously between places. Will the Government look seriously at the capacity building of organisations that may be required to support people in loneliness? Will the Minister also look at the excellent example of the South Denbighshire Community Partnership and its fantastic work supporting people in a rural community?
We published the civil society strategy before the loneliness strategy very much on purpose in order to create a framework to support important members of civil society that will then help us with many of the initiatives to tackle loneliness. In that strategy, we purposely looked at place, frameworks and everything else to which the hon. Lady alludes. With regard to the project in her constituency, I know that Wales is looking at developing its own strategy, and we are working closely with the Administration to support them in that.
As chair of the all-party group on libraries, I was proud to launch Libraries Week alongside the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals last week in the very splendid state rooms in Speaker’s House. This year’s theme was libraries and wellbeing, highlighting the important ways in which libraries contribute to combating loneliness and social isolation. Does the Minister agree that libraries are a crucial community resource that are already tackling this important issue, and that we must properly invest in them for a better future for all? If there is any additional funding, will she see whether it could be given to libraries to support this really important initiative?
I completely agree that libraries play an important role. Over the last few years, they have evolved into bigger and greater community hubs, and have become more diverse in what they offer. My local authorities—I have two in my constituency—have closed none of their libraries. In fact, they have looked at how they can better use the space. For example, one of the libraries that I go to also has our local dementia café. Libraries are important, and they need to look at everything they can do to create connections for people in their communities.
Oh, I do beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. I am very sorry; I certainly do not want him to be lonely.
I know I am shrinking, Mr Speaker, but not quite at that rate.
I thank the Minister most sincerely for her statement. I had only served in this House for six weeks with Jo when she was taken from us, but we had been friends for the preceding three years, when I was a candidate up until I lost in 2015. When I was selected for my constituency, she sent me a text saying, “Better late than never, mate.” In the six weeks as a new Member in which I served with her, there was either a text, a WhatsApp message or a written note asking whether I was okay, so Jo really did practise what she preached.
The Welsh Government are responsible for the loneliness strategy in Wales. The Minister will be aware that the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 requires public bodies to look at issues around loneliness as part of wider public service delivery. Given the extra money that she has announced today, will there be any Barnett consequentials in the form of additional funding for the devolved Administrations?
Finally, if I may beg your indulgence, Mr Speaker, will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the connecting the elderly group in Llanharan that supports pensioners around the Pencoed, Llanharan, Bryncae and Llanharry communities by providing afternoon teas free of charge for up to 20 residents every single month to try to improve their community spirit and get them out of the house?
I like a challenge, Mr Speaker, but there is no way I am repeating that!
Obviously, I support the work of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency organisation. With reference to the Barnett formula, there is nothing in this strategy relating to that, but I am sure that colleagues from other Departments will have heard his question.
I thank the Minister, the shadow Minister, the spokesperson for the Scottish National party and all other contributors to the exchanges on this statement. What colleagues have said and, at least as importantly, the way in which they have said it, has been true, without exception, to the spirit of the late and great Jo. As one colleague observed, one felt that Jo was in a sense here and part of this statement, because it springs from her. Everybody can see the permanent testament both to the outrage, and to the respect and affection, that we feel, and will always feel, for Jo, for her family, and for everyone—goodness knows, it was a very large number of people—who admired and loved her. The challenge now is to give effect to the strategy in a way that does us all credit and would get her nod of approval.