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.