Just two weeks ago, a group of Ministers sat on the Treasury Bench and launched the Government’s cross-departmental loneliness strategy. They were right to do that, because, as the Prime Minister says, this major public health issue has as big an impact as obesity or smoking, and affects up to one in five adults often or always. As part of that strategy, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Tracey Crouch, promised that we could look forward to a loneliness test in respect of major decisions in future. Disappointingly, there is not one with this Budget. So I thought I would do the job for the Government and review its impact on loneliness to see whether the fine rhetoric we heard in this Chamber two weeks ago has been followed up with action.
The loneliness Minister, speaking with refreshing honesty, admitted that past cuts had “inadvertently” made loneliness worse—here is how. Since 2010, Government funding cuts have led to the closure of 428 day centres, 1,000 children’s centres, 600 youth centres and 478 public libraries. Those are all spaces where people can go and loneliness can be tackled. Government funding cuts have also led to the loss and closure of lunch clubs and befriending services; the loss of funding for voluntary and community groups and for community centres; and care visits being shortened in time and reduced in number, and being denied to 1.4 million older people. Again, those are all services that help to tackle and prevent loneliness. So has all that come to an end in this Budget, now that we have a loneliness strategy? Sadly, I do not think it has, because according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, over the next three years we can look forward to an average cut of 3.1% each year in the local government funding from which all those services are funded. There is no end to austerity there.
While Ministers have been trumpeting £650 million extra for social care, they have neglected to point out that the previously announced £1.3 billion cut is still going ahead. Rather than more money for social care, then, we are looking forward to another £650 million cut in services.
In my borough, Croydon, we have a very high number of children seeking asylum. The Government’s severe underfunding of asylum services means that the support that those children need does not even exist yet. Isolation is of course a major problem for a child living in a country without their family or members of their social network. Even among that group, loneliness is going to get much worse.
Despite the fine words in the loneliness strategy launched just two weeks ago, the Budget will result in more and deeper cuts to all the services that tackle or prevent loneliness. I have to ask: what is the point of a cross-departmental group of Ministers sitting on the Front Bench to trumpet their new loneliness strategy if the Chancellor comes along and trashes it with his Budget just two weeks later? No wonder the Government dare not apply a loneliness test to the Budget—it is a test they would fail.