Older Persons: Provision of Public Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:06 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I start, with slightly less time than I should have, by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for calling this debate and all the contributions. I cannot say that it has been an altogether comfortable way to spend the past two hours.

The Government are committed to ensuring economic security for people at every stage of their life, including when they reach retirement, so I am pleased to say that relative poverty rates have halved since 1990. I am glad that incomes for over-75 households have increased much faster than average. The average income for all households between 1999-2000 and 2016-17 improved by 71%, but for households containing someone 75 or over, average weekly incomes more than doubled. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned some other statistics which I do not have in front of me, but I will get back to him on that and his other 15 questions later, and copy the answer to all noble Lords.

We want to maintain the achievement of raising average income for the elderly. We forecast to spend more than £120 billion on benefits for pensioners in 2019-20 and are committed to the triple lock for the duration of this Parliament, guaranteeing that both the basic and the new state pension, excluding protected payments, will rise by the highest of average earnings growth, price inflation or 2.5%.

The Government recognise loneliness as one of our biggest public health challenges. It is estimated that between 5% and 18% of all UK adults are always or often lonely. Frequently, feeling lonely is linked to early death. It is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, depression and Alzheimer’s. We know that loneliness can affect people of all ages. As Jo Cox said, young or old, loneliness does not discriminate. We are working to help people of all ages to have meaningful social relationships and to avoid loneliness. We are the first Government in the world to appoint a Minister to lead work on tackling loneliness; I appreciate the comments of several noble Lords who acknowledged that.

Last year, we published the world’s first government strategy on loneliness, as well as securing £20 million of new grant funding for projects run by charities and community groups to bring people together. As the Motion suggests, the causes of loneliness and its solutions are many and varied. I much appreciated the ideas of the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, on that with respect to the elderly. I agree with him and other noble Lords that a debate on the wider aspects of this problem would be useful.

The loneliness strategy contains more than 60 policy commitments covering many aspects of people’s lives, from transport and health to education. For example, the Government are improving and expanding social prescribing across England. That will change the way in which patients experiencing loneliness are treated, connecting them to community groups and services through the support of link workers; 1,000 new, trained social prescribing link workers will be in place by 2020 and 900,000 will be referred to social prescribing by 2023-24. The strategy also announced the creation of a network of employers to take action on loneliness. More than 30 leading organisations, including Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, Transport for London and the British Red Cross, have signed up to this network, pledging to support their employees to avoid loneliness. We are also embedding loneliness into relationship education classes so that children can learn about it and the value of social relationships.

We agree that transport is vital to building and maintaining people’s social connections; it is therefore integral to the Government’s loneliness strategy. We have invested significantly in transport infrastructure, providing more than £61 billion in the five years up to 2020. That underpins much of what the Government can do to help people remain connected. We are also providing support to local bus services, community transport and community rail services.

For some people, a free local bus service can be a lifeline, providing access to healthcare and other essential services as well as allowing them to visit family and friends. To support this lifeline, the Government support council spending of around £1 billion a year so that older and disabled people can travel on buses for free. The Government remain committed to preserving the current statutory entitlement to concessionary bus fares. Therefore, last April, we announced a change in legislation to protect the concessionary travel scheme in its current form. However, we must recognise that providing free transport alone will not solve the problem of loneliness. Inclusive transport is key to our approach to the current transport network.