Loneliness Strategy

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 29 April 2024.

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Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 4:00, 29 April 2024

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the high prevalence of loneliness in Northern Ireland, with almost one in five people feeling lonely at least some of the time and one in 20 identified as chronically lonely; further notes the severe social and economic impact of chronic loneliness, including on people’s physical and mental health, such as increased risks of developing heart disease and depression; recognises the urgent need to address loneliness among people of all ages and backgrounds; calls on the Executive to support the development of a cross-departmental loneliness strategy to tackle this issue on a long-term basis; and further calls on the Executive Office to lead on the development of a cross-departmental loneliness strategy.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I do not usually start off on a negative, but I will have to on this one. It is a pleasure to bring the motion to the House today. However, the original motion was changed in the hope of getting a Minister from the Executive Office to come and hear the debate. Unfortunately, even the change to the motion has not managed to do that.

To introduce a note of positivity —this is not positive spin; I mean it — I will recognise that there are Members in the Chamber from every party who are committed to the topic. I value their presence here today and know that their contributions will be good. I tabled the motion, first, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, as our party is committed to the subject, and, secondly, as the chair of the all-party group (APG) on preventing loneliness. It is a pressing matter that affects all of our communities deeply. Loneliness, in particular, has a growing grip on many people, but it is experienced significantly more among carers, people with a disability, the bereaved and our growing older population in Northern Ireland. At the outset, I pay tribute to the Action Group on Loneliness Policy for its advocacy and service and particularly to the all-party group on loneliness here at Stormont. I am getting an itchy nose, and I hope that that does not mean that I am going to fight. I pay tribute to former MLA Sinéad Bradley, the former chair of the all-party group on loneliness, who really set this up and then passed the baton to me.

Sometimes when I speak here, I speak absolutely from notes. However, my starting point today is to reflect on why loneliness is of interest to me and on some of my experiences. I will take you back to a story that some of you will have heard before. About 35 years ago, as an apprentice butcher in Lisburn, I worked six days a week and served thousands of people across the counter. An elderly lady used to come into the shop at Knockmore every day, and she bought her meat, fish, cooked meats and other bits and pieces from me. As a helpful young butcher, I thought that I would help her. I found out on which day she got her pension, and, the next day she was in, I asked her whether it would help her if I was able to put everything together on a Monday, nice and fresh, wrap it up for her to freeze, and she could just pay for it. Her answer was revealing: "Robbie, I don't come in here to buy the meat every day. I come in for a chat". We got a conversation going, and it turned out that that lady lived on her own. She was from Omagh but had moved to Lisburn, and she had no extended family. She had purpose in her day, and her purpose was to go and meet people and have a conversation about the things that mattered to her. It was not that it was Robbie; it did not matter if it was Gerald, whom I worked for. Her purpose in the day was to meet and speak to people. That is why I am particularly interested in the topic.

Loneliness is not merely a fleeting emotion; it is a pervasive reality for far too many individuals. It has consequences that ripple through our society, through our health system and through our collective well-being. We also need to be clear that there is a difference between loneliness and being alone. It can absolutely be the case that someone can be perfectly happy being alone but can also be lonely even in a group of people. I have listened to a lot of podcasts and done a lot of reading, and I was reflecting on Robin Williams, who entertained tens of millions of us. He was one of the funniest actors ever to go on the stage and be in films. For Robin Williams, even in a crowd of however many people, the adoration meant nothing to him, because he was one of the loneliest people ever. He was brave in discussing and sharing that with us.

I have a quotation that is worth sharing. I read these quotes every day. It is:

"the answer to loneliness is not people — it's purpose!"

Recent statistics paint a stark picture. In 2022-23, nearly one fifth of the population in Northern Ireland reported feeling lonely at least some of the time. That equates to approximately 361,000 individuals, and what is more troubling is that loneliness was on the rise even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. That only exacerbated the feelings of isolation and disconnection, especially among vulnerable groups such as carers, people with disabilities and those with terminal illnesses. For carers, in particular, loneliness can be caused by a range of circumstances, many of them outside an individual carer's control. For many, the intensity of caring can be so demanding that they are left with little time or energy to see friends or family. As they neglect their own hobbies and interests, their focus is largely on the person whom they care for.

The causes of loneliness in older people are multifaceted. They include transitions such as moving house or going into residential care, bereavement, loss of sensory abilities such as hearing or vision, financial stress due to retirement, and various structural issues such as a lack of access to transportation, community services and, in some instances, even technology.

Our disabled citizens are far too often an afterthought, and that must change. A recent report stated that more than a third of disabled people said that they were chronically lonely before the pandemic, and that rose to one in two, or 54%, for 16- to 24-year-olds. A lot of people think that loneliness is the purview of just those who age. It is not; it is across all age groups. A third of disabled people are limited to having under an hour of interaction with someone else each day, and over two thirds of disabled people now say that social isolation is affecting their mental health and well-being, with two in five reporting an impact on their physical health. That has led to the majority of disabled people believing that the Government should prioritise tackling mental health and issues including loneliness over every other pressure.

Loneliness is not just a personal burden, however. It is a public health crisis, and research has shown that chronic loneliness can have detrimental effects on physical and mental health comparable with obesity, physical inactivity, air pollution and other issues. It includes the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and depression and it exacerbates existing health issues, particularly among those with terminal illnesses and, as we have spoken about, caregivers. Despite the gravity of the situation, however, Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the UK in addressing loneliness. We are the only part of the UK without a loneliness strategy, and that must change. We need a comprehensive, cross-departmental approach that brings together all sectors of society to tackle this issue head on.

The action group on loneliness policy, which I mentioned, outlined several recommendations to address loneliness across all age groups. I am not going to do them all, but they include the need to develop and implement a Northern Ireland loneliness strategy, embedded in the Programme for Government, that commits resources and has a clear time frame for delivery. The strategy must prioritise supporting opportunities for people to connect, invest in infrastructure to increase social connections and ensure age-friendly provision of local services. Also, it needs to prioritise loneliness in the health and social care system by embedding a cross-sectoral loneliness policy framework and providing training for front-line staff to identify and support those affected by loneliness. That includes investing in befriending and companionship services for those at greater risk, such as people with disabilities and terminal illnesses, and caregivers.

I recognise the efforts of some councils that are trailblazing in this area. Additionally, we must recognise the unique challenges faced by unpaid carers, who often experience as a significant consequence of their caregiving responsibilities. We must provide them with the support that they need to maintain social connections and prevent isolation. Furthermore, we must empower general practitioners to address loneliness as a public health concern, recognising that it can be as detrimental to health as a chronic long-term condition. GPs play a crucial role in identifying and supporting lonely individuals, focusing on not just physical symptoms but emotional well-being, taking a holistic view. Finally, we must establish a cross-sector loneliness implementation group to drive forward these recommendations and ensure that they are implemented effectively across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Absolutely, yes.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving thanks to my former SDLP MLA colleague Ms Sinéad Bradley. Her idea was born out of the loneliness task force led by Professor Sean Moynihan of ALONE and Dr Keith Swanick. They laid the ground for that all-party group that was founded by Sinéad Bradley. Fair play to the Member for paying tribute to Sinéad Bradley and her work in that regard. Does he agree that we all have a responsibility to tackle loneliness, one conversation at a time?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I absolutely do. In paying tribute to Sinéad, I will pay tribute to you. I find you to be one of the most compassionate and empathetic individuals in this Chamber — one of — and I am not surprised to see you here. On Sinéad's contribution, she was absolutely wedded to this issue and asked me to take the baton on when she stepped down. Her heart for the issue laid the foundations for this debate, so I thank you for that, and I do agree with you about conversations one at a time. Let us knock the barriers down and create something that is effective but will be a game changer in Northern Ireland for all our communities.

In conclusion, Mr Speaker — I have elevated you to the position of Mr Speaker because I cannot get the "Deputy" bit out — loneliness is not an inevitable part of ageing or a personal failing. Rather, it is a societal challenge that requires collective action. By working together across sectors and communities, we can create a Northern Ireland in which nobody feels alone or isolated, in which every individual is supported and connected and in which our communities thrive.

I again put on record that, although this is an Ulster Unionist motion, it is really a collective motion from two all-party groups. We in the UUP gave up our slot in order to table it. I thank my colleague Claire Sugden, who is the chair of the all-party group on ageing and older people and who will make the winding-up speech on the motion. I look forward to Members' contributions.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you, Mr Butler, for opening the debate.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I thank Robbie for proposing the motion on an important issue that all of us need to consider. I acknowledge the many people around the Chamber who have worked collectively on the issue, including the chairs of the all-party group on ageing and older people and the all-party group on preventing loneliness, which came together on the issue. It is important work.

I have figures for the impacted groups, but Robbie covered that aspect admirably, so I will not go into the number of people or sectors impacted on. I will say, however, that we clearly have an issue with an ageing society. We need to do better by older people but also recognise that it is not simply about older people. Many younger people and many people with caring responsibilities are impacted on. In my role as a social worker, I often had to fight to get carers perhaps 15 minutes in which to go out, or even at times an hour in which to maintain their faith, never mind to do their own messages. It is very isolating to care for someone. Our system cares for those people rather badly and needs to do better.

Loneliness is a public health issue, in that it clearly and significantly impacts on the health and well-being of many citizens across many key sectors, where it can exacerbate other vulnerabilities and disadvantages. We now have an understanding from research that the impact of loneliness on a person's physical health can be the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That is a call to action. That is not to say that the response must, or even should, come solely from the Department of Health. Indeed, it is important that we do not medicalise issues or solutions where we do not need to. Taking a cross-governmental approach, we can see that many of the solutions can come from housing, planning strategies, education, rural development in DAERA and our broader economic policies. In addition, many of the solutions lie within the realm of community services and with the community and voluntary sector. Instead of cutting back on community transport, we should look at how we can expand it, because it is a lifeline for many of our citizens who live in rural areas. It maintains their independence, dignity and connection to other people so that they can go to the butcher's to get the meat or so that they can do that other piece of shopping.

We need to, and must, support community groups that know their area and know who may need additional support from time to time. They are ideal partners for us in this. We need to focus on building community groups' capacity to reach out further and support people for whom loneliness becomes an issue. I recognise that "social prescribing" is a contested term, and I understand why it is contested, but it is the term that is widely used, and we need to make much more use of social prescribing. We need to provide outlets in the community for people to build connections and gain the sense of purpose that Robbie was right to identify as being crucial to all of this. I fully endorse his comments about the need for an all-island strategy. When we look at our transport system and at border areas, it is clear that it is key that we have a strategy that covers the entire island.

I am pleased to support the motion. This is a fundamentally important debate, and I am delighted that we have a chance to take up the issue today.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

I support the motion proposed by Mr Butler. Colleagues across the Chamber have covered many of the salient points, but I want to hone in on a few of the statistics presented in the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) continuous household survey for 2022-23 in evidencing a few thoughts on the motion.

We must first acknowledge not just the presence of loneliness but, more importantly, its prevalence, which all relevant data shows to have increased dramatically in recent years. According to the Action Group on Loneliness Policy, over the past three years, there has been a 3% increase in the number of people in Northern Ireland who report feeling lonely. We are all aware of the long-term impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on exacerbate the issue, particularly among the vulnerable. We can all think of older people who led quite socially engaged lives prior to the pandemic but who are now rarely to be found outside the house, largely due to fear. Although we were grappling with an unknown at the time, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that things could have been done differently. We must acknowledge that the House carries a degree of responsibility in that regard and should therefore, similarly, carry a duty to rectify the social harm that is still in evidence among our most vulnerable.

Many organisations already do exceptional work across Northern Ireland, particularly with older and more vulnerable citizens, to drive down social isolation and foster healthy, regular relationships. As ever, our faith community is front and centre of that effort, providing space and opportunity for senior groups to meet and organising day trips, lunches and craft evenings that are a lifeline for many people who live on their own. I think of West Winds Community Church and The Warehouse in my constituency, in particular. It is worth remembering that many church organisations not only facilitate such services for our older people but fully finance them. Given that so many funders, including government funders, either preclude them from applying or rule them out, due to the involvement of National Lottery funding, that is an unfairness that urgently needs to be rebalanced. As my colleague Diane Dodds said, it is vital that the Government, and funders generally, support organisations that seek to tackle loneliness among the elderly and vulnerable as much as possible. I look forward to the Communities Minister addressing the matter in the time ahead.

As I said, many organisations work in this area, but, as the motion implies, in the absence of a clear strategy and a collaborative cross-organisational approach to loneliness, many across the sector have had to resort to a silo approach. We work best when we all work together, so I welcome the proposal for greater governmental structure to support providers in the charity sector that work hard to tackle loneliness. The DOH, Health and Social Care, the Loneliness Forum, the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) framework, the various loneliness networks across local government areas and everyone else who works in this space will benefit greatly from a specific government strategy on loneliness.

I was shocked to learn from Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) research that one in 20 people in Northern Ireland experiences chronic loneliness. Whilst I am sure that there will be occasions in our lifetime when each one of us experiences a degree of loneliness, the levels of chronic loneliness evidence the size of the societal problem at present. We often focus on groups whom we view as being more susceptible to loneliness, but the NISRA statistics show that other groups are equally affected. One statistic that stood out for me was the urban/rural divide. One would have expected that rural and isolated areas of the Province would present with higher percentages of loneliness, but that is not the case. In fact, Belfast presented with the highest figure, at 24·9%, with an urban/rural divide of 22·7% urban to 14·1% rural, proving the old adage that you can be lonely in a crowd.

I want to highlight a specific group that is often forgotten —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Time is almost up.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

— but is particularly vulnerable to chronic loneliness: our veterans community.

Photo of Connie Egan Connie Egan Alliance 4:30, 29 April 2024

I thank Robbie Butler for tabling the motion and for the work that he and Claire Sugden have done on the all-party group on ageing and older people.

I join everyone who has spoken in supporting the motion. The Alliance Party is glad to support the development of a needs-led, cross-departmental strategy. Ideally, I would like it to be co-designed as well. We need a cross-departmental strategy to end chronic loneliness. It should include collaborative government working to tackle a huge issue that faces people across our society.

Sometimes, people shy away from discussing loneliness. A lot of people will be embarrassed to admit to others or to services that they feel lonely and to reach out for help. In December 2020, over 70 community and voluntary organisations wrote to the then First Minister and deputy First Minister to call for their support for the development of a cross-departmental loneliness strategy for Northern Ireland. It is important that significant steps are taken to make progress on the issue, and a fit-for-purpose strategy is a good place to begin. Loneliness is a problem that affects every Department, and, therefore, we are happy for the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Executive Office to coordinate the cross-departmental elements.

Last year, I met the Red Cross, which works across Northern Ireland to tackle loneliness. I have to say that I was shocked by some of the case studies that it brought to me. Sometimes, we have a perception about who in society is more likely to be lonely, but the Red Cross works across Northern Ireland with people of a range of ages. Loneliness can affect anybody.

Research conducted by the National Centre for Social Research painted a stark picture. As my colleague mentioned, people with disabilities or long-standing health conditions are 2·9 times more likely to experience chronic loneliness. Statistics from the Campaign to End Loneliness highlight that significant research has been carried out into loneliness among our older population, and that is an important context for the discussion. However, it is important that a new loneliness strategy meets the needs of everybody across Northern Ireland, recognising that chronic loneliness is experienced by people of all backgrounds and at all stages of life.

As my colleagues have mentioned, other regions of the United Kingdom have developed strategic responses to tackle loneliness. Unfortunately, as is the case in many areas of policy, Northern Ireland has been left behind, with our constituents paying the price. The 'Wellbeing in Northern Ireland, 2022/23' report found that people over the age of 75 report the highest levels of loneliness, with almost one in four feeling lonely some or almost all of the time. People over 75 are also the most likely age group to feel lonely often or always. It is important to tackle the issue in a way that meets the bespoke needs of individuals who are experiencing chronic loneliness. A one-size-fits-all solution or a quick fix will not cut it. That is why I am happy to support a cross-departmental strategy.

In my North Down constituency, we have seen some recognition of loneliness in our society and efforts to combat it. For example, we installed "chatty benches" throughout the Ards and North Down Borough Council area, which my party colleagues were happy to support. I visited one such bench in Linear Park in Bangor. It is a relatively small investment and it is a small thing, but it can make a difference on the ground. It encourages people to think about loneliness and to stop, chat and connect with other people in their local communities.

Like in many areas where the Assembly does not deliver, we see grassroots community and voluntary groups stepping up in our constituencies to bring people together. They promote social cohesion and tackle loneliness. We see that through women's centres, local community groups, Men's Sheds and lots more. They have been invaluable lifelines for so many and are often run by volunteers on a shoestring budget. That cannot, however, be expected to replace a comprehensive, needs-led strategy that works towards supporting people and our community and voluntary sector across Northern Ireland.

I will continue to work with everyone in the Assembly and on the Executive Office Committee to ensure that we see a loneliness strategy, with the First Minister and deputy First Minister leading the way on the cross-departmental aspects.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, and I thank the Member for tabling the motion. I echo some of his opening remarks. I feel a bit lonely, because we do not have a Minister here to pick up on any of the discussion that we are having or the points that we raise or the fact that we are highlighting that nearly one in five of our population is impacted by loneliness. What will happen about it in this Executive? Zero, because there is no one here to listen to what we say.

The need for a loneliness strategy is an important matter. If I look around the Chamber, I see that we are all different. Often, our disagreements in here can be heated — just like my remarks a few moments ago — and rightly so for what we are debating. However, when we leave the Chamber, we are able to pass each other in the corridors, stop and have a chat and go and have a coffee and discuss how our working week is going. We might even have a laugh together and ask how each other's families are keeping or share a moment or two together in a working week. We do that because, while we may debate with each other politically, we recognise that we are human and have that need for human interaction. However, many people across the North may not be in such a position and cannot experience such social interactions. As I said, one in five of the population suffers from loneliness and one in 20 suffers from chronic loneliness. Those people may go days or even weeks at a time without interacting with another person.

The reasons for loneliness are as diverse as the people who are impacted by them. Without a fully funded cross-departmental strategy in place, we are only hampering our ability to alleviate that loneliness. That can have a devastating impact on health, well-being and quality of life. There are visible and invisible realities of loneliness.

I echo the remarks made earlier about my former colleague Sinéad Bradley, who worked so diligently in the last mandate to help establish and chair the all-party group on loneliness. She represented a rural constituency and understood how living in a rural area can impact on loneliness.

The Executive have a moral duty to alleviate that loneliness and must act to do so. That is why I feel so passionate about a Minister being here to hear that. When I look at my constituency of South Down, I see great work being undertaken by many local organisations, such as our local libraries; the Good Morning Down project, which makes phone calls and looks out for people by checking in with them; the local Men's Sheds that have sprung up across the place and give men the opportunity to get together and check in; and, on a slightly wider scale, the University of the Third Age (U3A), which I love to talk about because I have a family member who participates in it. The U3A plays that essential role in giving older people opportunities to avail themselves of new interests or develop existing ones and to do so in social groups where they can make new friends or strengthen the interactions and relationships that they have. The U3A has 25 branches across Northern Ireland and a membership of over 1,200 people. Since 1990, it has been clear that the U3A does great work. While some councils fund some work to coordinate and organise activities for older people, I would love to see that extended across Northern Ireland so that we have programmes of activities available for older people in all areas instead of a postcode lottery.

The importance of that is the fact that none of us are getting any younger and the numbers of us who reach older age is increasing year on year. It is more important that we have those activities and structured opportunities because then we might be able to combat the negative health impacts that come from —.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. He raises a really good point: we are an ageing population. We are also growing older with more comorbidities and greater difficulties, which build into the reality of developing issues such as loneliness.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Absolutely. If we can work in a coordinated way to challenge that, it can only be good for our health service and, most importantly, for the people who feel that loneliness.

We are also told that one third of adults feel ashamed about being lonely; one third feel anxious as a result of loneliness; and almost half would never admit to feeling lonely. I think that we can all, in some ways, subscribe to that. Nobody wants to put their hand up and say, "Hey, I feel lonely, and I need some help to talk to people".

As I said, the loneliness that people experience comes from the same place as the need that we have to connect with people. I hope that we can try to address that. Reaching out to others is a basic form of our humanity. The motion directly asks Executive Office Ministers to do something, but they are not here to hear it. I hope that a cross-departmental loneliness strategy will be implemented as soon as possible.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

I say a big "Thank you" to Robbie and Claire for today's motion. It is another really important motion that we are debating in the Assembly. Hopefully, there will be cross-party support for a cross-departmental approach to a loneliness strategy that, importantly, is fully funded. It is not the fault of any individual Minister in the Executive, because we know how the budgets are, but there are problems with the 10-year strategy, the Protect Life 2 strategy and the substance use strategy. Those are all really important pieces of work, but they are in competition with one another for funding, and they would be in competition for funding with a loneliness strategy. However, we still need to pull this piece of work together and then try to prioritise the funding for it. We need to get the strategy pulled together first to see the detail of what it will look like.

Robbie said that we are lagging behind other countries and parts of Britain that have already done this work and have a strategy up and running. We know that the rates of people who are battling loneliness are rising. Members have mentioned that there are people who feel lonely, and then there is chronic loneliness. Some of that can be really hard to live with for people. Colin talked about how social isolation can build up through people feeling anxious, and he said that one third of people feel shame around admitting that they feel lonely. It is so sad that so many people feel embarrassed and ashamed about speaking out to say that they are lonely and do not have people to speak to.

Members have already mentioned mental health, but there are lots of linkages between loneliness and mental health problems and mental ill health, proper diagnosable mental illness. Sadly, we know that that all has a longer-term effect on the overall health system, health services and waiting lists. It is not about trying to dismiss someone who, as a result of loneliness, ends up with a mental illness or a physical illness, but the point is that that all has a knock-on impact on the Department of Health, our A&Es and our waiting lists for different physical health problems. Today's motion should be about preventing some of that, which would prevent a cost to the health service and all the Departments. The motion is linked to all the Departments, so they will have to get on board.

Harry mentioned some brilliant groups in his constituency. Colin mentioned Men's Sheds. I am sure that all of us can think of really good community groups that already do good preventative work with people on loneliness, but I will reference a group that briefed the Health Committee. It was our planning day last week, and one of the groups that came in to give us a briefing was the Safe Families project. That charity is currently working out of the Belfast Trust and the Northern Trust. It offers hope, belonging, support, comfort and friendship to some really vulnerable families and some families who are possibly on the verge of breaking up, where social services have to get involved. In a lot of cases, it is down to isolation and loneliness. It is just down to people struggling a wee bit and not having a bit of support, such as a listening ear, a person to take their kids to the park for 10 minutes or a person to let them get the house cleaned up. It is about having company and friendship.

Some members of Safe Families might be in the Public Gallery today. Their presentation to the Health Committee the other week was brilliant. The work that they do —.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Does the Member agree that, sometimes, even just saying, "Hello" makes a difference to people?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

It does, absolutely, Harry. That is the intention of the great work that Safe Families carries out. Through that work, it has been able to connect 200 families back into their community. That is massive. Over 500 children now have a trusted adult in their life. It even helps the family unit. It helps wee kids before they maybe have to go to social services to get high-level interventions. That group prevents some of that by caring about people and helping them with their isolation and loneliness. At last week's briefing, they said that the volunteers do ordinary things that have extraordinary effects on families and outcomes. It can be something as simple as taking a mum for a coffee, helping her around the home or taking the kids to the park. One volunteer summed it up well:

"What I am doing is not earth-shattering, but it would be if everyone did it."

That is at the heart of the debate. Yes, we need the strategy, we need to prepare and we need all Departments to be involved, but, as Colin said, we need to treat each other like humans and look out for and support one another. If you see someone who is lonely or isolated, try to intervene early so that they do not end up with chronic loneliness.

Photo of Alan Robinson Alan Robinson DUP

Like others, I thank Robbie for tabling the motion.

Imagine the only company that you have is a clock ticking in a room. We have all been there, but, for us, it is likely to have been short-lived. For thousands of others in our Province, that is their daily reality. Feeling lonely is a seemingly innocuous emotion, but it has far-reaching consequences that can affect all age groups, people with disabilities and even those with a caring role. That role can be so demanding that they lose their hobbies or what was once their circle of friends. On some occasions, as some of us can testify, they lose the will to live.

As we heard, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have a loneliness strategy. When we hear of the need for a cross-departmental strategy, which we have, it is an opportunity to applaud the good work that is happening as we speak to address the issue. In my constituency, I think of the wonderful work of Men's Sheds, including the groups at Ballykelly, Limavady and Portstewart, which provide users with skills in woodcraft and opportunities for people who are lonely to participate in pool, darts, gardening, cooking, counselling, art projects, health talks, walking groups and trips. I think of Age Concern Causeway, which does so much good work in befriending people and providing networking opportunities. I think of Good Morning Roe Valley, which the Limavady Community Development Initiative (LCDI) delivers, and, of course, Causeway Older Active Strategic Team (COAST), which supports people across the Causeway area who are aged 60-plus and delivers a vital handyman service to keep older people safe in their homes.

I met representatives from COAST recently, and I was horrified by the fact that their current funding is due to cease in 2026. If we are truly to deliver on such a strategy, organisations such as COAST should have ring-fenced and sustainable funding. We should invest in those who provide befriending and companionship services and who have been at the front line in addressing loneliness, rather than de-investing in them. Indeed, we should use their experience to drive policies and frame any such strategy. I agree that the strategy should apply to all ages and that it should be embedded in a Programme for Government and developed through schools and youth services. Given that the thrust of the motion lies, on the whole, with the Health Minister, it would have been helpful for him to be here or for the proposer not to frame the motion in a way that dials down the obligations of his Minister.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. In the previous mandate, it was recognised in the Final Stage debate on the provision of period products that a cross-departmental strategy would sit much better with TEO, as it has oversight. Given the burden on Health, many have agreed that the loneliness strategy was similar in that way. It is not a health issue; it becomes a health issue when we do not address it up front. This is more of a preventative strategy. If we wait until people are lonely, we will have failed.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Alan Robinson Alan Robinson DUP

I appreciate the Member's comments, but, sometimes, we differ in here.

The building blocks of a strategy could be lifted from the 'Loneliness in Northern Ireland: A call to action' report, which was published in 2020. The report brought together different approaches from across the UK and Ireland, and it recommended, as a first step, setting up an Assembly Committee inquiry and making recommendations based on the evidence gathered. It is a starting point but one that must commence. My party will support the motion.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you to Robbie Butler and others on the all-party group for tabling the motion. Loneliness is a huge problem in communities across Northern Ireland. Far too often, it gets swept under the carpet. It is right that we give time in the Assembly to discuss that hidden crisis. Of course, we can all expect to be lonely at some point in our lives, but persistent and chronic loneliness and, indeed, social isolation are issues that the Executive must face up to. The scale of the problem will be a concern to all of us. The fact that one in 20 people have been identified as chronically lonely is hugely worrying.

In my council area, it is a matter of real concern that over 22% of people reported feeling lonely at some point. We should be equally concerned by the inequalities in whom loneliness affects the most. We know that older people experience a higher level of loneliness than younger people, and the figures are really stark. Age NI has highlighted that one in four older people over the age of 75 described feeling lonely some, most or all of the time. Perhaps one of the starkest differences, however, is between the level of loneliness experienced by people in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland, where almost 28% reported feeling lonely at least some of the time, and the level of loneliness experienced by people in the less deprived areas, where the figure was just 14%. We need to recognise that disparity in the conversation that we have today. There is a loneliness penalty for some of our poorest communities, and we simply cannot afford to stand over that any longer.

As the motion rightly highlights, it is an increasing public health issue. I was really struck, as were many Members who spoke today, by the statistic that chronic loneliness can be just as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Not only is social isolation associated with faster rates of cognitive decline but it increases cardiovascular problems; indeed, it increases the risk of early death by up to 26%. Clearly, that costs us in public health outcomes, but it also costs our public purse. Every day, a GP sees between one and five people because they are lonely. Of course, lonely periods in someone's life can often take place at a time of transition, such as when you become a new parent. When people are faced with those challenges, the interventions made by community organisations are really vital, more than ever, in addressing that loneliness. I think particularly of an organisation in Foyle called Minding Mum, which brings together new mums. They go out walking with their babies on a Wednesday morning. It is about getting the mums out and letting them talk to one another as they experience the absolute new love that they have for their baby but also the loneliness and other experiences.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I appreciate the Member giving way. I will say this as briefly as I can. It is a really important point that is niggling me. We know the importance of skin-to-skin contact, for instance, for mums and babies. As a society, and I am not targeting anybody, we have gone from these blinking things — mobile phones — and we now have screen-to-skin contact. I am seriously concerned about the problem that we are building up for our young people, in particular, who are sometimes more interested in getting followers than friends. Does the Member agree that the societal approach and the prevention need to be targeted at young people too?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Absolutely, Mr Butler. We are losing that person-to-person connectivity.

I have recently become a grandmother, and I have seen how lonely it can be for some mums. It is a really challenging time, and it is lonely for many. Many of us are lucky to have big family circles, but others are not. I think in particular of our new citizens — our immigrant community — who do not have that family support. The Minding Mum project in Derry helps to support those families.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. On Mr Butler's point, does she agree that the growth of technology, the closure of banks and post offices and the move to two-step authentication can often make older people — the elderly community — feel isolated, due to not knowing how to use the technology and not seeing the people whom they would have seen every day because those spaces no longer exist?

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I totally agree with the Member. Sometimes, things are convenient but not conducive to one-to-one engagement with people.

I also think of U3A, another group in Derry that helps hundreds of people every year to have a fulfilling and active lifestyle in older age. There is also a wonderful cafe in Derry called "Claude's" that runs a Thursday club that men can drop into for a chat and come together in support and friendship. Those are all really important organisations, but they are no substitute for government action and intervention.

The time is right for a cross-departmental loneliness strategy. Clearly, good work is taking place across the Departments, but it is without a strategic focus. I fear that, as with so many other things in this place, we can expect chronic loneliness —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

— to be a fact of life for many years to come.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Members who tabled this important motion. Loneliness has become a public health epidemic, and Stormont's position as the only Government in the UK without a strategy on it is no longer excusable. Poverty is pervasive, and it intensifies loneliness. Of those living in the most deprived areas, almost 30% reported feelings of loneliness, a figure that is much higher than in more affluent communities across the North. The impact that a lack of money has on ability to take part in the celebrations and get-togethers that many take for granted intensifies isolation. The inability to join in or even provide for yourself or your family can often fill people with shame. Too often, care homes and supported housing schemes are cut off from wider communities. In housing developments, a lack of safe communal areas often inhibits people from connecting with their neighbours. Accessible and affordable spaces such as community centres, youth clubs and libraries in which community groups can meet are vital, but those services are often underfunded, to the detriment of the health of those who already live in isolation.

For many, being social is a privilege, even though it is in our nature and our DNA to be so. Almost everything costs money, whether it is travelling to meet someone or going for a coffee. Loneliness is exacerbated by lack of access to social amenities, and lack of access stems from lack of resources. Today, members of the parties in the Assembly speak of the detrimental impact of loneliness on the most vulnerable in our society, yet, only last month, some parties voted to hike the rates for those households, placing the burden of revenue raising on working people.

The NI health survey, which has already been referred to, has shown that loneliness amongst older people can be exacerbated by factors such as geographical isolation and poor connectivity and transport links. The concessionary fares scheme that provides free travel for over-60s was established to promote accessible public transport for the members of the community who are most at risk of social exclusion, yet the Department for Infrastructure has not fully committed to maintaining that in the months and years ahead. Parties here cannot express their concern for the very people whom they want to rinse of their limited income, driving them further into poverty and thus social isolation. They cannot pretend to empathise with the people whom they continually punish and marginalise with their vote.

There is a loneliness epidemic in the North that is produced by a system that drives us apart. It targets the most vulnerable in our society. We need to invest in our communities' infrastructure and transport to ensure that we do not drive them further into social isolation. We support the motion; however, we call on the Executive to properly fund those vital services, to invest in our communities and to lift people out of poverty, if we are ever to have an anti-loneliness strategy that is worth the paper that it is written on.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I call Claire Sugden to conclude and wind up the debate.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent 5:00, 29 April 2024

I appreciate all the contributions and the fact that Members have indicated their support for the motion. In particular, I appreciate the contributions from Members who are on the all-party group on ageing and older people and the all-party group on preventing loneliness. A number of weeks' work went into getting the motion on to the agenda today, and it is important that we did that.

I also thank the Ulster Unionist Party for allowing me to make the winding-up speech on the motion. That again shows the cross-party support, in which I include that of independent MLAs, for the motion. I also thank the sector, particularly the British Red Cross and Age NI, for informing the debate.

Loneliness is not just a feeling. It is not just a brief and temporary feeling of being alone when you would rather not be, and it is not something that passes or that everybody experiences from time to time. Rather, loneliness is a debilitating condition that can affect anyone regardless of age, background or circumstance. We heard from Members who said that recent data has shown that one in five — 19% — of all people in Northern Ireland have reported feeling lonely at some point in time. That is over 360,000 individuals.

Ms Egan said that people aged 75 and above in Northern Ireland report significantly higher rates of loneliness compared with people in other age groups, and we have heard heartbreaking accounts. Mr Butler, in his opening remarks, talked about the elderly lady who came into the shop once a week. Perhaps that was her only opportunity to speak to someone once a week, or perhaps even once a month or over a number of months. Surely that is enough to compel the Government to develop a cross-departmental strategy immediately to address a pervasive issue that affects so many.

The pandemic certainly drew attention to loneliness as a growing concern. Although COVID-19 exacerbated the issue, particularly among those who were already vulnerable, such as carers, individuals with disabilities, those with a terminal illness, new parents — they were mentioned by Sinéad McLaughlin — and older people, the pandemic did not create the issue. I became a new parent last year, and, in the first number of months, I had what I suppose would be called a "Velcro baby", so I certainly was not alone, as she was always attached to me in some form. In the early hours of the morning, however, I was lonely. It was really difficult, and it brought on a form of postnatal anxiety that I still deal with all these months later. It is therefore important to recognise that, yes, we often associate loneliness with older people, but it affects people from all different backgrounds at all stages in their life. Ms McLaughlin makes a really important point about transitions, and there are huge life changes that are inevitable in the journeys that we go through.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Member for giving way, and I understand her personal experiences. Will she agree that some Departments do not make it easy for applicants, particularly with the likes — I think that this was referred to earlier — of universal credit or even applications involving the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, which are very blunt instruments and where everything is black and white instead of there being some practical flexibility?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I agree, not just on that issue but across all areas, that government needs to do more to support people in accessing support and not almost stand in their way, as some of the processes suggest. I will come to that a little bit later.

Ms Hunter and Mr Butler talked about the growth of digital technology and said that, although our ability to communicate more remotely can be effective and efficient in some respects, the decline of physical communication, physical communities, local facilities and public services has led us towards living increasingly isolated lives. In-person conversations and interaction with those outside our known friend groups and family is becoming rarer, and, for too many of us, our neighbours, who were once so familiar to us, are now strangers.

Loneliness is a silent epidemic with far-reaching consequences, and others have talked about how chronic loneliness — the most serious form — can be linked to a multitude of health issues, including a risk of early death, cardiovascular problems, cognitive decline and depression. Furthermore, structural factors such as transitions in living arrangements, about which we have talked, bereavement, financial strain and technological barriers all contribute to the prevalence of loneliness among our elderly population, as well as among other groups.

As Mr Elliott suggested, government has perhaps inadvertently created the conditions for loneliness. There has been a failure to recognise rural needs, there is poor transport and infrastructure and there has been a defunding of community groups. We have heard Members right across the House talk about the community groups in their constituencies and the good work that they are doing, but we are hearing every day about how those community groups are not being funded from one year to the next. Therefore if government is not going to do it, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face if we do not support the groups that are already doing those things.

Poor education on healthy relationships is another issue; we need to know how to talk to one another. We voted for a motion on that issue, last week, but too many Members voted against it. Waiting lists and a lack of support for parents and families are also relevant, and there is no real plan to tackle social deprivation or protect the most vulnerable in society. We are also grossly overlooking the fact that we are an ageing population. There is no consideration of how our fast-changing demographic is impacting services and people. Others have mentioned the demographic. We do not have an active ageing strategy, and, 10 years from now, the problems that we are experiencing today will have increased tenfold.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I agree with her points on the lack of support from government. Does she agree that one of the most heartbreaking things to do when you are standing in elections is to canvass at somebody's door — it tends to be an older person — and the person keeps you a bit longer for a chat because, you surmise, they have not talked to anyone all day? Does she agree that that is heartbreaking and exposes the extent of the problem across society?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Yes, as elected representatives, all of us have probably experienced that. When we chat to someone, they want to bring you in for a cup of tea. It was referenced in the most recent series of 'Blue Lights' when the police officers were persuaded to stay at a person's home. Again, that is having an impact on services. You want to know where our police officers are: they are doing the jobs that other public services have not been able to do.

I am making the point that loneliness is not the responsibility of one Minister or one Department. It requires a whole-of-government approach, beginning with a Programme for Government, which we do not yet have, and, within that document, a commitment to develop a strategy for loneliness and active ageing. It is important to reiterate the point that Mr Butler made at the outset, as did Mr McGrath. It is disappointing that no Minister felt that this issue was important enough to respond to. I appreciate that there is debate about where the issue should sit, but going by the contributions from all Members, whether they believe it should be Health, Communities or even the Department of Justice, strangely enough, it is an issue that should be tackled from the top. Again, we have to be mindful that we are an ageing population. If that is the group that is the most affected, why are we overlooking the issue?

Despite the widespread acknowledgement of the issue and strong cross-party support — I welcome the fact that Órlaithí Flynn said that we should get that support — we remain the only part of the United Kingdom without a dedicated loneliness strategy. Therefore, I urge the Executive to take decisive action by implementing a comprehensive Northern Ireland loneliness strategy. Such a strategy must be cross-departmental, embedded in a Programme for Government — whenever we see it — and backed by committed resources and a clear time frame for development and delivery. That funding is key. Too often in the House, we talk about things. These motions are non-binding. The next action that we have to take is upholding what we agree here today, and that requires a strategy that is fully funded.

In the time that I have left, I will acknowledge some of the other contributions that Members have made. Colm Gildernew recognised the importance of community transport. I agree with that, but, again, it is not just community transport within Infrastructure. Community transport is required to get to medical appointments and social situations and interactions. North Coast Community Transport in my constituency often tells me that it is given the bare minimum because funding has been cut. That goes back to my earlier point.

Harry Harvey, rightly, recognises the input of the faith community in supporting these issues. Sometimes, as we move away from faith and church, we forget about the social opportunities that those types of things facilitate. Connie Egan, who represents North Down, talked about chatty benches. I also acknowledge Translink. You might be familiar with its chatty carriage in which they bring together people on a journey along the north coast, which is probably the nicest route — it is in my constituency — to talk about various issues. I acknowledge what Alan Robinson said about some of the great community organisations in East Londonderry, which is also my constituency, that are providing these facilities. I found it interesting that he accused the Health Minister of not doing anything, but most of his contribution was about Communities. Again, it is not a criticism; it is a recognition that this extends beyond one Minister or one Department.

Lastly, I will make a point about what Sinéad McLaughlin said about immigrants.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

That is 100%. Thank you.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Member for concluding the debate.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the high prevalence of loneliness in Northern Ireland, with almost one in five people feeling lonely at least some of the time and one in 20 identified as chronically lonely; further notes the severe social and economic impact of chronic loneliness, including on people’s physical and mental health, such as increased risks of developing heart disease and depression; recognises the urgent need to address loneliness among people of all ages and backgrounds; calls on the Executive to support the development of a cross-departmental loneliness strategy to tackle this issue on a long-term basis; and further calls on the Executive Office to lead on the development of a cross-departmental loneliness strategy.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I ask Members to take their ease while we make a change at the top Table.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ní Chuilín] in the Chair)