I start by apologising to you, Presiding Officer, the people in the public gallery and colleagues in the chamber, because the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has a meeting in Galashiels tonight and, after I have spoken, I will depart to catch a train to get me there on time.
I am sure that this will be an entertaining and interesting debate. I thank Colin Beattie for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important topic and I also thank my intern, Bella Nguyen, who has done the research and written my speaking notes for me. It is always a challenge for somebody when they come to the Parliament to be invited to look at a policy area that they have never looked at previously and to come up with something, and it is always quite revealing how quickly they can find that we are doing quite a lot. The important point is that, although we all say that Scotland aspires to be a welcoming and inclusive country for all and that part of that is about ensuring that adults in Scotland have a good social network and support, many continue to experience severe social exclusion. The emphasis in the motion before us on developing social networks is therefore very welcome.
NHS Health Scotland’s report “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Scotland: a Review of Prevalence and Trends” talks about those who are particularly at risk, which includes
“children and adults who are socio-economically disadvantaged and those experiencing ... physical and mental health” that is below the norm. A whole set of stigmas is associated with people on low incomes or people with disabilities who are isolated, so any initiatives that we can take that help people develop a better sense of themselves, which they should properly have because we value everyone in our society, would be helpful. However, we should also equip them to develop relationships that will be life long and beneficial to them.
The Scottish household survey reported that 8 per cent of responders disagreed that they could turn to friends and relatives in the neighbourhood for advice or support. That gives us some measure of the problem, which is perhaps bigger than we might have imagined. That survey also reported that 18 per cent of responders said that they had limited regular social contact in their neighbourhood. That leads, according to other research, to health issues that are sometimes readily measurable, such as high blood pressure, poor sleep and depression. More fundamentally, it leads to mental health issues, which can be more insidious, particularly at low levels where they are subclinical, the need to seek help is not necessarily recognised and help is not sought. We therefore need to reach out to that category of individuals in particular and ensure that there is a wide range of opportunities for them to participate in the range of things that most of society takes for granted. Through that participation, they can improve their social contact with others and allow others to see opportunities in supporting such people in the long term.
Technology is adding to the problem in many instances, rather than being a solution. If people do not have the skills, the incentive or the equipment to engage in the modern digital world, they are further isolated. The focus on ensuring that people have the ability to develop online and digital communication skills is as important as other initiatives. Our libraries and other public spaces are often very good places in which people can undertake such development. For example, in my Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency, the community learning and development team is hosting small group sessions to address that digital issue, which is part of a wider national picture of activity that I very much welcome.
There are big opportunities and a lot to do, but we are making good progress.