Social Isolation and Loneliness

– in the Scottish Parliament on 2 May 2023.

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green


he next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-08758, in the name of Emma Roddick, on tackling social isolation and loneliness.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

I am delighted to open this debate on social isolation and loneliness. I do not want to pre-empt anyones contribution, but it is safe to say that there is quite a lot of agreement across the chamber on the importance of tackling social isolation and loneliness.

It can be hard to admit to being lonely. Humans are generally social creatures, and it can feel like some kind of failure for someone to admit that they do not have the connections that they would like to have or that they think that others have. It is important to recognise that there is often a difference between what we think others have and what their real experience is. That is particularly the case with the growth of social media and peoples ability effectively to present their lives in a way that is very different from realityshowing only the smiles with friends, and not the time that they spend lonely, scrolling, and looking at other peoples smiles with friends.

It is so important that we tackle the stigma around social isolation and loneliness, so I welcome this debate.

I want to take a little time to remind members of the context in which our work on social isolation and loneliness has developed. I will then outline what the Scottish Government is doing to tackle this important issue.

In 2018, we were proud to be one of the first countries to introduce a strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and for bringing stronger social connections. As part of the strategy, we set up an advisory group of expert and trusted stakeholder organisations working daily with people who live with the experiences of social isolation and loneliness. The groups remit was to build a cross-sectoral approach, develop a plan to implement the strategy, advise the Scottish Government and share good practice.

The group helped us define what we mean by social isolation. For the purpose of the debate, that definition is worth repeating here today:

Social isolation refers to when an individual has an objective lack of social relationships (in terms of quality and/or quantity) at individual group, community and societal levels.”

As for our definition of loneliness, that is

a subjective feeling experienced when there is a difference between the social relationships we would like to have and those we have.”

The strategy also sets out a clear vision for the kind of Scotland that we want to see, where community connections are increased and no one is excluded from participating in society for any reason. Our vision states:

We want a Scotland where individuals and communities are more connected

and where everyone can

develop meaningful relationships regardless of age, status, circumstances or identity.”

I will shortly outline how we are implementing that vision, and I look forward to hearing from all parties about work that they are aware of that tackles social isolation and, of course, to listening to how we build on our collective efforts that we have delivered so far.

Before I do that, it is important to recognise the significant impact of the Covid pandemic on social isolation and loneliness. Throughout the pandemic, when Governments round the world imposed physical distancing to save lives, social isolation and loneliness rocketed. People lost casual connections, close support and even loved ones to the virus.

At the height of the pandemic, around half the population reported feeling lonely at some point in the previous week. Loneliness is not just an inconvenience, as research has shown that chronic lonelinessthat is, feeling lonely most or all the timeis bad for our mental health and bad for our physical health.

Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. Loneliness is a public health issue.

More than that, loneliness is also an issue of inequality. We know that loneliness does not affect everyone equally across Scotland. Data that the Scottish Government and others gathered during the pandemic remind us that some people are more at risk from the damaging effects of loneliness than others. Often, those are the people most at risk of experiencing other disadvantage.

Although loneliness is a significant problem for older people, young people experience high rates of loneliness, despite being almost constantly connected to the world through social media. Disabled people experienced the highest rates of loneliness during the restrictions brought about by the Covid pandemic, and we have heard from them that the feeling of being disconnected from family and friends has persisted well beyond lockdown.

Research from Carers UK suggests that as many as eight out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one. People who have low incomes have also reported more persistent loneliness. It is not difficult to understand why, and it is not difficult to imagine the impact that the cost crisis is now having.

Research by the British Red Cross last December showed that 81 per cent of Scottish people agreed that the increased cost of living will make people lonelier. Just last week, Carnegie UK published a reportThe long shadow of the cost of living emergency”, with the key message that that emergency is hurting our ability to do the things that are important to us, such as visiting friends or family, which is resulting in increased loneliness and social isolation.

As Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees with portfolio responsibility for tackling inequalities and advancing human rights and connected communities, I recognise the challenge that the unwanted experience of loneliness and social isolation presents us with. I mentioned earlier that it is a public health issue. Left unaddressed, it means poorer quality lives for the people affected and greater demand on our health and social care resources. When we think about a preventative approach to public health, it seems to me that tackling social isolation and loneliness is a key part of that jigsaw.

In our 2021 manifesto and our subsequent programme for government, we made a commitment to further develop our work to tackle social isolation and loneliness by setting up a loneliness fund and developing a new delivery plan for our strategy. While that work was under way, we provided £1 million in emergency short-term funding in August 2021 and a further £1 million in January 2023. The short-term funding boosted the work of organisations working to tackle social isolation and loneliness, whose services were facing unprecedented demand, first, because of the Covid pandemic and, latterly, because of the cost crisis over the winter months.

I will give a flavour of what the most recent winter funding package has enabled to happen. The winter funding has helped Age Scotland to support community groups to keep their doors open for older people, it has helped Home-Start Scotland to provide family group activities to help young isolated families, and it has helped faith organisations to provide warm spaces and warm meals over the festive period. All those activities have not only contributed to mitigating the impact of the cost of living crisis but helped people to come together and interact and to make and maintain the vital social connections that we all need.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

The Government also committed to providing £10 million of funding over the five years of this parliamentary session. Having looked at the Governments announcements, I have been able to find commitments for only about £5 million of funding over this parliamentary session. Is the Government still committed to providing £10 million to address social isolation and loneliness?

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

The £10 million as a whole had to be looked at during the spending review. I point out that the £3.8 million to which I referred is to be spread across three years in order to give organisations confidence in their funding over a longer period, which is what the Scottish Government was asked to do. The funding is certainly not small, but other areas of the portfolio had to be reprioritised.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

Is the Scottish Government therefore saying that only £5 million, not £10 million, will be delivered over the course of this parliamentary session?

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

I will set out some of the other spends shortly. Of course, it is not just £6 million that will be spent on tackling social isolation and loneliness. I hope to provide clarification later in my contribution, and I can write to Miles Briggs with further detail if that would be helpful.

Following the funding that I mentioned, I am delighted to say that, on 8 March, my predecessor, Christina McKelvie, launched a new delivery plan and a three-year social isolation and loneliness fund, which fulfilled our manifesto promise and programme for government commitment. The delivery plan is calledRecovering our Connectionsand builds on our original strategy by outlining how we will take work forward over the next three years.

Our priorities remain the same. We want to empower communities, build a sense of shared ownership, tackle stigma, provide opportunities and support an infrastructure that fosters connections. Those are, of course, shared responsibilities. The Scottish Government cannot tackle social isolation and loneliness in a bubble, so we are committed to building shared ownership across the public, private and third sectors.

Our partners in the social isolation and loneliness advisory group are key to our ambitions to provide collective leadership in the area, so we will continue to work with the advisory group, whose input and advice will be invaluable in ensuring that the plan is implemented over the remaining life of this parliamentary session.

The response to the launch of the social isolation and loneliness fund has been incredible, with more than 1,300 expressions of interest having been received. That highlights the pressing need for the work and the passion, commitment and creativity of the organisations that work to tackle social isolation and loneliness in our communities every day. Fundamentally, this is all about communities and the links that we make within and between them. As the First Minister outlined in his policy prospectus, the Governments missions are centred around equality, opportunity and community.

Tackling social isolation and loneliness does not start and end with the programme for government commitment that I spoke about a moment ago. A huge range of work is being done across the Scottish Government that will have a positive impact on peoples ability to make and maintain connections with one another. From the volunteering action plan and 20-minute neighbourhoods to the child poverty strategy and tackling the digital divide, a wealth of actions will be taken over the next three years.

Our flagship digital inclusion programme, connecting Scotland, ensured that those who were digitally excluded had the means, confidence and support to engage with digital services during the pandemic. The programme, which delivered 60,000 devices and provided an internet connection for two years, could not have been achieved without the support from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and other third sector public organisations.

The evaluation of the connecting Scotland programme validates the programme and shows that it provided a lifeline to the people of Scotland. Recipients told us what it means to be online and to be able to stay in touch with friends and family, and highlighted the access that they then had to vital information and services. All that combined to preserve their mental health and wellbeing when face-to-face services had all but disappeared.

With the current cost of living crisis, getting online and staying connected are just as important as they were during the pandemic. The digital divide is more significant than ever. Those who are online can access services, savings and opportunities that are denied to those who are digitally excluded. I am therefore delighted to tell members that the new connecting Scotland programme will be launched soon with a more sustainable and inclusive approach. More information will be available shortly.

To take another part of my portfolio as an example, Scotland has a long history of welcoming people of all nationalities and faiths, including those seeking refuge and asylum from war and persecution. Our approach to supporting asylum seekers and refugees living in Scotland is set out inNew Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-2022”, which sets out a vision for a welcoming Scotland where refugees and asylum seekers can rebuild their lives from the day they arrive, and where we remain committed to supporting their integration into our communities and providing the safety and security that they need as they begin to rebuild their lives.

Yet another example, this time from health and social care, is the communities mental health and wellbeing fund. Just last week, the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care announced a further £15 million to meet the demand for local grass-roots mental health and wellbeing projects in 2023-24. That is a total investment of £51 million over three years. The communities mental health and wellbeing fund supports grass-roots community groups in building resilience and tackling social isolation, loneliness and mental health inequalities, which have been made worse by the pandemic and most recently, the cost crisis.

In the first two years, approximately 3,300 grants were made to a wide range of grass-roots community projects, including those based around peer support, physical activity, arts and crafts, social interaction and befriending, with a strong emphasis on the key themes of prevention and early intervention. The fund has a particular focus on social isolation and loneliness, with 1,026 projects funded on that topic in year 1. The three-year funding will make a big difference to communities across Scotland, enabling them to build on the examples of good practice that have been supported so far and providing them with further opportunities to reconnect, revitalise and promote good mental health and early intervention for those in distress.

There are plenty more examples that I could give, but I know that members will be keen to provide their own contributions and perspectives, just as I am keen to hear them. I will end by saying that this is an incredibly positive and exciting time for me to become involved in this area of work, and I look forward to chairing my first meeting of the social isolation and loneliness advisory group in June. I know that my predecessor very much enjoyed getting out and about to learn about this area of work and to meet the fantastic organisations that are making life better and more connected for the people of Scotland, and I fully intend to do the same.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone at any age or stage of life, but that not everyone is affected equally; acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic meant that more people experienced social isolation, and that this was disproportionately felt by disabled people, younger people and single-person households; recognises the action taken by the Scottish Government since its strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness was published in 2018, including working with young families that are facing adversity, stigma and exclusion, supporting disabled people, carers and grassroots projects to ensure that communities can make a difference on their own terms; believes that preventative action is vital to ensure that the negative mental health consequences are addressed; welcomes the investment that the Scottish Government is making through the three-year, £3.8 million Social Isolation and Loneliness Fund, which will create opportunities for people to connect with one another in Scotlands communities; commends the work of organisations and communities to tackle this issue, and recognises that tackling this public health issue is a collective responsibility and requires a shared commitment across the public, private and third sectors.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

The problems that are associated with poor mental health have become a regular part of the wider public health debate, and rightly so. The loneliness that the pandemic created in many groups, which todays motion speaks about, is well documented. As such, I welcome the time that has been set aside today to debate the risks of social isolation and loneliness, and how we should best tackle those as we go forward.

As my partys shadow spokesperson for older people, I will begin by speaking about the particular challenges that loneliness poses for that group. Loneliness is an issue that affects the lives and wellbeing of thousands of older people across Scotland. Research by Age Scotland found that nearly 220,000 people aged over 50 in Scotland feel lonely either all or most of the time. Perhaps the most telling statistic is that, in every street, there is one person of pensionable age who feels chronically lonely at all times. That is quite a damning statistic.

We know how much loneliness can damage older peoples quality of life. There is clear evidence that loneliness in older people increases their risk of other conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, anxiety and depression. However, there are also links to dementia in the older generation. Research from Harvard has highlighted that lonely people aged between 60 and 79 are three times more likely to develop dementia than those in other situations.

Although loneliness can restrict individuals from improving their health, there is a real need to address it when it comes to physical and mental health. In Scotland, there is a significant gap between healthy life expectancy and total life expectancya difference of nearly 20 years for women and 16 for men. As declining physical health makes it more difficult to create and maintain relationships, loneliness can often have consequences for health conditions that people develop. That means that individuals need to access healthcare but, if there are delays in access, that can also cause many issues for them, as it can play an important role in tackling loneliness and isolation.

There is a clear link between older people living longer lives and living healthier lives. If they do not have connection and there is a break in individualssupport and care, it has an impact on their wellbeing. There is no question but that the record waiting times in the national health service are an issue for everyone in Government. Older people in particular are suffering and do not have the guarantee that their support will be available. We need to ensure that it becomes a reality.

Scotland has a new Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care. I suggest that we need to focus on the NHS recovery part of his remit. We need to talk about the recovery because that approach will support many older people. It is time to scrap the previous NHS recovery plan and put in place a new one that will take control and tackle some of the situations that we find ourselves in.

Community groups also play an important part in the support networks that are available to older people. They are a great way of combating loneliness. I pay tribute to the many organisations that work tirelessly in that sector, are leading it and do much to combat loneliness for many individuals. However, long-term social isolation is becoming a major issue. The work that community groups and the Government are doing identifies needs, but there are still gaps and they require to be filled. In fact, it is estimated that around 200,000 older people in Scotland rely on some form of social group or club for company.

That is why I welcome the additional funding that the minister spoke about and that the Scottish Government is providing. There is no doubt that more needs to be put into that sector because it requires support. The funding will keep the doors open for many organisations. By doing that, it supports many individuals in our communities. We know that many community groups are struggling financially. They have told us time and again that more is required because, as the population ages, they need more and more. Age Scotland has told us that more than 30 community groups are struggling at present. As we have heard, the cost of living crisis has an impact on whether those organisations can maintain and sustain their work and become sustainable for the future.

We have also heard about the gaps that appear within the market. The third sector, our council support services and the Government are working together, but there are areas that still require more support. Therefore, I would welcome assurances from the Scottish Government and the minister that protecting those community groups will be a priority going forward because it is one of the biggest ways of managing the strategy for tackling loneliness and isolation.

I acknowledge that the Government has given general assurances but, as I said in Christine Grahames recent membersbusiness debate, when the First Minister set out his priorities for the Scottish Government, he did not make any specific mention of that. It was a gap.

I have heard what the minister has said today, but I still believe that the First Minister should be looking at our ageing population and thinking about what we can do. We have talked about crossovers between portfolios, which does happen, but there should be some real priorities from the Scottish Government with regard to where we see that sitting.

As my amendment points out, it is important that the Scottish Government studies what is happening to our older population, but also that it acknowledges that loneliness and isolation also affect younger people. We have talked about loneliness in all parts of our society and it is important that we do that. For example, research from the Higher Education Policy Institute has found that one in four students are lonely either most or all of the time. That figure should set alarm bells ringing for us that young people who are students are in that situation.

In 2018, £20 million of funding was put in place for around 80 counsellor positions at Scottish colleges. I welcomed that, but the Parliaments Education, Children and Young People Committee found that the targeted counselling funding was not getting to all the individuals that it should. The removal of that funding means that some colleges are no longer able to fund some of that counselling, which becomes a major issue when they are trying to do that.

It is time that the Scottish Government listened to the calls from Mental Health Foundation Scotland and Colleges Scotland, and from the 21 college principals who I believe wrote to the Government and co-signed a letter about the issue and the problems that they see coming down the track when dealing with younger individuals.

If the funding is necessary, it should be provided. We know that colleges and universities are well placed to address mental health issues among their students, but they need support to ensure that that takes place. The motion talks about tackling loneliness and isolation as a shared responsibility. I believe that we need to share that responsibility because it brings together the whole idea of what we are trying to achieve.

It is no secret that the years of the pandemic were particularly damaging to many individuals, both young and old, but the younger people found it quite phenomenal. Research by the Mental Health Foundation Scotland has found that 50 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds experienced what is known aslockdown loneliness”. They spent their time at home not doing things. Yes, there was social media, but that does not always support them to move forward.

The pandemic had a massive impact and it should be highlighted that individuals are still struggling with its effects. We talk about 200,000 people in Scotland who are suffering through long Covid, which has had a massive impact on individualswellbeing. Many of those individuals are finding themselves cut off from society because of its impact. We have talked about having dedicated, specialist services to help those suffering from long Covid and that needs to be addressed. The social isolation that many of those individuals experience will increase because we do not have that facility, so we must not become complacent.

I have already spoken about the battle to ensure that responsibility is shared and that the Government plays its part, along with the voluntary and third sectors, because all of that will help to ensure that we are all doing the best that we can. Going forward, the job of the Government must be to further raise awareness of the dangers of loneliness and isolation in young people and in older people. My amendment talks about the introduction of a national awareness campaign on the issue. If todays debate should demonstrate anything, it is that that kind of campaign is needed more than ever and needed today.

I know that a lot of good work is going on and I acknowledge that, but there are still gaps in the process and areas that we should take on board. We should use the voluntary sector and the third sector because they are experts in the field. The Government should take that on board as well. I know that the Government supports a number of organisations and that they support the Government, but much more could be done. We can also learn from people in other locations about how they have tackled some of the problems, because we are all suffering in very much the same way.

I look forward to hearing the debate and acknowledge the work that the Scottish Government is doing, but I will still hold it to account with regard to the way that it goes forward and the things that it does.

I move amendment S6M-08758.1, to insert at end:

“, and calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that its strategy for tackling isolation focusses on increasing awareness of loneliness, particularly among young people and older people, connecting communities, implementing a national awareness campaign on loneliness and isolation, and supporting innovation.”

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I am pleased to open this important debate on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party. The Government motion is right to recognise the impact of the Covid pandemic on social isolation and I agree with much of the ministers contribution.

It is undoubtedly the case that, by its nature, the pandemic exacerbated social isolation as people practised physical distancing, limiting their social interactions to those within their own household bubbles. It can sometimes be hard to recall those days, which were, of course, only a few years ago and impacted us all in such a profound way.

The Scottish Government took an important step when it published its strategy on social isolation and loneliness in 2018, but it is frustrating that, five years later, we are still debating its implementation rather than examining its impact. I understand that the implementation of the strategy was delayed by the pandemic, but it is needed now more than ever, which is why I welcome the publication of the delivery plan and the ministers commitment to that in her opening remarks.

Throughout the pandemic, we were acutely aware of the impact of social isolation and loneliness. There was a concerted focus on stopping people feeling disconnected, isolated or lonely. However, at the reopening of our society, the epidemic of loneliness did not end with the end of the restrictions. In the latter days of the pandemic, as we started to think about our Covid recovery, the political discourse was infused with hope and it focused on building back better and how to establish a better new normal. However, the British Red Cross found that, in rebuilding after the pandemic, two in three Scots agreed that tackling loneliness should be a priority for the Government.

The pandemic revealed everyones vulnerability to loneliness. New research from the British Red Cross found that 37 per cent of people in Scotland feel lonely always, often or some of the time. As I have said already, for some, the pandemic exacerbated an underlying sense of isolation. For many others, it was peoples first or perhaps most profound experience of a despairing sense of loneliness.

It is concerning that there remains a persistent stigma around feelings of loneliness, with the Mental Health Foundation finding that 39 per cent of adults in Scotland would never admit to feeling lonely. Peoples loneliness is being compounded by silence, with too many not able to access the support that they need because they feel too embarrassed or ashamed to speak out. It is therefore rightand I think that there is consensus around this in Parliament todaythat we must treat loneliness as a public health issue.

Loneliness is more than feeling isolated or disconnected. It has a profound impact on our general health and mortality. For example, the National Institute on Aging has estimated that social isolation and loneliness can shorten someones life expectancy by up to 15 years, with loneliness increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease by around 30 per cent.

During the Easter recess, I took the opportunity to visit some projects in my region that are seeking to reduce social isolation in the community. I had the great pleasure of visiting a local knit and natter group in Giffnock library. The group has helped local people to reconnect and reintegrate into society as they come out of the pandemic. It is helping a range of people who are still dealing with the effects of long Covid and those who are suffering from residual social anxiety, as well as helping those who have moved to a new area during the pandemic and have struggled to meet new people to integrate into the wider community. The knitting is secondary to the nattering, which was just as well, given my lack of ability with the needles, but the importance of the group is rooted in its ability to bring people together and provide them with their own space to make social connections, and to engage in general chit-chat, which is so important in peoples everyday lives. It was a privilege to listen to the many members of the group explain the profound impact of dealing with their feelings of isolation and doing so in an informal way. Many of them also told me about the improvements that they have seen in their mental health as a result.

That group might be an example in one town, but I know that there are groups like it across Scotland and I am sure that we will hear about many examples of that from across the chamber today. Such groups are helping people to rebuild their confidence, tackle their loneliness and create new friendships. Those are the types of intervention that we need to deal with this endemic loneliness.

Of course we need big bold action to address these issues, but that does not mean that all resources should be targeted towards centralised or national campaigns. We need strong support for local initiatives that are rooted in communities and which reflect the needs of specific communities around the country. Any initiative to tackle social isolation and loneliness must be rooted in removing all the barriers that hinder social interaction, and that must be holistic in its nature. For example, when looking for a location in the community, we must consider whether the venue is accessible, affordable or free, warm and easy to travel to on foot or by public transport as well as by car.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

Paul OKane is talking about how we address social isolation. Does he think that there should be specific consideration for rural versus urban areas, which might mean that we do stuff differently?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

Like me, Emma Harper represents a community with both rural and town settings. Hers is perhaps a little more rural than mine in the west, but I think that we can both see the importance of tailoring our approaches for those communities where isolation manifests itself in different ways. Getting someone into a town or village setting can be quite challenging in itself. We need to look at particular needs and work with partners across the third sector and local government to do that.

In our communities, the role of the voluntary sector is critical in the delivery of services. Organisations are facing immense financial pressure, with the SCVO finding that more than 90 per cent of organisations have reported increased costs since August 2022. In tandem with rising costs, the third sector has experienced a significant increase in demand for services. In that respect, organisations are often operating with one hand tied behind their back: they are being asked to provide more support with less resource.

I think that that is why the SCVO has called for a new fair funding deal from the Scottish Government. Such a deal would mean longer-term funding of three years or more and sustainable funding that includes inflation-based uplifts, and it would allow for staff to be paid at least the real living wage. It would also mean more flexible core funding, which would allow organisations to plan more effectively and with greater security.

Our third sector needs greater stability, rather than being limited by continuous cycles of trying to secure short-term funding. The instability that is caused by short-term funding cycles is bad for the third sector, which is unable to properly plan for the medium to long term, and it is bad for communities, who benefit so much from the vital work of third sector organisations that are the life-blood of communities.

The £3.8 million social isolation and loneliness fund is, of course, welcome. However, having time-limited funds is not always helpful in addressing longer-term issues and the unsustainability that I have just spoken about. That has been part of the voluntary sectors experience for a good long while; certainly, when I worked in the voluntary sector after leaving university in the early 2010s, we were discussing such issues. We have not made a huge amount of progress in dealing with three-year funding cycles and the associated short-termism.

Let me be clear: pressures are being compounded by decisions taken over the past 16 years that have chipped away at funding not only for the third sector but for local governmentwe have seen local authority budgets reduced and services cut.

I am conscious of time, Presiding Officer, so I will begin to draw my remarks to a conclusion. Scottish Labour supports the Governments efforts to address social isolation and loneliness, but it is time to deliver on the 2018 pledge and recognise that the scale of the challenge is now larger and more significant, impacting a wider demographic of the population than prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is time to deliver on a commitment of building back better, which means recognising that, in the aftermath of the pandemic, we are facing endemic loneliness. It is a crucial public health issue, and it is time to start approaching it with the resources and urgency that reflect that, in order to give sustainability to the organisations that can make the most difference in our local communities.

I move amendment S6M-08758.2, to leave out fromwelcomesto end and insert:

acknowledges the investment that the Scottish Government is making through the three-year, £3.8 million Social Isolation and Loneliness Fund, which will create opportunities for people to connect with one another in Scotlands communities; commends the work of organisations and communities to tackle this issue; recognises that tackling this public health issue is a collective responsibility and requires a shared commitment across the public, private and third sectors; notes that precarious funding risks the third sectors contribution and ability to deliver vital services for people and communities across Scotland; further notes that this can lead to disconnects between national policy and the implementation of policy at the local level, and understands that a long-term, flexible, sustainable, and accessible approach to funding is central to a sustainable voluntary sector, which can deliver measurable impacts on loneliness and isolation in Scotland.”

The Presiding Officer:

Members will wish to know that there is time available, so, if they take interventions, time will be given back.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I am quietly hopeful that the new minister has great potential. Her background and the authenticity with which she speaks in the chamber will serve her well as a minister. That does not mean that I will always agree with her, but she has a huge amount of potential, and I look forward to many more of her contributions.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, more than a quarter of us in Scotland felt lonely over some time during the previous month. We know that there is significant stigma around loneliness, with about half of Scots saying that they would hide feelings of loneliness from other people. Therefore, our first important task is to increase the amount of discussion about loneliness among the public. It is only through discussion that we will manage to shake that stigma. That discussion has already started and this debate is, in part, about that. Loneliness was also the theme of last years mental health awareness week and I thank all the organisations that were involved in making that such a success, including the Mental Health Foundation, Age UK, the Scottish Association for Mental Health and various others.

I am sure that we will all pick out different groups to highlight this afternoon. The minister and others have done so already and I will do the same. Although I am going to pick out some individual groups, loneliness affects every group in society and can catch anyone at any time, so it is important that we have an all-encompassing strategy to address the needs of all groups.

Public awareness is vital, but we also need action to address the underlying causes that are associated with loneliness. Loneliness is not necessarily about the time that one spends alone but rather occurs when there is a mismatch between what people want and the meaningful connections that are provided for, or available to, them.

Loneliness can affect anyone at any age and, contrary to popular belief, is particularly prevalent in young people. According to the Mental Health Foundation, four in 10 18 to 24-year-olds experienced loneliness during the pandemic, a figure that was higher than for any other age group surveyed. Young people often just do not know who to turn to. Sadly, a quarter of young people chose not to access support during lockdown because they felt that they did not deserve it.

We have heard that from older people who do not want to burden others, but we might not imagine that young people would be inflicted with that feeling at such an early age.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

Willie Rennie makes an excellent point about the spread of ages at which loneliness can affect people. Does he agree that social media often compounds the sense of loneliness for younger people? We might expect social media to be a way of connecting young people, but many young people feel isolated because of what they see on social media or what they are expected to do in that space.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Social media causes enormous pressure. We have seen that for ourselves. The feeling of inadequacy and of being not quite as good as the other people you see on social media certainly contributes to the loneliness that many young people feel. The member makes a valid point.

Young people need enriching activities that provide a social network, enjoyment and a sense of purpose. Those opportunities are all too scarce nowadays, which is why I am very excited about a Liberal Democrat policy called the holiday fun fund. It should be available for young people to access all year round and would improve their opportunities. I am all in favour of the holiday fun fund, which will miraculously change the opportunities for young people who feel lonely in their own homes or in their communities. I hope that the minister will embrace that in her new role.

We also know that students, especially those starting off at university, feel particularly lonely because they have not managed to build up networks and make connections with other people. Those who started studying during the pandemic were not given opportunities to go to students unions or to enjoy activities in the university or college environment. I hope that the minister will reach out to her colleagues, particularly the finance secretary, to ensure that the funding for mental health counsellors, particularly in colleges, will continue. I know that there is still a glimmer of hope that the Government might be able to fund that. It is looking to colleges and universities to fund the counsellors just now, but my fear is that some of those counsellors might disappear when funding is really tight. It would be a shame to lose that expertise having built it up, particularly when we are trying to move forward on mental health and loneliness.

At the other end of the spectrum, research that was conducted by Age UK found that more than 200,000 older people in Scotland feel lonely some or all of the time. That can have long-term consequences for health, as has already been referred to, and standard of living, with a recent study linking loneliness to an increased risk of dementia. It is crucial that our elderly people have proper access to consistent care, which is why we should establish national pay bargaining processes to ensure that Scotland has a competitive care sector that can attract our best talent.

Some charities have done some excellent work in this area. Age Scotland runs a free helpline that offers advice, assistance or just a chat. So far, it has fielded more than 28,000 calls, and nine in 10 users have reported feeling happier and less alone after using it. The helpline works, so let us hope that Age Scotland manages to continue that good work. The Government must support indispensable work such as that by increasing the funds that are available to the third sector, as other speakers have said.

Care places a heavy burden on those who provide it, with 65 per cent of carers in Scotland regularly experiencing loneliness, according to the Carers Trust. Carers can find it increasingly difficult to access support and have time for themselves as well as spending time with their loved ones. They desperately need more support, which is why my party is campaigning for an enhanced carers allowance in Scotland, as well as a United Kingdom-wide uplift to finally recognise the value of carers.

For anyone who experiences loneliness, it can have a detrimental impact on mental health, with prolonged periods of loneliness being associated with increased experiences of anxiety and even suicidal thoughts. That is why I am particularly keen on recruiting more mental health staff in communities, hospitals and schools in order to make sure that services are accessible throughout Scotland. Alongside that, we need new diagnosis and treatment centres to clear the backlog in mental health waiting times.

We need to do so much more. I am really hopeful that the minister will embrace this portfolio and achieve so much for those who feel alone in their own homes or communities.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I advise members that we have some time in hand. That is why the front-bench speakers have had a bit more latitude with regard to the length of their speeches. We now move to the open debate.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone at any time in their lives. I strongly agree with the minister that this is a public health issue and that we have a collective responsibility as a society to address it.

I last contributed to a debate on social isolation and loneliness in January 2019. During that debate, I reflected that Scotland was leading the way as one of the first countries to publish a national strategy on tackling social isolation and loneliness. I also spoke to Age UKs call for policy makers to be clear about the difference between loneliness and social isolation.

Loneliness is not the same as social isolation. People can be isolated yet not feel lonely, and people can be surrounded by other people yet still feel lonely. The distinction between the two concepts is often overlooked, which makes it difficult to understand what can help people to reduce their feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness is a subjective feeling that is about the gap between a persons desired level of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It refers to the perceived quality of a persons relationships. Loneliness is never desired, and lessening those feelings can take a long time.

As the minister mentioned, social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have. It is about the quantity and not the quality of relationships. People may choose to have a small number of contacts, and if people feel socially isolated, that can be overcome relatively quickly by increasing the number of people whom they are in touch with.

Loneliness and social isolation are different but related concepts. Social isolation can lead to loneliness, and loneliness can lead to social isolation. They are different, but they can be experienced at the same time. People may feel different levels of social isolation and loneliness over their lifetimes, moving in and out of such states as their personal circumstances change. Loneliness and social isolation also share factors that increase the likelihood of people experiencing them, such as deteriorating health and sensory and mobility impairments.

Quality matters, because bringing people together to increase the number of their social contacts is not an end in itself. Good-quality, rewarding relationships are needed to combat loneliness.

A lot has happened since January 2019. As the Government motion acknowledges, the Covid-19 pandemic meant that more people across society suffered as a result of social isolation and loneliness. As is always the case, the suffering was not spread evenly. Those who, arguably, already had the greatest challenges felt the greatest impact.

The biggest increase in loneliness during the pandemic was seen in older adultsthose aged over 60. I am sorry that they are not mentioned in the Governments motion. Their experiences and the impact on their health and quality of life were perhaps most visible to me during the pandemic.

There was no greater illustration of how harmful social isolation and loneliness are than for those who saw the change in their loved ones in care homes who did not receive visitors. Constituents described to me in heart-breaking terms how they felt that their loved one was fading away without the good-quality visits from friends and loved ones that I spoke about earlier. That had a profound impact on me during the pandemic, and I will never forget it.

I know that lessons have been learned from our experiences in that public health emergency. Althougholder peopleis no longer specifically in the job title, I am sure that the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees will wish to champion the rights of our older citizens with determination and vigour.

Just as the pandemic impacted disproportionately on some, the Tory cost of living crisis means that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are more likely to experience poorer mental and physical wellbeing, lower life satisfaction, and feelings of loneliness. Without a doubt, that will have an impact on peoples ability to make and maintain connections, to take up opportunities to interact with one another and to stay physically and mentally healthy.

Last week, I had the opportunity and pleasure of meeting the Poverty Alliance, the Scottish Womens Budget Group and some of the women who had contributed toIts hard work being poor”, an important report on the cost of living crisis. All the women reported making significant changes to their daily lives to try to manage rising costs, including taking on additional hours of work and reducing social activitiesreducing that social contact. Many women reported having run out of ways in which they could adjust their daily life, and having concerns about managing rising costs.

Stella is a contributor to the report. She is a black lone-parent mother, aged between 35 and 44. She lives with her children and has a long-term illness and disability. She accesses universal credit and is seeking employment due to the cost of living crisis, despite experiencing chronic pain and fatigue. To quote her:

This cost-of-living crisis has brought untold pain and suffering on women especially single parents and children because of the way it impacts our lives on a daily basis. Not being able to afford the essentials of life can be very stressful and robs women of their dignity and self-worth.”

The report contains actions, for all spheres of government, which deserve serious consideration by those who have power and responsibility over policy and resources.

Social isolation and loneliness are public health issues and are closely intertwined with issues of poverty and inequality, which have been exacerbated because of the pandemic and will continue to be affected by the on-going Tory cost crisis. As a society, we have a collective responsibility to address that. I welcome the work that the Scottish Government is doing so far and encourage it to go further but, goodness, how much better Scotland could do if we were free from the need to invest in mitigating Tory harms and if we had all the levers of a normal independent country.

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate about the public health problem of loneliness. To demonstrate the scale of the issue, 3.6 million adults in the UK live alone, of whom 2 million are aged 75 or older. Moreover, 1.9 million older people have indicated that they feel invisible or ignored.

Although loneliness and social isolation are all too common among our older population, they do not remain relegated to any one age or social group. Although the elderly population experienced the greatest increases in loneliness, various other groups were found to have the highest rates of loneliness. As we have heard, those groups included 16 to 24-year-olds, people who were living on lower incomes, disabled people, and Scots who were living with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Loneliness and social isolation have existed as public health concerns before, during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. The same has applied to the efforts of people and support groups over the same period. In both the pre and post-Covid eras individuals in communities across Scotland came together to support others in whichever ways they could.

In my region, a charity called New Rhythms for Glasgow has provided valuable services that aim to achieve the betterment of peoples lives through access to the creative arts. This community-led organisation has done that for more than 20 years in the service of many of our most vulnerable people, including children and people with disabilities. However, due to the Scottish Governments funding cuts, the future of New Rhythms for Glasgow remains uncertain. Should the charity disappear from its communitys social fabric, the potential for greater social isolation and loneliness would inevitably increase because of that decision to cut funding.

Unfortunately, that is not the only charity in such a position. The same can be said of Food Train Glasgow, which is a volunteer group that provides vital food and meal delivery services to more than 400 Glaswegian over-65s. Those elderly residents would face difficulty in procuring such essentials otherwise. Following the announcement of possible funding cuts spearheaded by Glasgow City Council, more than 2,000 people have signed a petition to help to save the organisation. I hope that the minister will reflect on that in her closing remarks.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I ask Ms Wells to decide

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

I thank the member for giving way on that important point. Does she agree that it was shocking to discover that in undertaking its assessments of communities fund allocations, Glasgow City Council never asked what would happen if it took that funding away and whether that would cause an existential crisis for those organisations?

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

I agree with the member. For me, the point that came out was that health and social care partnerships in every other local authority area outwith Glasgow have considered funding the Food Train. That is concerning to me.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

You have to be asking yourself why people are in food poverty. It has nothing to do with the Scottish Government or the Scottish Parliament; it is because of the cost of living crisis, low wages and everything else that we have no control over. You should be a bit shame faced about the manner in which you are speaking.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I remind members to speak through the chair.

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

The member will understand that I am saying that those people require someone to take their money, go shopping for them and drop their shopping off. It is not about a funding issue for them, but the volunteers need vehicles to get the shopping from one place to another. For some people, the Food Train volunteer who visits once per week, to put their shopping away and perhaps have a cup of tea, is the only person they will see; no one else goes into their houses. Therefore, I will not take that remark when I am speaking about that subject.

Continued funding for support organisations is valuable not only due to the tangible benefits that they provide; additional value resides in their ability to connect people within communities. The future backing of support groups remains paramount, and that, in turn, would align with the aims of the Scottish Governments 2018 strategy on loneliness. Not only did I support that strategy, I supported the creation of a minister to address social isolation and loneliness.

That same year, I published a loneliness action plan that included measures aimed at meeting the challenges posed by loneliness across groups and spanning all ages. I believe that the plans proposals retain relevance to this debate. The Scottish Conservativesloneliness action plan contains measures to address several aspects of the problem, including: the implementation of a national awareness campaign; improving social prescribing; putting greater focus on youth loneliness; and making greater connections between members of communities.

Furthermore, as a former Scottish Conservative spokesperson on mental health, I understand the weight of the situation that confronts us all when it comes to loneliness. In recent years, I have stated that loneliness is a serious health problem that can profoundly affect ones life, in particular around holidays, which are typically spent in the company of others. During a debate in the Scottish Parliament in 2019 that focused on social isolation and loneliness, I stressed that 79 per cent of adults and 40 per cent of youths experience loneliness.

That alludes to the important role that is played, alongside the work of the Governments strategy and of general practitioners, by individuals and outside groups, such as charities, that provide their own support. That is of the utmost importance, as loneliness has a detrimental relationship on other aspects of the public health, includingbut not limited tohigher blood pressure, dementia and depression.

I am delighted to give my support to the Scottish Governments continued efforts to alleviate this far-reaching societal problem. More than 3,300 bodies have received grants, and I look forward to supporting their work, and the work of the Scottish Government and the Parliament, in the years ahead to ensure that we continue to address this public health crisis. I am sure that colleagues on all sides of the chamber will agree with me on that.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I want to focus on the experience of older people: the over-60s through to the over-90s. It is tough enough getting older, but the impact of inflation on what is, for many, a fixed incomethe state pension, occasionally assisted by an occupational pensionhas, for many pensioners, meant staying in to save the pennies for food and heating. Yes, the bus pass is an asset for helping with mobility, social contact and general wellbeing, but it cannot make up for poverty-level living, exacerbated by inflation. Manysome 40 per centwho are entitled to UK pension credit do not claim it, and that money is kept by the Treasury.

The results of an online opinion poll by YouGov for the British Red Cross, which were released in December 2022, showed that 81 per cent of Scottish people agreed that the increased cost of living will make more people lonely, and 43 per cent said that they would restrict how much they socialise because the cost of living is going up.

There are also the after-effects of the Covid pandemic, during which manyincluding me, as I was over 75were confined indoors, with only short spells of exercise. That was tough. The experience during the years of Covid got me and many others into a way of life that disconnected us from mixing with folk, and for many of my peers, that way of life has continued. I am unusual, and privileged, to be in an occupation that allows me to work long beyond pension age, but even that does not mean that I do not feel lonely at times.

Previous speakers have referred to the World Health Organizations research on the health impacts of isolation and loneliness on older people, so I will not repeat them. I would add, however, that with age, one is more likely to attend funerals than weddings, which can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.

I welcome the £3.8 million social isolation and loneliness fund. I understand that the initial applications period has closed and allocations will be made in the summer. However, we do not know which groups have applied in the first instance, and my concern is that small local groups may not have applied or might not fit the criteria for that particular fund.

I am thinking, for example, of the vital role that the mens shed network plays in communities in my constituency, and how hard those groups have to fight for funding. Their membership is usually retired men. The Peebles and District mens shed community, which is located at School Brae in Peebles, has totally refurbished its rooms with work benches and brand-new machinery including lathes, a band saw, pillar drills and so on. Two of the benches have been built at a height suitable for use by wheelchair users, and the shed is also open to women. However, the community is always struggling for funding.

Galashiels mens shed has community-run workshops with a social area. There, people pursue their hobbies, share skills and have a cuppa and a chat. They get out of the house for a while and get practical help with their projects. Interestingly, the Facebook page talks, appropriately, about offering help with isolation and loneliness. There are othersPenicuik and District mens shed, for example, does much the same stuff, and it gives men who are quite often shy, and will not admit that they are lonely and looking for companionship, a place to meet.

We therefore welcome the £75,000 for the Scottish Mens Sheds Association that was announced in January. Would that it were more.

OPALolder people, active livesBorders aims to maintain and improve peoples social connections, independence and wellbeing. Group members can decide on the activities that they would like to take part in, such as singing and entertainment, talks from speakers, quizzes, walking and so on.

There is also Borders Buddies, which is not only for the elderly. It supports people to return to doing the things that they once enjoyed, but which, due to the pandemic, ill health or other factors, they have stopped doing. That enables them to reconnect with other people in the community, reducing isolation and building individual and community resilience. During the pandemic, Borders Buddies supported local people in Tweeddale to find a buddy to help them rebuild their confidence about getting out and about again. A lot of it is about confidence. Although things have moved on, Borders Buddies still hears from people who have become socially isolated for all sorts of reasons, and it works with people of all ages over 16.

There is a community centre slap bang in the middle of Ladywood, which is owned by the community and provides a huge range of activities for young and old people. I had a go at pensioners table tennis, and believe you me, it is serious, even brutal, stuffperhaps because people had the chance to tackle a politician. It is great for physical and mental exercise and for companionship.

Those are all grass-roots examples, and everyone in the chamber could give more. I turn back to my question, which at some point I may have an answer to, although perhaps not today. How do those local groups, and others like them, who do so much to combat social isolation and loneliness at the grassroots level, access that £3.8 million of Scottish Government funding, or indeed other funding sources?

Those local groups work, and they deliver. Big organisations have no difficulty in accessing funding. Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, Age Concern and such organisations can access funding, but it is those local groups that matter and deliver.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I have heard that we all agree across the chamber that tackling social isolation and loneliness must be a priority for Government and Parliament. It is welcome to see increased funding to directly address those issues, which I know that the minister cares a great deal about.

However, as my colleague Paul OKane mentioned, work to tackle social isolation and loneliness must be connected across sectors and must be aimed towards genuine long-term improvement rather than short-term fixes.

Ruth Maguires contribution on the difference between social isolation and loneliness was very good, and I thank her for that.

It is right that we highlight how loneliness in particular can impact anyone. Age Scotland highlighted that, and the quote is worth repeating:

more than 100,000 older people in Scotland felt lonely all or most of the time, the equivalent of one older person on every street in Scotland.”

That is the stark reality for many people.

We know from research that feelings of loneliness are also common among young adults, as Willie Rennie told us in his contribution. That confirms that loneliness and social isolation are not unique to one group or age bracket; those feelings are felt widely across society, and it is therefore right that our approach to tackling those issues is broad in its focus.

Although it is important to note that the loneliness and social isolation issues that we face have existed for many years, we know that the pandemic exacerbated feelings of loneliness and social isolation across our country. It is crucial that we recognise that as a public health issue and approach it in that way.

I note with interest that the Government has not included in its motion deprivation as one of the key factors that contribute to loneliness. The Scottish household survey of 2020 highlighted that just more than a quarter of people in the least deprived areas reported feeling lonely some or all of the time; that figure was 44 per cent in the most deprived areas, which is a stark difference.

There is a clear link between loneliness and poverty, which the minister mentioned. I hope that she will consider that and speak about it in her closing remarks. People in our poorest communities feel that there are far fewer welcoming places and opportunities to meet new people and far fewer places in which people can meet up and socialise in those communities. That is simply the reality for many people in Scotland. It is a direct result of relentless cuts from a UK Government that has imposed austerity on towns and villages. However, the Scottish Government also has responsibility, and the cuts to council budgets year on yearand therefore cuts to the hearts of our communitiescontribute. I would like some honesty about that.

Inequalities in Scotland hold back communities, limit potential and isolate individuals. The figures that I have read out should anger us, but they should not surprise us. They are the result of decisions taken by Governments, and we need to be honest if we are going to address them.

If we are serious about tackling loneliness and isolation, we need more than £3.8 million; we need a shift in focus and priorities that supports investment in tackling health inequalities and is based on tackling inequality and deprivation more widely. We need funding for local government that respects the role that local government plays in service delivery, and we need a focus on having the strongest public sector possible that is supported and complemented by other sectors, and not reliant on them.

As members have mentioned, the information in the Mental Health Foundation report that just less than 40 per cent of Scottish adults would not report feelings of loneliness is of significant concern. I think that another member mentioned that. Those figures are heart-breaking. Loneliness is a significant challenge that many Scots face, and we should not forget that some people will not raise the issue.

The importance of a preventative approach cannot be overestimated. Services must be connected, the public and the voluntary sector must work hand in hand, and we must invest in local communities, ensure that local provision exists for social activities, and reduce feelings of loneliness for anyone who needs mental health support.

I pay tribute to organisations that do a lot to support their communities day to day with very precarious funding. I think that the minister is aware that we need to address the sustainability of some of the very small groups that Christine Grahame mentioned.

Loneliness and social isolation are serious challenges that our population faces, and they can have devastating impacts on individuals, families and communities. The funding announced for tackling social isolation and loneliness is absolutely welcome, but we know that, in our most deprived communities in particular, those feelings are widely held because of a serious lack of investment in services due to cuts to councils and the lack of a joined-up approach across sectors to focus on service delivery. We also know that we need to monitor progress as we try to increase funding and develop policy change.

That we have had the chance to debate the topic today is welcome. I hope that the minister will consider the points that I and other members across the chamber have raised. It is important that we stop widespread social isolation and loneliness and tackle their root causes in our communities.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

I wish the minister every success in her new role. I think that this is the first opportunity that I have had to do so.

Social isolation and loneliness can impact everyonepeople of any age at any time. It is therefore vital that the Scottish Government is taking action to properly tackle isolation and loneliness, which is, as has already been said, a public health issue.

In the first 100 days of this parliamentary session, the Scottish Government invested £1 million for immediate work by organisations that tackle loneliness, including for helplines, befriending and practical support. That funding will help to provide warm spaces, hot meals, group activities and fuel payments to folk who are most at risk of isolation, including older folk, young parents, carers and disabled people.

The funding is a lifeline for a range of organisations that are helping to keep people connected during this challenging time. Organisations that will receive grant funds include Age Scotland, which will continue to deliver its keeping the doors open grants programme, and Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, which is recruiting Urdu and Punjabi-speaking volunteers to make kindness calls.

The work that is being funded includes that of Aberdeen Linking Lives, which operates across my constituency of Aberdeen Donside. Aberdeen Linking Lives is a befriending service aimed at adults who find themselves requiring some extra friendship and support, which is provided through weekly home visits or telephone calls. Linking Lives matches volunteers with folk who are referred to it, and all volunteers are carefully selected, trained and vetted. The service does really important work, and I look forward to visiting it in the near future. I would welcome it if the minister came along, too, but I realise that she will have an extremely busy diary.

The fund is just one of the many crucial steps that the Scottish Government is taking to tackle social isolation and loneliness as part of itsA Connected Scotlandstrategy. Support for community groups to bring folk and communities together to tackle isolation was launched in March. The £3.8 million social isolation and loneliness fund is part of a new plan, “Recovering our Connections 2023 to 2026”, which aims to reduce inequality by bringing together folk from communities across Scotland. It will provide vital longer-term support for organisations and projects that are working on the ground to bring folk together and create connections in communities throughout the country. Everyone can play a part in tackling those challenges. The Scottish Governments new plan reaffirms its commitment to building a connected Scotland for everyone, which I welcome.

We know that social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone, at any age or stage of life. During the pandemic, though, it became obvious that not everyone was affected equally. The pandemic meant that more folk across society suffered as a result of social isolation and loneliness, but it had a particular impact on disabled people, younger people and those who live alone. The biggest increase in loneliness during the pandemic was seen in older folk aged 60 or over, although the groups identified as experiencing the highest rates of loneliness were 16 to 24-year-olds, disabled people, those on lower incomes and those with a pre-existing mental health condition.

Regular polling data on the societal harms of the pandemic tells us that, during 2020 and 2021, around half the people surveyed reported feeling lonely at least some of the time in the previous week. Around one in seven people reported being lonely most, almost all or all of the time. That is supported by the findings of the Scottish household survey 2020, published in January 2022, which found that 35 per cent of adults reported feeling lonely at least some of the time in the previous week, while 44 per cent rarely or never met others socially. It is clear that the pandemic exacerbated isolation. Again, that highlights why the work that the Scottish Government is doing is so important.

Although the key levers that are required to tackle the root causes of poverty and the associated poor mental health are still held by the UK Government, the Scottish Government is doing everything that it can, with its limited powers, to support people right now. As Carol Mochan said, there is a clear link between isolation and poverty. That is why I am pleased that the Scottish child payment has been further expanded to eligible six to 15-year-olds and increased in value to £25 per child per week. Around 387,000 bairns are now forecast to be eligible in 2023-24. Based on modelling from March 2022, it is estimated that the payment will lift 50,000 bairns out of poverty and reduce relative child poverty by 5 percentage points in 2023-24.

The Scottish Government is offering free school lunches during term time to all pupils in primaries 1 to 5 and in special schools. As part of the most generous free school meal offer in the UK, that is saving families an average of £400 per child per year. Scotland already has the most generous childcare offer anywhere in the UK, but it is only with independence that we can really ensure that that work reaches its full potential.

I welcome the work that the Scottish Government is doing, and I again take the opportunity to thank all the organisations that are working to tackle isolation across Donside and across Scotland.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green

This afternoon, we have heard a lot of statisticsfor example, we have heard that a quarter of all adults in Scotland feel lonely or isolated and that people aged between 18 and 25 are most likely to feel lonely. Of course those statistics matter, because they tell us about people, but it is important to look below the numbers so that we can understand what loneliness means to those who feel it. Many people are ashamed that they feel that way, and they do not want to talk to family or friends about it. Many would never admit to feeling lonely, and they hide their feelings from others, including loved ones. It is clear that there is still stigma attached to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

We have already heard that loneliness has a significant negative impact on peoples physical and mental health. There are clear links between loneliness and anxiety and depression or suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Several colleagues have talked about specific groups in our society who may be at particular risk of loneliness, including older people, students, disabled people, people of colour, immigrants and refugees. Research by the Mental Health Foundation last year highlighted that people with existing mental health conditions, those who were digitally excluded, unemployed people and people who identify as LGBTQIA+ were particularly at risk of experiencing loneliness and social isolation.

We have also heard much about how the pandemic and the cost crisis have affected and will continue to affect peoples ability to be and to feel connectedto be part of something that is bigger than themselves. Knowing all that means that we can focus our activities on seeking to change the structures in society that have led us to this situation.

Feeling connected and part of something that is bigger than ourselves is surely one of the things that make us human. The ability and desire to connectto be part of a community and to enjoy and delight in what we, as social beings, can experience by interacting with othersis what really matters.

I, too, express my gratitude to all those community groups and organisations that seek to support so many in exactly that human endeavour of connecting, befriending and building social solidarity and community. We have already heard about the work of some of the organisations that do exactly that: offer friendship and the chance for a cuppa over knitting, woodwork or gardening. I would like to mention a couple of groups in the north-east that do that incredibly important work.

The community companions scheme, which is co-ordinated by Dundee Volunteer and Voluntary Action, supports adults across Dundee who are experiencing or have the potential to experience social isolation. Community companions are matched with people, taking into account personalities, hobbies and interests, and general living experiences. Befriending might be a shopping trip, a chat in a cafe or just a walk round a local park. It is about human contact and connection, while doing normal, everyday things.

Further north, the Grampian Regional Equality Council specifically supports immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, in Aberdeen and further afield through language cafes. Learning English is an important part of the cafes. Indeed, the ability to communicate with others is fundamental to interacting with and taking part in society.

However, the cafes are so much more than just language classes. They are often the key catalystsometimes, they are the only catalystin building the relationships with others, on a cross-cultural basis, that can help to prevent social isolation and loneliness. Over the past few weeks, it has been made very clear to us in the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee just how important those connections and relationships are, especially for refugees and asylum seekers.

There are so many other groups that I could mention, and so many more beyond that. Each and every one requires resources and facilities to do what it does to support community connections and human connections. I welcome the ministers enthusiasm for such groups and organisations, and her commitment to supporting them in the variety of ways that she mentioned. Of course, as others have said, many of them are already struggling, so I am sure that the minister will be busy.

However, in so many ways, those groups, through the excellent work that they do, are fighting against a wider systemic issue and trying to usher back the tide of the inevitable. In her opening remarks, the minister talked about the importance of prevention in how we tackle public health issues. I agree. We also need to look deeper when we consider the structural causes of loneliness and social isolation, which have such a detrimental effect on so many peoples lives.

Loneliness and social isolation are not accidents. They are the inevitable consequences of the system that we all inhabita system that seeks to atomise, to divide, to marginalise and to identify difference and make that a problem. Human connections, enjoying one anothers company and finding solidarity in shared endeavours are not easily monetised. They do not lend themselves to commodification or profit, yet, over and over again, that is what we are told matters. It is small wonder, therefore, that those who are most at risk of loneliness are often those who are pushed furthest out of our society. The structural reality of our society means that the things that are valued most highly are closely linked to the things that also cause loneliness and social isolation.

I welcome the ministers commitment to focusing on prevention and to supporting the things that build social solidarity, but we must see that work as being part of the much bigger challenge of creating a society in which everyoneregardless of background, age, identity or originmatters, in which everyone has what they need to thrive and in which everyone is valued not because of what they, as individuals, can offer to the economy, but because they are human.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I want to talk about how relatively small amounts of funding at the most local level can have a massive impact in addressing loneliness and social isolation in society. In doing so, I acknowledge that there are varied reasons why people find themselves feeling isolated and alone. Although there are clearly risk factors that make it more likely that a person will feel that they do not have the relationships that we all require to feel resilient, happy, content and loved, we should remember that loneliness and social isolation can impact us all. A range of vulnerabilitiescovering relationship breakdown, children leaving the family home, bereavement, advancing years, disabilities, lone parents, low incomes, migrant or marginalised communities and many morecan lead to anyone feeling alone and isolated.

Our approach to tackling such issues must be facilitated by government at all levels, but our approach to tackling loneliness and social isolation should be shaped and led by communities. That is how we will tackle loneliness and social isolation.

I will give some local examples. First, there is the work of local churches in Maryhill. At my local church, the Immaculate Conception church, volunteers offer a warm welcome at a different location each weekday to everyone, irrespective of faith. Those of all faiths and none can pop in to have some food, a cuppa and a warm welcome. The Immaculate Conception church, Maryhill Ruchill church at the Mackintosh halls, the Findlay church, St Gregorys church and Acre tenants hall have all opened their doors to offer a warm welcome, and I give a very sincere thanks to everyone who makes that possible.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

Bob Doris is making an important point about the role of churches in providing a sense of community and a focus for communities. Does he share my concern that the potential closure of churches across Glasgow could affect the capacity to provide such services in the future?

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I am aware of plans in relation to closures, not least from the Church of Scotland, although not exclusively from it. I have a degree of concern about that and I am keen to explore the issue further.

I have seen at first hand the differences that such volunteering can make. Those same churches together run a Monday morning breakfast club at St Gregorys church hall, and I am a very occasional volunteer at thatI go along now and again. I have to say that I get as much from that volunteering as anyone who attends the breakfast club gets from it. I thank Iona Craig, who co-ordinates the activities, and who recently provided me with a list of comments from those who have attended the breakfast club. I would like to share some of them with members. One person said:

Im 77 and live on my own and its great to come to meet all these lovely people”.

Other comments were:

Food good. Very welcoming. No judging of people. Social thing, meet people.”

One person talked about

A warm breakfast and building new friendships.”

My personal favourite was: “nice sausage rolls”—I liked that one.

Some comments related to income and financial need, but many did not. That is crucial because, long after we all stop talking about the cost of living crisis, we must continue to support communities to come together. Loneliness and social isolation will still exist. So far, the funding for those projects has come from the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector Glasgow communities mental health and wellbeing fund, which provided just shy of £10,000. I understand that the initial bid for a grant was unsuccessful, but that the Scottish Government made more money available because the fund was so oversubscribed and that the projects got the value of the work that has been undertaken through that fund.

I want to make the Parliament aware of a wonderful local organisation called the Milton Rattlers. The organisation, which was set up in 2019, has more than 30 members with ages ranging from 76 to 90. If I remember correctly, the group, which was established by its now chairperson Raymond Hunter and some of his friends, got its name following a conversation with Lord Provost Jacqueline McLaren. The name Milton Rattlers is a reference to all the pills the members take due to the variety of medical conditions that they have. From within a community flat in Milton, in a relaxed and informal setting, the group offers a Monday morning tea and blether, a Wednesday afternoon cup of tea and a game of bingo, and a Friday morning breakfast club. I visited the breakfast club a few months ago, and I can well see why the Milton Rattlers were awarded the

Evening Times

Glasgow community champions award in December last year.

The Milton Rattlers operates with limited funding. The group got some Covid-19 recovery funds in 2020-21 and, last year, secured £2,250 from the councils area partnership as well as £750 from the Allied Vehicles Charitable Trust. Again, that is small amounts of cash making a really significant difference.

I have mentioned two relatively small projects. I was going to mention a third project, the Good Morning Service, which is a much larger project that offers a friend on a phone across the city of Glasgow for older people who feel socially isolated. I will say no more about that just now, because I do not want to miss out other parts of my speech that I think are importantI hope that I have time, Presiding Officer.

I will just give one comment about the Good Morning Service, from Margaret, who is 82 and who is one of the services clients. She said of the service:

I can share a problem, ask advice and they will help if they can. If I worry about something or dont feel too well I have someone wholl listen. That makes a big difference.”

I wish that I had time to say more about that project. I could also have mentioned many more projects across Maryhill and Springburn, but I have picked three that secured funds from different funding streamsthat is why I picked them. The motion mentions the £3.8 million social isolation and loneliness fund. That is hugely welcome, but I understand that it was 23 times oversubscribedI found that out after I had representations from an organisation that unfortunately was not successful in applying to the fund. We have to be open and honest and say that not every good organisation will get funds, which are limited.

Much excellent work is done outwith that £3.8 million, such as the work of the three organisations that I have mentioned. We have a wider social policy responsibility that does not sit within only one funding stream. I ask the minister to ensure that we embed strategies to tackle social isolation and loneliness across all policy areas and service delivery areas. The work needs to be mainstreamed and it needs to be community led. We need to ensure that small local groups get focused support to flourish. From local churches to the Milton Rattlers, the impact that such groups can make needs to be recognised and supported. I welcome this debate and I welcome the large funds, but very small funds at the heart of our communities sometimes make the biggest difference.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I thank all the organisations that have provided briefings and that work each day to address social isolation and loneliness. I, too, welcome the minister to her role. I am sure that she will be braw.

There is increasing recognition of social isolation and loneliness as major public health issues. Many members across the chamber have discussed that already. We know that social isolation and loneliness can have a significant impact on a persons physical and mental wellbeing. That is why the £3.8 million social isolation and loneliness fund aims to reduce inequality by bringing together people from communities across Scotland. However, as the minister described, we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis, which has been made worse by the Tory Governments economic mismanagement and Brexit.

I will make a further point about that. It is no coincidence that the International Monetary Fund predicts that the UK is set to be the worst-performing economy in the G20. The disastrous UK Governments September mini-budget created unnecessary additional financial hardship for households and businesses across the country. Brexit is forecast to deal a 4 per cent hit to the UK gross domestic product, with UK imports and exports expected to be 15 per cent lower than if the country had remained in the European Union with continued access to the single market and the customs union.

People across Scotland are paying a steep price for that economic incompetence, the forced austerity and Brexit. The current high level of inflationit is at 10.4 per centis hurting the most vulnerable people and heaping more pressure on to our public services. The UK is expected to suffer the biggest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s, with real household disposable income expected to fall by 5.7 per cent over 2022-23 and 2023-24. The Resolution Foundation found that 15 years of stagnating wages have left UK workers £11,000 worse off per year.

Members might be asking what that has to do with social isolation and loneliness. The evidence is clear: the Tory cost of living crisis means that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are more likely to experience poorer mental and physical wellbeing, lower life satisfaction and feelings of loneliness. Without a doubt, that will have an impact on peoples ability to make and maintain connections, take up opportunities to interact with one another and stay physically and mentally healthy.

Paul OKane mentioned the Red Cross research. Results of an online opinion poll for the British Red Cross that were released in December 2022 show that 81 per cent of Scottish people agreed that the increased cost of living will make more people lonely, while 43 per cent of respondents said that they would restrict how much they socialise because the cost of living is going up.

More than a quarter of adults in Scotland have accessed the NHS due to the impact of the cost of living crisis on their mental and physical health according to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Social isolation and loneliness are public health issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and will continue to affect people. Obviously, the cost crisis is the paramount issue that needs to be dealt with.

Support for community groups that bring people and communities together to tackle isolation was launched in March. The £3.8 million social isolation and loneliness fund is part of theRecovering our Connections 2023-2026plan, which aims to reduce inequality by bringing together people from communities across Scotland. It will provide vital long-term support for organisations and projects working on the ground to bring people together and build connections in communities throughout the country.

There are a number of organisations working across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders that meet those aims. Change Mental Healthformerly Support in Mind Scotlandhas bases in Stranraer, Dumfries and Castle Douglas. I have visited two of them already with former MSP Jim Hume, who is a Change Mental Health director. We witnessed the incredible work that the staff and volunteers do as they bring people together for various activities that tackle isolation.

Eildon Housing Association in Hawick is a social registered landlord and does specific work to tackle social isolation.

Another fantastic organisation is Dumfries and Galloway LGBT Plus on Newall Terrace in the toun of Dumfries and in Stranraer. The team, led by Iain Campbell, works together with LGBT+ people of all ages to provide support, to bring people together and to tackle loneliness. It also works to promote LGBT+ acceptance and, specifically, to reduce and tackle stigma across Dumfries and Galloway.

D and G is a rural area and it is a challenge for people at times to address their social needs and their isolation. Dumfries and Galloway LGBT Plus has drop-in sessions, attends the agricultural shows, delivers training and education and has a great online presence. I have met the team on a number of occasions and I have heard how many LGBT+ people, particularly in rural D and G, rarely get the chance to interact with one another due to the rurality and the challenges around acceptance, so its work is vital. I invite the minister to come and meet the team when her diary allows.

I welcome the work that has been done by the Scottish Government. I applaud the fantastic organisations across Scotland, including across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders, to tackle isolation, and I welcome a positive outcome for theRecovering our Connections 2023-2026plan. Finally, we cannae keep mitigating Tory policies without full fiscal ability. We can do so much better as a normal independent country.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

To be human is to need community. To be human is to need to interact with others. We all want to see good communities and a positive change in peoples lives, and most people want to help those around them. We saw that best during the pandemic, when there was a mass mobilisation of people who wanted to help in their communities.

If we can harness that feelingthat instinct to help those around uswe can see and make real change. The question is: how do we promote that? How do we, as lawmakers, help people into community? I believe that the answer is relatively simple. We need to encourage and support the institutions that have acted as community touch points for the past 100 years: golf clubs, rotaries, bowling clubs, synagogues, churches, mosques and many others.

Those civic institutions have been places that foster community in a way that we in this chamber could never do by passing any law. People who belong to any of those clubs are significantly less likely to report feeling lonely or socially isolated. If we can support those types of institutions and encourage membership, I believe that we can make real strides towards a more connected and a less lonely country.

As with most modern problems in life, disabled people are more acutely affected by social isolation and loneliness. That is due to a number of factors, but one invaluable resource that helps to combat it is day centres. Day centres provide an excellent space for disabled people to receive care, to socialise and to develop relationships with their peers. They are not just a luxury but an essential part of life, both for the attendees and for the carers who support them there.

Unfortunately, there seem to be plans to close a number of those centres due to budget cuts here in the city of Edinburgh. A lot have not reopened, post Covid, due again to lack of funding and to a push by the council. I warn in the strongest terms against that move. It will not only be catastrophic for the health and wellbeing of disabled people here in the Lothians and across Scotland, but it will work counter to the efforts discussed in the chamber today on loneliness and social isolation. Please do not allow disabled people to be left behind once again. I know that Enable Scotland is producing a report tomorrow around loneliness. Let us see what that has to say before big decisions are taken by local authorities.

Another obstacle facing disabled people in their efforts to combat loneliness is that it seems to be becoming increasingly difficult for them to travel. It is understandable and expected for those with a disability to have more difficulty getting out and about, but I am afraid that it seems to be getting more difficult by the day, certainly in my region of Lothian. Poor public transport links in the more rural areas of Midlothian and the lack of suitable taxis mean that going out to socialise is next to impossible unless there is a good friend or family member who can help out.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I want to rewind slightly to what Mr Balfour said earlier about the day centre in Edinburgh. I will not jump on that with my muddy boots on because I am not an Edinburgh member, but in Glasgow a few years ago, the Labour Party sought to and did close a number of disabled and learning disabled day centres in the city. At that time, the debate was about day centres specifically for those with disabilities and the mainstreaming of provision. What are the thoughts on that in Edinburgh? I am genuinely interested to know where discussion on that is at.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I can give you the time back, Mr Balfour.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Thank you. I understand that a report is coming out at the end of this month that will give greater clarity with regard to that issue. I personally do not think that it has to be an either/or. We all like coming here for lots of different reasons, but we socialise among ourselves. If we take away day centres and other similar activities, we will end up with disabled people being at home and maybe getting the right care but still being isolated and lonely.

Edinburghs new plans to close off large areas to cars means that they will essentially be closed off to disabled people if there is no space near shops or restaurants for accessible cars to park or taxis to drop people off.

Even if people can get into the town centre, they have to contend with the mess that our roads and pavements are in. As the minister is well aware, the mobility test is 20 yards, but here in Edinburgh, we are asking people with disabilities to walk much further than that to get to their jobs and socialising areas. I hope that the council will rethink that anti-disabled policy. Disabled people almost need to put off-road tyres on their wheelchairs if they are to navigate the pavements that are so poorly assembled in Edinburgh.

If disabled people are enabled to interact, they will enjoy community in the same way as other people. We must understand that accessibility means more than just lifts and wide doors in buildings. It means that disabled people can get around the city with ease and do what the rest of us take as normal. If we want people to connect, we must ensure that they have access to the infrastructure that they need for community.

I recognise that we must ensure that people have opportunities to go out and meet friends. The pandemic gave us the Zoom culture, where we seemed to default to online meetings and events. We also saw that increase in the workplace, with people working from home. Of course, that has a number of benefits, but it drastically decreases the amount of time that people can use to socialise and develop relationships with their peers. It is therefore important that if organisations have a work-at-home model, they provide time and space for workers to come together and develop those relationships.

I could go on, and I am pleased that members are discussing this important topic. I place on the record my commitment to working on a cross-party basis and with the new minister to address these problems for the benefit of everyone here in Scotland.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in todays debate about the important issue of social isolation and loneliness. In doing so, I will welcome the strategy that has been set out by the Scottish Government and highlight the excellent support that is given by a range of groups in my constituency.

The debate is important, not just because of the actions within theRecovering our Connectionsplan, but because it is important to raise awareness of loneliness and get the message out there that support and help are available, that it impacts across our communities, and that there is no stigma or shame in talking about it.

In a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, more than one third of Scots said that they would never admit to feeling lonely and more than half of adults said that they hide their feelings of loneliness. We must ensure that people know that they can talk about this issue and that they will not be left without help.

We know that social isolation and loneliness are bad for our physical and mental health. Unfortunately, the public health measures that were needed in response to Covid-19 made matters even worse. It is no surprise that, at that time, the biggest increase in loneliness was among people aged over 60, and the people who experienced the highest rates of loneliness were 16 to 24-year-olds, disabled people, those on lower incomes and those with a pre-existing mental health condition.

The pandemic was a really difficult time for people who were advised to shield due to their health condition. It meant that they did not meet their neighbours, socialise more widely or even see their families. The work that was done at that time by our councils, health and social care partnerships, the third sector, many charities and our local communities was a lifeline. It is clear that that collective endeavour and commitment to one another was one of the few positive things to come out from the pandemic. We must learn lessons from it and let it shape the way forward. That is why I welcome the strategy, because it puts front and centre the fact that dealing with social isolation and loneliness requires a response from everyone if it is to succeed.

The Scottish household survey that was published in January 2022 found that 35 per cent of adults reported feeling lonely at least some of the time in the past week and that 44 per cent of adults rarely or never meet other people socially.

Without the compassion of our local communities in Clydebank and Milngavie, the challenge of Covid-19 would have been even worse. The position is clear: the community groups in my area literally saved lives and continue to be a lifeline to many people. As the MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie, I cannot thank them enough. I will name just a few: the Milngavie Old Peoples Welfare Committee; the Old Kilpatrick Food Parcels; the mens sheds in both Clydebank and Bearsden and Milngavie; the Old Kilpatrick chatty cafe, which is a great name; the Golden Friendships club; Clydebank group holidays; the Big Disability Group; Inspire To; the Dalmuir Barclay church community pantry and drop-in cafe; and the Faifley food share. They are there all the time giving support, empowering volunteers, helping people to overcome anxiety and competence issues, providing local employment and being a lifeline.

Unfortunately, just as we were emerging from Covid-19, the Westminster cost of living crisis took hold. The scale of it is illustrated by the IMF predicting that the UK is set to be the worst-performing economy in the G20. The Tory-owned Liz Truss budget created unnecessary additional financial hardship for households and businesses all across the country. That incompetence is so bad that the UK is expected to suffer the biggest fall in living standards since records began. It is well documented that it will impact on peoples ability to make and maintain connections, to take up opportunities to interact with one another and to stay physically and mentally healthy.

A recent poll that was organised by the British Red Cross showed that 81 per cent of Scottish people agreed that the increased cost of living will make more people lonely; and 43 per cent said that they would restrict how much they socialised because the cost