Global Intergenerational Week 2024 — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:41 pm on 9 May 2024.

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Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities) 2:41, 9 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Efford. I start by thanking Marion Fellows for securing this debate to mark Global Intergenerational Week, and all those who have contributed to the debate. I put on record my thanks to all the organisations in this country and around the world that have made it a really important week. It has been fantastic to hear about its success this year and the range of inspiring community-led initiatives that have encouraged people of all ages to come together in meaningful ways to build friendships and develop new skills that people probably did not realise they had.

I was struck by the hon. Lady’s comments on housing. My mum has been living in a housing association flat in a complex full of lots of—dare I say—older people, but we have just this month managed to get her into a bungalow on a street full of families; it is a housing association older people’s bungalow, but it is on a street full of families. The difference I saw in my mum in one day, going from that flat to that bungalow, was incredible, so I do think the hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of planning and housing. When I was Housing Minister, it was actually an area of work that I was trying to focus on; unfortunately, politics took over and I left that role, but there you go. I can assure the hon. Lady that we do talk cross-Government about many of these issues, and I will try to highlight some of the work that we are doing.

A number of Members have mentioned conversations and relationships with people from generations other than our own. I am sure that even as we get older, we all remember the advice given by our grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, or even the older people who lived down the road. I do not know if it is well known, but I love baking, and I learned some of my skills from people who knew how to bake really well. I have held that knowledge with me, and I look forward to being able to pass it on to the next generation.

As others have rightly mentioned, we know that a substantial number of older people suffer from chronic loneliness, which can lead to both physical and mental health strains—the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw highlighted analysis showing that it is comparable to the smoking of 16 cigarettes a day. A lot of that work has come from the US Surgeon General, who recently spoke at an event in the House of Lords. It was fascinating to listen to the medical evidence on the impact that loneliness can have on people.

Loneliness is not just a problem for older people, as hon. Members have said. We know that young people, particularly those aged between 16 and 24, are often the most likely to report feeling lonely. Evidence shows that transitions in people’s lives often bring about those loneliness moments. That is not surprising. Leaving home for the first time, going to university or starting a new job are instances where a young person can become lonely. That has been a focus of the work that we have been doing in the Department this year—trying to help young people who are going to university for the first time by engaging and interacting with them. We hope we can do some more of that work, and I will refer to that in a moment.

Bringing together the different age groups can be a great way of fostering better social connections. It is essential to building empathy, understanding the issues across the generational divide and dismantling any misplaced stereotypes. As the loneliness Minister, the idea that most resonates with me is the power of intergenerational relationships in combating social isolation and loneliness for all ages, because loneliness does not discriminate. People of all backgrounds can experience loneliness at any time of their life—I know that I have. That is why we are committed to tackling loneliness and ensuring that everyone can benefit from the power of meaningful connections, particularly the most vulnerable people in our society.

Our work to tackle loneliness is driven by the three main objectives set out in the world’s first strategy for tackling loneliness, which was published in 2018. The first is to reduce the stigma of loneliness by building a national conversation. Many people do not want to admit that they have experienced being lonely, or do not know what to do about it. To try to tackle that stigma, the national communications campaign that we run has now reached tens of millions of people since it was started in 2019. It tries to raise awareness about the issue and provides advice on what people can do to help themselves, or indeed help other people who they suspect suffer from loneliness.

The second objective is to try to drive a lasting shift so that relationships and loneliness are considered by organisations right across society. It is a complex issue that can be addressed only in partnership; the Government cannot do it alone. What makes this work so good in this country is the strong partnership with the Government. Many community and local organisations and national charities are helping us to advance that agenda. The Government and our partners have invested £80 million since 2018 on tackling this really important issue.

Last year, we launched the £30-million Know Your Neighbourhood fund to try to create volunteering opportunities to help to reduce loneliness. It supports new and existing schemes in the 27 most disadvantaged areas in the country. Last year, I had the great privilege of visiting one of the projects in Hull, where Age UK, a charity that has been mentioned by Members this afternoon, was creating volunteering opportunities for younger people to befriend older people at risk of becoming lonely. It was brilliant to see intergenerational relationships forming.

Older people who sometimes do not see people from week to week can suddenly have someone who regularly goes round to see how they are, checks on them, gets to know them and makes them feel that they are part of the community in which they live. I also loved the differences in conversations, with one person talking about tech and the other about post-war living. It was fantastic to see.

The final objective of the strategy is to improve the evidence base, which is important so that we can make a compelling case for ongoing action in this area. Our research really helped us to understand the prevalence of the stigma associated with loneliness. As I say, I am very proud to be the Minister for loneliness and to lead the work addressing such an important issue across Government. Like many hon. Members present, I want this country to be a place where we can all have strong social relationships and feel connected to the people we live around.

Global Intergenerational Week is also a good reminder that volunteering can be a great way of supporting intergenerational cohesion, much like the befriending service that I have mentioned. Stakeholders have told us that intergenerational volunteering can be a flexible form of micro-volunteering and can have a number of positive impacts. It can improve cross-generational mental health and wellbeing, and reduce age segregation, which itself can lead to a variety of issues—not just loneliness but anxiety and poor health. It also helps to foster attachment to local areas and provide positive community outcomes, such as community connectedness. We know that there is growing interest in the opportunities that intergenerational work presents, so we want to work with all the organisations that are already doing fantastic work in this area, and to learn more about the positive impacts that it can have and what more we can do to help to foster more of it.

It is also important to mention social cohesion, which we are trying to build by supporting sustainable communities. That is why we have given communities significant support to provide them with the power and resources to shape better and more connected neighbourhoods, and why we are currently delivering the new community wealth fund, which will be important. The idea behind it is to support communities to improve the social infrastructure in neighbourhoods that perhaps do not have that and therefore miss out on all the opportunities for grants and other things that may exist. It also aims to empower local people to make decisions about what they think is best for their community. I am therefore pleased to say that £87.5 million will be allocated to that fund, coming from the expansion of the dormant assets scheme.

When I think about other parts of my portfolio, there is another key way to get intergenerational connectedness happening, and that is through social prescribing. There are real opportunities there for bringing different age groups together. It helps to connect people to the community-based support, including activities and services, that meet the practical, social and emotional needs that affect their health and wellbeing. It can work well for those who are socially isolated or are experiencing low levels of mental health.

One of the themes for this year’s Global Intergenerational Week is building intergenerational workplaces, as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw mentioned. We want to champion the benefits of such a multigenerational workforce and promote the importance of retaining the skills and experience that older workers have. My colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are regularly engaging with employers and employer organisations to encourage positive attitudes towards older workers, and to help some of the people who hon. Members mentioned earlier to return to work.

I know that colleagues in DWP have been working with employers that team up workers across generations. One example is a pottery manufacturer in Stoke-on-Trent with a long history of producing high quality products, where traditional methods and modern technology often work together. Of course, both older and younger workers can use the differing technologies, but clearly those with more experience of the traditional methods can pass on their expertise and experience to their colleagues who have joined more recently. I hope that we see more of that work happening in future. We are committed to delivering a comprehensive package of support to help older people to remain in and return to work, and that will include the dedicated 50-plus champions at jobcentres and mid-life MOTs.

Other Members mentioned young people. In my role as Minister with responsibility for youth in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I have been on some amazing visits around the country, and I think youth centres can help to form important relationships between generations. As Kirsty Blackman mentioned, if young people are disengaged from school—I say this with no disrespect to teachers—that relationship is often different from their relationship with their youth worker, so that mentoring is important. Our hope is to roll out programmes that do more of that, so we are embedding in young people the benefit of having relationships with people from different generations. Hopefully, they will pass that on to the younger generation as they get older.

Other Members mentioned Youth Voice. I always want to have young people around the table when we are talking about issues that affect them, not least because they do it so brilliantly and articulate it in a way that I could not, but also because, as I say to them every time, there is no point in this grey-haired, middle-aged man trying to decide what young people want today. The Youth Parliament and others are great at providing such opportunities.

I am the Sport Minister, and we have a sport strategy to get more people active. I am pleased to see that Sport England is now spending a quarter of a billion on place-based investment. I went to see one such scheme in a leisure centre in Canvey Island, where it was great to see very young people playing with footballs next to older people doing chair exercises. Getting them together was important.