Colin Smyth Speaks on Loneliness

On Tuesday 21st March, Colin spoke in the debate on Loneliness, following on from Jo Cox's campaign. You can read the full speech below.

I thank

Rhoda Grant for securing the debate. She is a long-standing campaigner on an issue that touches many lives in all our communities. As Jo Cox herself said,

“Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”

From the child who is bullied at school to a new mum to a pensioner who has outlived their husband or wife, the feeling of loneliness can hit any one of us at any time in our lives. That is a key point, as Rhoda Grant said, which the “Trapped in a bubble” report by the Co-op and the British Red Cross, which is referred to in Rhoda Grant’s motion, revealed. The report also revealed that

“Over nine million people in the UK” across all adult ages are either

“always or often lonely.”

A survey by Action for Children found that 43 per cent of 17 to 25-year-olds who used its service had experienced problems with loneliness, and less than half of that same group said that they felt loved. The charity also reported that almost a quarter of the parents who were surveyed said that they were always or often lonely. Age Scotland, with its excellent Christmas campaign—no one should have no one at Christmas—revealed that almost 50,000 older people in Scotland faced Christmas day alone. Loneliness and isolation are a stark reality for around 100,000 older people living in Scotland today.

As the Co-op and the British Red Cross point out, the causes of that loneliness are complex. As Rhoda Grant highlighted, it is often caused by a trigger, such as divorce, poor health, retirement or bereavement.

Our community can also have an impact. For example, poor transport links in a rural area can add to a person’s feeling of loneliness and isolation, and the very society that we live in today can be a driver, with people working longer and living in a more antisocial way. As a result of that, the solutions can be equally complex in their variety. As the research by the Co-op and British Red Cross found, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling loneliness.

In the very short time that I have, I want to focus on one group: older people. The Jo Cox commission spotlights that group as being at greater risk of loneliness and isolation. I will highlight the work of one organisation in my region and the lessons that we can take from that work in tackling loneliness. The organisation is the Food Train, which I suspect is familiar to many members. It was established in 1995 by Labour Party stalwart Jean Mundell after a community survey of older people found that many were struggling with their weekly grocery shopping. A partnership of local shops and volunteers was formed to do older people’s shopping and deliver it to their homes. The success of the service saw it expand beyond Dumfries thanks to funding from the Scottish Executive, and by the time that Jean sadly passed away in 2006, the service was operational across Dumfries and Galloway.

Recently, I had the privilege of joining Food Train for the day and helping the amazing volunteers with their deliveries. I am delighted to see that, just beyond its 21st birthday, Food Train has expanded across Scotland into West Lothian, Stirling, Dundee, Glasgow, Renfrewshire and North Lanarkshire. As well as expanding its geography, Food Train has expanded its services by adding Food Train Extra, which is an additional home support service.

More recently, it has added a third service called Food Train Friends, which is an award-winning befriending service whose volunteers help those who are experiencing isolation and loneliness through telephone contact, one-to-one home visits and group outings and activities. The concept is simple, but we should not underestimate the difference it makes to the older people whom the volunteer befrienders reach out to by taking them out, simply having a chat on the phone, or popping round for a coffee. That work has a hugely positive impact on people’s wellbeing and happiness.

Frankly, such work could be life saving, because we know that loneliness kills. Loneliness increases the risk of mortality by 10 per cent and it has been likened to a 15-a-day smoking habit. It increases stress, anxiety and depression, and it doubles the risk of dementia. It manifests itself in physical health by raising blood pressure, thus contributing to heart disease, stroke and sometimes cancer. It can also impact on our behaviour and reinforce or exacerbate problems such as alcohol misuse. That impact on health was recognised by the Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee’s excellent 2015 inquiry into age and social isolation, which led to the Government committing funding and to a later cross-party commitment to develop a national strategy.

When the minister sums up, I hope that she will be able to update members on when we are likely to see that strategy. I also hope that she will give a commitment that providing greater support to the voluntary sector, which delivers befriending projects such as Food Train Friends, will be at the very heart of that strategy.

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