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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 29 January 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, St John’s Hospital (Paediatric Services), Social Isolation and Loneliness, Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, Business Motion, Decision Time, Housing and Ageing


Contents


Social Isolation and Loneliness

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-15609, in the name of Christina McKelvie, on “A Connected Scotland”, the Scottish Government’s strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness.

14:48  

I am delighted to be opening today’s debate. As we know, social isolation and loneliness are important. As our society changes, there has been increasing recognition of social isolation and loneliness as major public health issues, as they can have a significant impact on physical and mental wellbeing. That increased understanding is welcome.

I pay tribute to the Equal Opportunities Committee of the previous parliamentary session in taking forward its groundbreaking inquiry into age and social isolation. That was pivotal in getting the issue on to the public and policy agenda and led directly to the Government’s commitment, in our manifesto for the most recent Scottish Parliament elections, to publish our strategy to tackle social isolation and loneliness.

Just before Christmas, I was delighted to launch “A Connected Scotland: tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger communities”. I visited Bridgend Farmhouse, which is a fantastic example of a community-based project supporting people to connect socially. The farmhouse was one of the first assets to be transferred under community empowerment legislation. I urge everyone to get along for a visit because they will really enjoy it. I was delighted to see that the farmhouse was shortlisted for the 2019 MacEwen award, which recognises architecture for the common good. That fits with our increasing understanding of the importance of placemaking in helping to foster the connection that we seek.

In developing the strategy, it was essential that we spoke to those who have lived experience, as well as the organisations that are doing the vital work day in, day out to support individuals and foster more social connections. That is why we held consultation events the length and breadth of Scotland to hear what matters to people and communities. We were helped tremendously by the energy of local organisations that brought together their communities to send in a response. We received well over 400 responses to the consultation, which is a sign of the importance that people place on the issue, and an indication of an appetite for real and meaningful change.

To frame the discussion, we set out our vision for a Scotland where individuals and communities are more connected, and everyone has the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships, regardless of age, status, circumstances or identity. We defined social isolation as

“when an individual has an objective lack of social relationships ... at individual group, community and societal levels”

and loneliness as

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

Tackling social isolation and loneliness is not just the responsibility of one Government or even of one portfolio in the Government. It is the collective responsibility of us all to play our part in building stronger social connections and more resilient communities.

The reality is that social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone, at any age or stage in life, and in any walk of life. In my role as the Minister for Older People and Equalities, it is my responsibility to embed equalities and human rights across the work of the Scottish Government.

Social isolation and loneliness are undoubtedly issues for older people, as we know, and that can be because of a number of factors, including the barriers that older people experience and the attitudes that they face. That needs to change, which is why we will introduce an older people’s framework in spring, to promote positive attitudes to ageing, tackle discrimination against older people, and break down the barriers that prevent older people from living their best lives.

However, let me be absolutely clear that social isolation and loneliness should not be seen purely in the context of ageing. They impact on all parts of society. A third of children who call ChildLine do so because they feel lonely. For new mothers, the time after the birth of a child can be incredibly isolating, and our veterans can face challenges in building their social networks on return from service.

I met a group of eight organisations in my constituency yesterday. They have all lost funding as a result of a flawed integration joint board bidding process, largely because they had all put in for creche provision, which the IJB said was not provided for in the funding round. Does the minister agree that that is a myopic view, considering what she has just said about new mothers and seeking to break down isolation? Will she meet me to see whether the Scottish Government can help those organisations?

I would be delighted to meet Alex Cole-Hamilton to discuss those issues. He makes a few fair points on some of the issues and challenges that we face in the current budget negotiations. He will know that such decisions are for the IJBs, but I am happy to have that conversation with him. I also know that my colleagues in health have been working closely with that local IJB on some of those issues.

We know that social isolation and loneliness are whole-population issues and, if we are to tackle them, we need to recognise the commonality of experience as well as the distinct way that such experience manifests itself in different groups of people.

In taking forward the strategy, we have set four clear priorities. We want to empower communities to build shared ownership of the agenda. Social isolation and loneliness cannot be solved by the Scottish Government alone, and we are committed to working collaboratively with a range of partners as we move forward with our strategy.

We know that the people and communities of Scotland know what is best for them so, through our approach to community empowerment and public service reform, we want to enable communities to make a difference on their own terms. Last year, we launched the local governance review in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and through that review, we will work with communities to understand what changes to the current system would allow them greater control over the decisions that have the biggest impacts on their lives. Through the community choices fund, we will continue to work in partnership to help local authorities to reach their goal of having at least 1 per cent of their budgets subject to participatory budgeting, giving communities a better say in how their budgets are spent.

How people relate to each other is critical to building social connections. That is why it is important to help our young people to build an early understanding of positive and healthy relationships, to promote the value of kindness and to encourage greater intergenerational dialogue. To support young people as they progress through their education, we have placed health and wellbeing at the core of curriculum for excellence. All members of staff in schools are expected to be proactive in promoting positive relationships and behaviour in the classroom, playground and wider school community.

We will implement the recommendations of the personal and social education review that was published last week, to ensure that our young people are developing the knowledge, skills and resilience to fulfil their potential. That will help to equip our young people to build and maintain those connections.

The minister made a point about schools supporting young people who are socially isolated. According to Versus Arthritis, 42 per cent of young adults with arthritis feel isolated and 73 per cent say that they feel lonely on a regular basis. It is important that we support those young people who are feeling isolated because of a condition. How would the minister suggest that we support those people who cannot get to school, so that they feel included?

I could take up the rest of my speaking time in answering that question, because there are many ways to tackle that issue.

This morning, I was at Dunbar grammar school, which has a cross-generational project that works with young people and older people in the town. There is some really innovative work happening there and in other places. I have been blown away by some of the work that I have seen.

There are particular issues where young people face challenges, especially young people who have disabilities or long-term conditions. We are looking at that. The implementation group has a varied group of stakeholders, so that we can identify those issues much more clearly and take forward some of the necessary action. I hope that the implementation group will inform the work that we need to do to change that situation for those young people. It is a great point, and we are taking it on board.

Another issue that we face is the stigma that exists around social isolation and loneliness. We will help to raise awareness of those issues and encourage people both to seek support and to reach out to other people. That is why we are committed to working with partners and stakeholders, as I explained to Rachael Hamilton.

We know that it is not straightforward. We have much to learn from successful anti-stigma campaigns, such as the see me campaign. The fact that we are talking about social isolation and loneliness in the Scottish Parliament is an important step in raising awareness and focusing the attention of society on the issue. I know that that is of particular interest to the Conservative members.

Every member will know that there is a huge range of activities going on across Scotland. I wrote to all members to say that they should look at what is happening in their constituencies, because they will be blown away. So much good work is going on, and I urge members to go and see it.

I emphasise the importance of volunteering across Scotland. Volunteering is key to us achieving our ambition of creating a fairer, more connected and more prosperous country, with equality of opportunity for all—a country where everyone has a chance to participate. We know that there is a real two-way benefit to volunteering: as well as helping to foster a sense of purpose in supporting a cause, it helps to improve social connectedness. Volunteers meet new people, expand their networks and feel a connectedness to wider society through their work.

The publication of the national volunteering outcomes framework is coming up this year. We want to drive that involvement further. The lived environment is a key factor in how we interact with each other. From innovative housing solutions and intergenerational approaches, to the accessibility of transport networks and improving access to digital connectivity, we want to create the conditions that enable individuals and their communities to thrive. We want to work across different sectors to achieve that. We recognise the unique position of third sector organisations that support and develop the delivery of locally relevant solutions in a way that suits the needs of individuals. That is why the briefings that we have received in our inboxes today are so varied. We need to hear all those voices in this debate, and we are grateful to them for that.

In recognition of the fact that Government alone cannot deliver the ambitions of this strategy, and of the importance of a cross-sector approach in tackling these issues, I was pleased to announce earlier today the membership of the national implementation group for a connected Scotland. Formed of a range of statutory, third and public-sector organisations, as part of its work, the group will develop and implement a shared delivery plan for the connected Scotland strategy, along with a shared performance framework, to help us understand the difference that we make. To support that, we are committing £1 million of investment over the next two years to help build our collective capacity to implement the strategy and to pilot innovative approaches to tackle social isolation and loneliness. We have committed to reviewing how to maximise the impact of existing funding in our communities.

In that context, I will touch briefly on the Labour amendment, in the spirit of consensus by which I hope this debate will be marked. Although local authorities are responsible for setting their budgets, the total funding that is available, including the flexibility to increase council tax by 3 per cent, will increase by more than £485 million in 2019-20. We want to work collaboratively with local government and others in tackling the issues, which is why I am pleased that COSLA is a key partner on the new national implementation group.

Tackling the issues is about more than money or projects. The reality is that we all have a responsibility to ensure that our communities are more connected. There is no quick fix to this, which is why our strategy looks forward all the way to 2026.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this most important issue with those who have joined me in the chamber. I hope that they will join the Government in playing their part in helping to tackle social isolation and loneliness and build a more connected Scotland. As our first national strategy for tackling social isolation, “A Connected Scotland” represents the first step towards our vision of a more connected Scotland and demonstrates our commitment to creating a society that treats all our people with kindness, dignity and compassion.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that social isolation and loneliness are issues that can affect people at any age, stage or walk of life; welcomes the recent publication of the Scottish Government’s national strategy, A Connected Scotland, which has been backed by £1 million to support innovative projects and approaches to bring people together; thanks those individuals and organisations that have contributed their ideas to the strategy, and recognises that Scotland’s people and communities know what is best for them in tackling these issues and that, across the public, private and third sectors, everyone has a part to play to tackle social isolation and loneliness and build a more connected Scotland.

15:01  

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on social isolation and loneliness. Although the issue affects so many of us and comes up time and again, particularly around Christmas, we are yet to really tackle it. As I have said before in the chamber, we all have our part to play in solving the issue. I hope that the national strategy will give us the direction that is required to achieve complete cultural change. Although I have put forward my ideas on how best to achieve that and have urged the Scottish Government to push ahead with its plans, I will use my time in the debate to push for consensus on an issue on which we must all unite.

By now, we are all aware of how widespread the issue is. It is estimated that, in Scotland, 79 per cent of adults and 40 per cent of children and young people experience loneliness. Beyond the statistics, it is not difficult to think of people in our lives who may feel lonely or isolated: the neighbour who we see once in a blue moon when they take out the bins or the lifelong family friend who we should have phoned, although we have not quite got round to doing it yet.

We live increasingly transient and busy lives. We are encouraged to live our best lives, embrace all opportunities and achieve beyond what is possible. We travel further for work, we put more onus on ourselves to tell the world what we are doing and paint the perfect picture and we rely increasingly on technology for our social interactions. Perhaps it is not surprising that some groups in society feel more isolated than ever. Perhaps we have not realised what impact those changes have on us with regard to mental health, being present and having meaningful social interactions.

Increasingly, we are more aware that older people are not the only section of society that is affected by loneliness. There are times in our lives when loneliness can be amplified: following the death of a loved one; during a lengthy divorce; becoming a new parent, possibly alone; being a carer; or maybe during a period of ill health when it is not possible to get out and about as we would like.

Young people, too, are affected by social isolation and loneliness. As I stated in the action plan that I published just before Christmas, that must also become a strong focus. A BBC study of more than 55,000 people found that loneliness is felt most intensely by young people, with two in five people aged between 16 and 24 reporting feeling lonely often or very often. The role of social media in our lives is changing how we interact with people day to day. WhatsApp has replaced phoning a friend and young professionals in the workplace may well send an email to the office along the corridor rather than going to speak in person. I am keen for more work to be done on the impact of technology and social media on young people. Interestingly, the same study found that those who reported feeling lonely had more online-only Facebook friends than those who did not.

As part of my action plan, I called for exploration of how, as part of the curriculum, pupils can be taught about loneliness and the value of social relationships, so I was pleased to hear the minister say that that will happen. I also called for pupils to be encouraged to get involved, where possible, with national schemes such as the John Muir award and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award or with the scouts or girl guides.

Older people are of course massively affected by loneliness. Across the United Kingdom, 3.6 million older people live alone and over 2 million of them are aged 75 plus—my mum being one of them. Three out of four general practitioners say that they see between one and five people a day who have come in mainly because they are lonely. That is why I have also called for better use of the social prescribing platforms that already exist. I recently carried out a social prescribing survey with GPs in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway, and it was clear that the platform available to them is not up to date, is not easily accessible and is not user friendly. This needs to change.

Of course, it is not all down to GPs. We need a national conversation on what simple acts of kindness we can carry out in our everyday lives and we need to encourage those who are lonely to ask for and accept acts of kindness when they are offered without feeling guilt or shame. That is why I have called for a Scotland-specific national loneliness day, stressing the need to have something personal to Scotland that captures people’s imaginations. Will the minister commit to supporting such a day and press ahead with plans to introduce it?

When we have such debates, I am always conscious of the fact that the conversation is framed in a way that does not necessarily celebrate what older people have to offer. Older people are absolutely an asset and, having spent just one day at a Contact the Elderly tea party, I can honestly say that I had a great time and I look forward to attending many more.

In the debate on the issue last year, I spoke a lot about intergenerational projects that had inspired me—the nursery placed in an old people’s home is just one example. I therefore ask the Scottish Government what work is being done to promote more such projects.

I reiterate my support for the national strategy. Every single day, charities across our communities are making a real difference. Unfortunately, I do not have time to mention them all, but I was pleased to see many charities come together last year to form the action group on isolation and loneliness. That is an extremely positive step towards improving the lives of many people.

Loneliness is like a ticking time bomb and it needs to be the responsibility of everyone, from the Government down to local communities, to make a real difference. I hope to see real cultural change in the future.

I move amendment S5M-15609.1, to insert after “bring people together;”:

“calls for increased awareness of youth loneliness, greater social prescribing and a national awareness campaign;”

15:07  

The development of a strategy for loneliness and isolation has been supported across the chamber by all parties in a number of debates over a number of years. The strategy builds on the important work that was carried out by the Jo Cox commission on loneliness, which found that 9 million people across the UK are lonely. In moving Labour’s amendment today, I want to give our on-going support to the strategy. I make it clear that having a strategy is important, but it is also important that all levels of government, communities and civic Scotland are part of that strategy, with a commitment to making it work.

However, it is also clear that the current political choice of austerity in the UK is leading to more isolation and to more people experiencing loneliness. It is time for social isolation and loneliness to be recognised as major public health issues that can have enduring and serious effects on a person’s physical and mental health. That is why we support the Government’s motion.

Our amendment is designed to highlight that, for the strategy to work, there is a need for investment and a need to end austerity. The strategy comes at a time when austerity is having a real negative impact on tens of thousands of people in Scotland, on local services, on support for enabling local communities and on many third sector organisations that are working in the heart of communities up and down Scotland.

Although the strategy effectively lays out the need to build cohesive communities, improve people’s mental and physical health and reduce poverty and acknowledges the important role that the third sector plays, it fails to acknowledge the threat that budget cuts to social security, public services and the third sector pose in tackling loneliness. For example, Inclusion Scotland’s briefing for the debate states:

“Cuts to welfare benefits have also reduced tens of thousands of Scots disabled people’s ability to participate in wider society”.

Inclusion Scotland points out that the stigma that arises from political rhetoric and media coverage of welfare reform has caused an increase in the harassment of disabled people and in their fear of harassment. Therefore, if we are serious about tackling loneliness and isolation, it is crucial that we acknowledge the impact of Government policies on achieving that ambition. Labour believes that local councils, which are key to building cohesive communities, are bearing the brunt of the Government’s budget cuts.

The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights noted in his report that

“many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centers, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined”.

The briefing for the debate from Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded states that respondents to their survey argued for more services at a local level that support people with sight loss and bring them together, to be provided by local authorities and the third sector. Although the £1 million fund to support innovative projects and approaches to bring people together is welcome, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the £319 million funding cut that local government is facing if the Government’s budget is passed in its current form.

There is no doubt that cuts to councils will impact on the strategy. We only have to look at some of the cuts to see that that is a fact. Last year, Inverclyde Council withdrew free swimming for over-60s. The City of Edinburgh Council’s recent budget proposals include a £350,000 budget cut to Edinburgh Leisure, followed by three years of £1 million cuts to its budget. Moray Council is proposing to shut two swimming pools and libraries. Further examples of changes that are being considered by local councils to save money and that could erode people’s feelings of community and opportunities to interact are the withdrawal of subsidies to pensioners Christmas dinners; the withdrawal of subsidies to local halls; charging for attendance at adult day centres; increasing charges for meals on wheels; increasing prices and reducing opening hours for leisure services and activities; stopping support for bus services; reducing support for local events; and closing community facilities.

Some of the options that I have seen councils considering are horrendous. Indeed, the former Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities has lodged a motion in Parliament describing the proposed cut to the West Lothian shopmobility service as “short-sighted” and saying that it risks increasing social isolation.

There is not much point in MSPs lining up to attack front-line cuts when they are the very same people who voted for those horrendous cuts to council funding. That is the main point. There is a consensus in the chamber that we need to address the issues, but the bottom line is that failed austerity is impacting on every community and on local organisations that are at the heart of communities. If we are to address loneliness and isolation, we have to make resources available and stop austerity.

I move amendment S5M-15609.2, to insert at end:

“; further recognises the key role of local communities, local services and the third sector in preventing social isolation; notes that the UN rapporteur’s preliminary report on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK stated that ‘many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centres, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined’, and agrees that the impact of ongoing austerity on local services, the third sector and local communities must be addressed as part of the strategy to tackle social isolation and loneliness.”

15:14  

It is certainly a sad paradox that, although we live in a society that gives us ever more means to contact one another through technology, many more people are feeling lonely. We should regard loneliness as a barometer of how successful our society is. Societies that are open, equal, welcoming and cohesive are, by definition, less likely to have a large number of people who feel left out and alone. I know that we are all extremely concerned that figures from NHS Health Scotland suggest that 11 per cent of adults in Scotland often feel lonely and that almost 40 per cent of adults sometimes do.

As the minister stressed, and as the strategy rightly recognises, loneliness is a major public health problem. As we have heard, the medical evidence suggests that loneliness can have a significant negative impact on our health. It can carry a risk of early death equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it also increases the risks of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Many of the action points in the plan are welcome. For example, there is to be greater emphasis on social prescribing and the expansion of the community links worker programme to more GP surgeries. As Annie Wells highlighted, all too often, GPs are the only contact that a chronically lonely person might have. Three out of four GPs in the UK say that between one and five people a day have sought an appointment because they are lonely. Quite rightly, the Royal College of General Practitioners in Scotland describes loneliness as a “health epidemic”.

I encourage the minister to consider some of the Royal College’s proposals, including further expansion of the community links worker programme and longer GP appointments so that GPs can better assist patients who are experiencing loneliness. The Royal College has also made some constructive suggestions about producing a quality-assured national database of projects that offer the right support and ensuring that voluntary groups have reliable, longer-term funding. The latter issue has been raised by various colleagues across the chamber.

Many of those local groups do incredible work. One example is Health All Round, a community health project that is based in the Gorgie, Dalry, Stenhouse and Saughton areas of the region that I represent. Among a range of groups, activities and events, Health All Round organises good morning Gorgie, a social group for older adults that meets every Tuesday morning at St Martin’s Community Resource Centre, in Dalry. Members of the group enjoy cooking, writing and arts and crafts. For some members, the group provides a key opportunity to meet up for friendship and socialising—an opportunity that they might not have otherwise. The minister mentioned the fabulous Bridgend Farmhouse and spoke, too, of the importance of placemaking. The Hollies Day Centre, just off Musselburgh’s busy high street, offers food, chat and even an affordable haircut.

Some of those projects are well served by bus routes, but others are not. I was glad to see in the strategy a focus on transport and infrastructure, because we can have these fabulous projects but it is really important that people can access them. Access to good transport can reduce loneliness and social isolation. A King’s College London study has found that access to free bus passes is associated with a 12 per cent decline in depressive symptoms, with the researchers suggesting that the benefits come from

“reduced loneliness, increased participation in volunteering activities and increased contact with children and friends”.

As we know, in too many parts of the country, bus services are expensive, unreliable and not frequent enough. For those who are unable to drive or who choose not to drive, public transport—and local buses services in particular—is a key service. We have to make sure that our buses are better, and I commend the work that my colleague John Finnie MSP is leading in that regard. I also draw the attention of members and the Government to the recent statement on poverty in the UK by Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty. Mr Alston said:

“Transport ... should be considered an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity, and the government should regulate the sector to the extent necessary to ensure that people ... are adequately served. Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”

We must also ensure that public places have the facilities that are needed to give everyone the confidence to get out and about. In particular, a lack of access to public toilets can cause people who might need urgent toilet access to avoid leaving home, leading to isolation and loneliness. I have lodged an amendment to the Planning (Scotland) Bill to ensure that local development plans must include a statement of the planning authority’s policies regarding provision of public toilets. I was recently contacted by a constituent who is happy for me to share her thoughts on the subject. She works in the health sector, and she spoke of our growing elderly population and the growing list of health issues that affect people. She has stressed the fact that some people simply will not leave home if they do not feel that there is somewhere they can access when they need to.

I am running out of time. I ask the minister to respond to the points that I and others have made and look forward to working with colleagues across the chamber to ensure that absolutely no one in Scotland feels lonely.

15:20  

I thank the Government for securing time for this debate and for its work in the vital area that we are discussing. It has the full support of Liberal Democrat members in the delivery of the loneliness and isolation strategy. We have had such debates before and we will have them again, but it is good that we are working towards some level of progress.

The 19th century French novelist Balzac said that solitude is fine but we always need somebody close at hand to tell that it is fine. Some 65,000 Scots spent Christmas alone and, all told, 200,000 elderly Scots go for half a week or more without a single visit or phone call from somebody whom they know or care about.

For all our progress and advance as a society and our greater understanding of social inclusion, we are contracting as a society through our online culture. People do not go to the shops as they used to; rather, they buy things online. Over Christmas, we saw the demise of many high street names and stores in which people may have found their only human interaction in getting their messages on any given day of the week. We have also seen the closure of local amenities, some of which have been alluded to in the debate so far, particularly around social hubs in our communities—one-stop places that people would go to, such as post offices and banks. People may have their weekly calendar built around their trip to the post office to draw their pension or to the bank to do their daily business.

Until I visited a local William Hill bookmaker to discuss prostate cancer, I did not consider that the same is happening with bookmakers. With the rise of online gambling, there has been a decline in on-street bookmakers. Older men in particular—I do not mean to be pejorative or prescriptive—would traditionally go to those bookmakers and spend the afternoon in them. However, those bookmakers are being removed from our communities and, with them, the opportunity for social interaction is being removed.

I understand Alison Johnstone’s remarks about inhibiting factors for people who do not have confidence in the towns and landscapes around them. Toilets are really important, particularly for people with disabilities. There is a paucity of disabled toilets in our high streets and our venues, which is often a cause of people who have other causes to be isolated in the first place deciding not to leave their house.

There is a lack of confidence in our physical on-street landscape and the infrastructure, pavements and footpaths of our towns and cities. I have mentioned many times my desire to see the Scottish Government bring forward a national falls strategy. The Parliament has voted for that twice through amendments in my name. I would be very grateful if, in its closing remarks, the Scottish Government updated members on where we are on addressing falls. I do not mean falls in clinical care; we have a falls framework for that. We need to give people confidence that accident blackspots are well gritted and have ready handrails and that there is consideration of on-street furniture, for example. That may lend itself to addressing the problems that we have.

I associate myself with Alison Johnstone’s remarks on the removal of vital public transport links. I have spent much of my time as an MSP receiving calls and correspondence from Barnton care home. That is a great place to visit, and its residents have robust opinions. To a person, they were devastated by the removal of the lifeline number 64 bus service, which connected them to East Craigs and the Gyle shopping centre. They now have to take two buses, into town and back out, to collect their messages and to visit friends on that side of the city. Such simple things make loneliness and isolation become happenstance and then the norm.

As I mentioned in my intervention on the minister, we talk a good game in the chamber and make policy that is directed at reducing loneliness and isolation, but we make bad decisions at the local and national levels. The eight organisations that I met in Muirhouse yesterday serve thousands of people in the most vulnerable part of my constituency and in Ben Macpherson’s constituency, in the north-west of Edinburgh. However, the integration joint board ran a funding bid that saw those eight organisations lose £650,000 in this year, which is an existential threat to each and every one of them.

Does the member agree that there has been a lack of transparency in relation to why those organisations have lost money? Does he also agree that the IJB should meet each charity that has lost money to explain what went wrong with its application?

I was coming to that issue—I could not agree more.

Several things became apparent during my conversation with the eight organisations that stand to lose a sum of money that threatens their existence. First, there has been no feedback on the process despite there having been a vague offer that there would be. Secondly, the IJB had in place a general rule that it would not fund the provision of a crèche. As I intimated to the minister, that is an incredibly myopic position. Thirdly, anecdotally, it is suggested that there is a view that, because north-west Edinburgh has always been invested in, it is time for somewhere else to get a piece of the pie.

Given that that part of my constituency regularly features in the top fifth of the most deprived areas in the Scottish index of multiple deprivation, this is no time to withdraw resources. Organisations such as the North West Carers centre, the Drylaw neighbourhood centre and the Almond Mains initiative are part of a vital central hub that allows people to come together.

I welcome the strategy. I particularly welcome the appointment of my friend and constituent Brian Sloan, who is the chief executive of Age Scotland, to the implementation group. He will be a breath of fresh air, given his innovative thinking on the issue.

I started with a quote and I will finish with one. Mother Teresa famously said:

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness”.

We need to hold that in our thoughts as we progress this agenda.

I have a little time in hand, but please do not go over the top.

15:26  

Social isolation and loneliness can, of course, affect anyone at any time in their lives, and it is all our responsibility to build a country in which everyone feels welcome and valued in our communities.

Scotland is leading the way—it is one of the first countries in the world to publish a national strategy on social isolation and loneliness. The strategy, which is backed by £1 million of investment over the next two years, is a step forward in tackling the issue.

In preparing for the debate, I was struck by Age UK’s call for policy makers and researchers to be clear about the difference between loneliness and social isolation. Its website says:

“Loneliness is not the same as social isolation. People can be isolated (alone) yet not feel lonely. People can be surrounded by other people, yet still feel lonely.

The distinction between these two concepts is often overlooked ... which makes it difficult to understand what can help people reduce their feeling of loneliness.”

As the minister said, loneliness is a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired level of social contact and their actual level of social contact; it refers to the perceived quality of a person’s relationships. Loneliness is never desired, and lessening those feelings can take a long time.

Social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have; it is about the quantity, 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 they are in contact 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 can be experienced at the same time.

Folk may feel different levels of social isolation and loneliness over their lifetime, 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. In its briefing, Inclusion Scotland points out that social isolation and loneliness affect a disproportionate number of disabled people at all stages of life, from childhood to old age.

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.

The quality of relationships that people have in their life matters; it is really important. A number of groups in my Cunninghame South constituency provide that quality interaction. I probably have time to mention one of them in particular.

The men’s shed movement, which began in Australia in 2005, encourages groups of men to get together around activities that could take place in a garden shed—from engineering to creative writing and everything in between—in a way that benefits their health and wellbeing. The concept has taken off over the past 13 years or so and, today, Scotland has 67 open sheds and 47 in development.

I am pleased to say that we have a men’s shed in Irvine, which is based at the Scottish maritime museum. Jamie, who is leading the development of the Irvine harbourside men’s shed, told me about the inspiration for beginning it. He said that the museum has a dedicated volunteer base and that many of the volunteers are men—mainly ex-engineers—who often cite loneliness and social isolation as a reason for volunteering. The new men’s shed project provides the chance to offer all men, whatever their background, the opportunity to come together, learn new skills, become more social and get active, and, in so doing, improve their mental wellbeing.

A phrase that is commonly heard in sheds is that men do not talk face to face; they talk shoulder to shoulder, while working or enjoying a hobby with their friends. Jamie told me that that had been observed and admired in the museum’s volunteer base and that the hope was that such camaraderie would continue in the men’s shed.

The Irvine group already has 20 to 30 men who meet every couple of weeks on a Thursday. The number of folk who participate is testament to the quality of the experience for the men. Friendships have been built and the men socialise outwith the group.

There are demonstrable wider benefits to the men’s shed movement. As well as supporting individuals, sheds and the projects that they undertake can provide benefits to communities—from planters being made and Wendy houses being built for nurseries through to commercial bicycle refurbishment schemes. I look forward to seeing Irvine harbourside benefit similarly.

I am proud that Scotland is leading the way with the strategy. I look forward to hearing from everyone about the quality groups that are meeting around Scotland.

15:32  

I, too, thank the Government for bringing forward the debate. I agree with the minister that not just older people but people across the generations—including the young and the middle aged—can feel isolated. One group that is particularly affected by isolation is those who have a disability. Whether people experience a disability as a child, a middle-aged individual or an older person, because a disability often affects someone’s ability to get out and do things that most of us take for granted, isolation can become an issue.

Perhaps isolation happens less today than in previous generations, when it could arise because of societal attitudes—because of what people said and how they reacted to people with a disability who went out and about. However, people with a disability who go to activities at leisure centres or to other places often have to think through how they will get there, what will happen when they get there and whether the facilities will be appropriate.

Employment is one of the greatest issues in relation to isolation and disability. As we all know, there is still a major lack of opportunity for those with a disability to enter the employment market, and that is particularly true for those who have learning difficulties.

I do not blame the Government for this, but all the statistics tell us that things are still not improving in Scotland or across the United Kingdom. Therefore, if we are to tackle the issues of isolation and employment for disabled people, we will need to do some radical thinking.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the privilege of attending Garvald Edinburgh’s workshop on Gorgie Road. The charity works across the city and the Lothians with people with learning difficulties and other disabilities. Its workshop is a remarkable place, a visit to which I highly recommend to the minister. Not only would she have an excellent lunch there, which is important, but she would see how bread and chairs are made and how woodwork is done. The workshop offers real employment, giving people real opportunities to learn new skills. What is perhaps just as important is that it gives them an opportunity to build friendships and relationships and to integrate with the people they work with and those who support them. The project has been going for more than 20 years now.

As I talked to the individuals there, they told me that, sometimes, people stayed there for only one or two years, because after that the council would take away their funding, saying that the workshop should be a stepping stone into what it called proper employment. I am tempted to ask the council officers how long they have been at the council and whether they ought to be moved on after two years. Such an attitude totally misunderstands what Garvald is trying to do: to teach skills to people who—let us be honest—would otherwise find it very difficult to get into mainstream employment and to give them opportunities not to be isolated but to socialise.

If we are to think radically about how people take up employment or work opportunities to break isolation, we have to get rid of the mindset that sees organisations such as Garvald and others across Scotland as simply stepping stones towards pushing trolleys in Tesco or other jobs. It angers me that some people in our council offices across Scotland still have the mindset that that is the way forward.

We want the debate to be consensual, but I would like to finish by picking up on Alex Cole-Hamilton’s earlier point. Organisations not just in his constituency but across the whole of Lothian have been affected. The IJB here in Edinburgh has slashed funding for many community activities. The Community Ability Network works with older and disabled people in Craigmillar, to deal with social isolation and to help them with benefits and getting proper access to services. At the end of March this year—in just six or seven weeks’ time—the organisation will close because of what the IJB has done. Another organisation that I know, in Restalrig, works with older people and provides lunches for those who are isolated. It will close in December—only another 11 months away—because its reserves are low. Such decisions by the IJB are affecting not just organisations themselves but some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I would welcome the minister’s looking at such issues. I appreciate that in some instances her hands might be tied, but I, too, would welcome a meeting with her, perhaps along with Alex Cole-Hamilton, to see what the Scottish Government can do to help such organisations. We all want to see isolation across the generations stop, but if the IJB is cutting funding to such organisations, that will never happen.

15:39  

As others have said, Scotland is one of the first countries in the world to publish a national strategy on social isolation and loneliness. We should all welcome that—I am certainly proud to be in a country that focuses on the area.

Social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone, at any point in their life. The strategy is a step forward in tackling the issue. One in 10 people in Scotland reports feeling lonely often. That figure is probably considerably underreported, as many people are afraid to admit that they feel that way.

Social isolation can have a significant impact on physical and mental health, and I welcome the minister’s announcement that, through the connected Scotland strategy, the Government will invest £1 million in dealing with loneliness as a public health issue. The key message from the minister’s speech is that we must all remember that tackling loneliness is the responsibility of all agencies, organisations, communities and individuals and that it is not simply about money. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I want to focus my remarks on some of the good work that is being done in my constituency to address the issue.

Social isolation and loneliness affect a disproportionate number of disabled people at all stages of their lives, and research demonstrates that disabled children and young people often have limited opportunities to access leisure activities. That is often because bullying spoils their access to inclusive activities or their use of leisure and recreation facilities. The shining stars additional support needs theatre school was established in Coatbridge in my constituency in 2016 with the aim of overcoming such disadvantage and providing young people with additional support needs ranging from mild to severe with the opportunity to come together to develop confidence and life skills while participating in a number of activities, including drama, musical theatre, dance and arts therapy. The group has gained a local reputation as a trusted and respected organisation, and it recently secured a permanent home in the constituency, which will allow for developments such as a sensory room and bespoke facilities to improve the learning experiences of its members. I am looking forward to visiting the new premises. I do not want to be outdone by Jeremy Balfour—if the minister has time, I am sure that she would be welcomed by Kate Slaven and the shining stars team.

There are many other local organisations that tackle isolation and loneliness for our young people. I could not possibly mention them all, but I would like to mention Iskate, which was formed in 2013 by parents and volunteers, who aim to develop skating for people who are disabled or mobility impaired by offering a range of opportunities, including a programme that allows all to train and participate in competitions and events on an equal basis.

It is important that all public bodies, including leisure trusts, make their services accessible to all. As members might be aware, just prior to Christmas, I started a petition to save the time capsule water park complex in Coatbridge, after concerns were expressed that its opening hours would be reduced to the extent that it would open only at the weekend, making it suitable just for children in mainstream education. The proposal caused outrage. I have had reassurances from North Lanarkshire Leisure that it will not do that and that the pool will be open, after refurbishment, for an enhanced number of hours. However, I ask the trust to go one stage further and to go back to the previous hours, when it was open during the day as well, as that would make the facility more accessible.

Another issue that it is important to consider in the context of loneliness is addiction, which, as I have said previously, is a big issue in my constituency and one that we must tackle head on. I know that the minister knows about Reach Advocacy in my constituency, which is a good organisation in that field. I am aware that, recently, it applied unsuccessfully to the national development fund. I was pleased to hear that it was successful with the Scottish Recovery Consortium, but I understand that that means that it will work more on a national basis than on a local basis. From the information that I have, I believe that the organisation was unsuccessful in its initial bid because it did not have a business plan and because the North Lanarkshire alcohol and drug partnership was not fully established. If we are serious about all agencies working together to tackle loneliness and everybody playing their part, we might need to look at the bureaucratic deficiencies that exist.

The Age Scotland research that shows that 100,000 older people in Scotland say that they feel lonely all or most of the time serves as a big wake-up call to everybody. I am overwhelmed by the good work that I see every day in my constituency in addressing loneliness and social isolation among older people. Muirhead and district seniors forum is a great example of a group that does such work, and it was a deserving recipient of an Age Scotland inspiration award for its work in supporting and encouraging the over-55 age group to engage in social activity. The nifty fifties, like all the other organisations that I have had the pleasure of visiting, is absolutely fantastic.

I make a special mention of one of our councillors, who do not often get the press that they deserve. Councillor Caroline Stephen worked in partnership with the safety zone community centre in Bargeddie and various older people’s groups in the area to set up a special Christmas lunch. The event was said to be a fantastic success, with new friendships being established. Another one is planned for next year, which will be even bigger and better. I will conclude on that nice point.

I welcome the minister’s motion.

15:45  

Last year, we supported the launch of the Government’s draft strategy on social isolation and loneliness. It was desperately needed and a first step to start tackling the issue. As I said then, it is reassuring that social isolation, which is increasingly a social and public health epidemic, is one area in which all parties agree that action is needed. The revised strategy that has been put together following consultation, in response to which people said that cuts to public services mean that communities cannot tackle loneliness alone, is another step forward. I had hoped, however, that it might lead to a more constructive and cross-cutting focus on how we use resources to tackle isolation and loneliness.

Although the Minister for Older People and Equalities accepts in the foreword to the strategy that the Government has

“an important role in tackling these issues”,

the mantra that

“the biggest impact can only be delivered if we enable communities themselves to play their part”

has been trotted out again. The simple fact is that a £1 million fund to implement the strategy will do little to recoup the much-loved services and activities that communities are losing right now. Alex Rowley mentioned some of those. Free over-60s swimming has been withdrawn in Inverclyde and £350,000 is being cut from Edinburgh Leisure. Libraries and swimming pools could be closed in Moray, while North Lanarkshire Council in my region has cut £230 million over the past 10 years because of Government cuts to its grants, which has devastated services.

I would be interested to hear how the Government believes that the latest budget, which slashes £319 million from services, will enable communities to “play their part”, because the answer is that it will not. More cuts will only dismantle and undermine the services that keep communities together.

Jo Cox’s groundbreaking commission on loneliness sought to tackle the issue before many other politicians had even considered it. On behalf of the Labour family, we are grateful that, although she is no longer with us, her work is still making the world a better place, and that is recognised in the strategy.

Across the UK, loneliness harms 9 million people and its consequences cost the economy £32 billion every year. In Scotland, loneliness affects almost half of adults often or occasionally, 80 per cent of carers feel lonely, and three in 10 calls to the Silver Line Scotland and the national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender helpline are about loneliness. Those trends should fill us with dread and they should drive us to tackle the root causes.

Our amendment recognises the UN rapporteur’s comments about the dismantling of vital services being at the root of increasing poverty because that poverty intersects with the issue that we are debating today—loneliness. People do not want just a strategy; they want the resources and services to tackle the poverty that plagues communities. They want to grow their own bonds and curb loneliness. That is why, on Thursday, we will vote against the budget, which will serve up more austerity-driven cuts to local authorities.

As I said, 80 per cent of carers feel lonely. We have powers over social security and we should use them to help people overcome that loneliness. As I said in the debate last year, disability in a family can cause loneliness through financial, emotional and practical pressures. Stigma and the lack of suitable services prevent families from being integrated, while low incomes restrict their freedom to get out and about.

I referenced loneliness in our recent members’ business debate on end-of-life care, and I discuss it regularly with carers and support organisations. Since last summer, I have been asking them how we can change carers allowance, and one of the decisive responses has been that access to concessionary travel for carers would help to boost their personal incomes, allow them to get out and about and cut through some of the isolation and loneliness that they face.

When it comes to disability entitlements, too, there are ways in which we can tackle loneliness. In the summer, I hosted a round-table discussion with more than 30 third sector stakeholders, academics and disabled people. The simple message that came out of the session was that the mobility component must be extended to people in receipt of attendance allowance. That is the fair thing to do and I hope that the Minister for Older People and Equalities will take up the issue with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People.

As one person at that meeting said, gone are the days when older people—disabled or not—want to retire and be stuck at home; they want to get out, and the social security system should support them to do that. If we are truly building a social security system that is based on dignity and respect, I hope that we can assure disabled people that the system will help them to get out into their communities and improve their health, whatever their age.

The new system can be a catalyst for reversing the isolation that is caused by personal financial troubles. I hope that the cabinet secretary will give further consideration to how the new system tracks, measures and overcomes social isolation.

15:51  

This is a fantastic debate. I am sorry that some parties—particularly the Labour Party—have chosen to politicise the debate, because I think that we should be celebrating our strategy.

I feel great about being able to say “Thank you” to a minister for older people. For years and years, I and other members of this Parliament have been pushing for there to be such a minister. I welcome the Minister for Older People and Equalities and thank her for securing this debate.

As many members have said, loneliness and isolation are not just a problem for older people. The minister mentioned the Equal Opportunities Committee in the previous session; I was deputy convener of that committee, and our inquiry into age and social isolation threw up various issues. We learned that loneliness can affect even quite successful younger people. We held a phone-in, and we heard from a young man who had had a break-up in his personal life. He was working, but all he did was go to his work and then go home again. He felt that there was such a stigma around talking about such issues that he never mentioned to the other young men in his workplace that he was lonely and isolated, and that that was affecting his health.

I therefore welcome the amendment in Annie Wells’s name, which refers to loneliness among younger people. Loneliness and isolation affect everyone, from every walk of life.

That is why I am pleased to speak in this debate and pleased about the strategy, as I said. I am not saying that I want to pat myself on the back, but I think that we should be proud of this Parliament. Scotland is one of the first countries in the world to publish a national strategy on social isolation and loneliness, and that is something to be proud of.

As I said, loneliness and isolation can affect people from every age group and every economic group. I am convener of the cross-party group on older people, age and ageing—it is about people aged 55 and over, which is not that old.

I want to focus on some of the groups in my constituency that give their time to help older people. I think that the longest-running group, and the leading charity for elderly people in Glasgow, is Glasgow’s Golden Generation, which was established in 1948 as Glasgow Old People’s Welfare Association. I thank Sheena Glass, I thank all the people who were associated with the charity way back in 1948, and I thank the people who are coming forward to be associated with it now. Glasgow’s Golden Generation has been very successful at getting grants and lottery money, and it is celebrating 70 years—70 years!—of serving older adults in Glasgow.

The charity does not just provide befriending support in older people’s houses; it also gives advice. There is the befriending service, and people phone or pop in to give advice about welfare benefits and signpost people to certain places—I think that Annie Wells mentioned the deep-end general practices, which can help with loneliness. Glasgow’s Golden Generation can point people to services that they can use, which is great, because people need to know what is available.

We have heard from every member about the different groups in their constituencies, and I have spoken about some of the groups in mine. We have all these groups, but there is no register of them locally or nationally; that point was raised during a previous meeting of the cross-party group on older people, age and ageing. There is so much help out there for people who volunteer, as well as for those who are helped by volunteers, but nobody knows what other people are doing. The minister might want to look at that issue. As I said, Glasgow’s Golden Generation is very proud of its work.

Another organisation is Annexe Communities—I have been involved since the very beginning, in 1987—which is based in Partick. It has blossomed and gives support throughout the city, not just in Partick. Annexe Communities began life as Partick Community Association in April 1987, and its members were mainly residents and people who wanted to help out. In those days, we were swimming in the dark in trying to speak to various organisations, get grants and so on. However, we did not give in; we pushed forward. The association was set up to support people who were in poverty or poor health; at the start, it was not necessarily to support older people or people who suffered from loneliness and isolation. However, the annexe connects project, which is for older people who are over 60, was awarded money from the Big Lottery Fund. The carers do a fantastic job, and I have spoken about the organisation many times—it is probably fed up with me speaking about it.

In the seconds that I have left, I want to mention a new kid on the block, as we might say, which is the weekday wow factor. As I have mentioned to colleagues, it holds daytime discos and people can go sailing. It does fantastic work. I have been to events and, if the minister wanted to come along, I am sure that Pasna and the group would be very happy. In Partick, they hold a disco during the day in the Sanctuary nightclub. I have participated, and I can say that it is great.

I thank members for indulging me in allowing me to say what is happening in my constituency. I look forward to hearing what other members will say about their constituencies.

15:57  

I am delighted to be taking part in this afternoon’s debate on tackling loneliness and social isolation. I welcome the publication of the Scottish Government’s strategy, because the issue is extremely important. Unfortunately, loneliness is becoming all the more common across Scotland. Annie Wells talked about us all having to play our part and the need for a change in culture, and the strategy will go some way in addressing that.

Although loneliness is more often associated with the elderly population, it can affect people of all ages. A report by Age UK suggested that 40 per cent—a huge percentage—of 16 to 24-year-olds fell into the category of feeling isolated and lonely. The impact on the health and wellbeing of those who are affected can be significant and can lead to different risks, such as depression, anxiety and dementia. That has a negative impact on what they can achieve and do, so it is vital that we support such individuals.

There can be wider implications on the sustainability of our health service. Age Scotland estimates that loneliness and its associated health conditions cost the national health service £12,000 per person per year, which is a huge sum of money. A survey that the Royal College of General Practitioners published in May last year found that three out of four GPs saw between one and five patients per day who were suffering from loneliness or isolation.

It is clear that positive steps can be taken to deliver better outcomes for individuals who are affected, while reducing costs. This afternoon, we have heard about community events and community involvement. For example, the loss of community toilets can add to individuals’ fears and anxiety about going out, as they will not be able to access such facilities.

Social prescription is one of the best ways of achieving those objectives, and I am glad that the Scottish Government has committed to investing in the community link workers programme. The community link work is high level and gives the opportunity for individuals and patients to meet and gain access, as I have seen across the region that I represent. In Perth and Kinross, Fife, Stirling and Clackmannanshire there are opportunities for links to take place and for individuals to go to clubs and events. The programme has been extremely successful. We have also heard about the budgetary implications that can have an impact on that and we need to be alive to those, too.

Link appointments are longer and give individuals the chance to have conversations and talk about their social, emotional and practical needs. There is great potential for third sector organisations to work collaboratively with other organisations. There are also opportunities for them to deal with the funding crises that we face.

Jeremy Balfour spoke eloquently about disabled individuals and the difficulties that they face. From my experience of dealing with adults with learning difficulties and the organisations that I was involved in before I became a parliamentarian, I know that it is vital that those people feel included and supported. Individuals and organisations can do that, but they must work collaboratively to achieve the goals.

To that end, it is vital that there are relationships in place and that organisations feel empowered. The Scottish Government has a very noble task in respect of community link workers. So far, only 56 community link workers have been deployed; we expect there to be many more—perhaps up to 250 by the end of the parliamentary session. It is important that we think about what we are doing in that respect.

The UK Government, too, has sought to tackle the issue of loneliness and in October 2018 launched its first loneliness strategy, in which social prescribing features heavily. It talks about enabling GPs to have longer and more active interactions with individuals and to talk about walking clubs, cookery classes and art clubs. Such activities give people the chance to develop their potential as they get older. The funding of those things is vital. As we have heard, community caffs, art spaces and gardens are working well in many parts of our communities. It is vital that we see such things.

In addition, the UK Government Minister for Sport and Civil Society has a remit in relation to cross-Government work on loneliness. The whole idea of cross-Government and cross-portfolio work is vital. This afternoon, the minister acknowledged that there needs to be understanding between different parts of the Government so that we all work together to achieve the goals that we want to achieve.

I want to talk about a real success, which is the coalition of nurseries and old-people’s homes. We have seen some of that happening across the community. Those are intergenerational projects, which are working extremely well. We must also consider the innovation that is taking place in respect of loneliness.

The issue of social isolation and loneliness is a public health concern and we must work together, across the parties, to tackle it. Further investment in social participation is vital. We have to think about the consequences.

This afternoon, we have heard how integration joint boards are causing difficulties to some societies and organisations. We have heard all that today. As parliamentarians, we have a role in ensuring that we raise awareness of the issue in general. Individuals must play their part because every individual in our community deserves our support and no one should feel lonely and isolated.

16:03  

Most people, whether or not they care to admit it, have experienced loneliness at some stage in their lives. What is shocking, as other members have mentioned, is that the figures that have been produced by the “Our voice” citizens panel show that one in 10 Scots says that he or she “often” feels lonely. More troubling still is that 22 per cent of Scots say that they do not feel that they have a strong sense of belonging to their community. I suspect that those figures—or problems—are replicated elsewhere throughout the western world, but that makes them no less disturbing to read.

Not long ago, I met Befriending Lewis, which is an organisation in my constituency that does outstanding work with people who feel isolated or in need of friendship. What struck me most was the wide variety of people who become isolated. I make it clear that the organisation did not describe to me actual individuals, but broad categories of people. Some of them were the people whom I had expected to hear about: older people whose families had moved away from the island; people without a car who relied either on a very infrequent bus service or on the kindness of neighbours to get them out of the house; people who were suffering from illness or bereavement; and people who had simply lived longer than most of their close friends. All those problems are, in many cases, exacerbated by the person living several miles from the nearest shops.

The other groups that were mentioned surprised me. Members have already spoken about this: it is clear that around the country many of those who are experiencing loneliness are young people. It is tempting and simplistic just to blame the digital world for social isolation. However, getting older people online often proves to be a transformative experience for them through its keeping them in touch with others. That said, there is a growing recognition now that, for all the manifold benefits of social media, they come with potential difficulties. That is becoming true and obvious even in tight-knit island communities in which it would for many people who know each other still be considered formal, and verging on coldly unfriendly, to knock on the front door before entering someone else’s house.

As Annie Wells pointed out, we now have more anecdotal evidence from across the country that some very young people who have thousands of friends online can feel uncertain about where to begin in maintaining friendships offline. People who feel lonely in that way are bombarded with images of everyone else at their happiest. Facebook post after Facebook post shows people on holiday, getting married, showing off their new friends, taking pictures of what they are eating on their work night out, sharing their innermost and sometimes fairly ill-thought-through feelings, looking their best, and having fun.

Algorithms ensure that social media in effect tell us what we want to hear and shut out new or different types of people who might literally live next door to us. The indication is that people are now using their phones less to talk on, and many younger people are reporting that they are becoming wary about phoning, far less visiting, a friend. In fact, most of us are now unwittingly guilty of imagining that we have been keeping in touch with a friend when we have not. If we have liked enough of a friend’s Facebook posts in the course of a year, we think that we have kept in touch.

All that is before we consider the misguided and, in many cases, actively dangerous decision of many people to judge their lives against those of celebrities, which is something I find it very hard to recall ever doing, I have to admit. It is, nonetheless, a reality.

A much-quoted African saying is that it takes a village to raise a child. That is undoubtedly true, but we must consider some difficult questions around that. What if a young person has been brought up in the belief that their village, or their town, is a place where they should not be speaking to anyone they see? Those are huge questions to which our culture does not yet have answers.

The answer is not, however, to pretend that the digital world is going away, or even to blame it, per se, for loneliness. The immediate answer can only be to build up real communities wherever we find them in Scotland, and to find new ways of engaging everyone who finds that they feel outside those communities. That means investing in a strategy against loneliness, so I welcome the Scottish Government’s £1 million commitment to backing up its strategy on tackling loneliness in “A Connected Scotland”.

The answer is also about there being much broader investment in every aspect of our social, economic and cultural life. It means getting people outside and, sometimes, getting them offline. It means mobilising the existing wonderful communities that we have around Scotland and the goodwill that exists in organisations such as Befriending Lewis, in order to ensure that nobody in Scotland feels alone.

16:09  

I welcome the opportunity to take part in today’s debate.

“Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate ... it is something many of us could easily help with.”

The words of Jo Cox serve as a reminder to us all to care for one another, regardless of circumstances. The connected Scotland strategy is an important piece of work for which the Scottish Government should be commended. In 2016, Scottish Labour committed itself to a national loneliness strategy. I hope that the ambitions of the Government’s strategy are realised.

However, we must acknowledge, as Scottish Labour does in our amendment, that the many public services that are required to tackle such problems need appropriate funding and resources. Councils of all colours across Scotland are in the process of calculating budgets and bracing themselves for further cuts. Local authorities are the key drivers in building cohesive communities, but they cannot do so in the face of continued austerity. Since 2011, council budgets have been cut by £1.5 billion. If the 2019-20 budget passes as proposed, councils will face an additional £319 million of cuts. Therefore, the £1 million fund to accompany the strategy is the equivalent of giving people a cup of water to use when their house is on fire.

Alex Rowley reminded me of my time as a councillor. Every year, I was invited to the Christmas lunches that were held for the older people in my community. Normally, I was invited to four or five. They were a great opportunity for older people to get together and have a nice lunch. Father Christmas came along: we danced and we sang. They were lovely afternoons. The local authority stopped funding the majority of clubs in the area, so they had to stop the Christmas lunches, the Monday afternoon tea dances and the bus runs that the older people went on in the summer. The impact of those cuts was devastating in the communities in the area that I represented. Many people socialised only when they went to the Monday tea dance, on the bus run or to the Christmas lunch.

We know that the solutions to tackling the effects of isolation and loneliness come from all areas and all levels of Government, working in partnership with health services and the third sector. Those solutions cannot be delivered without the necessary funding and resources.

It is important that the strategy, as it has done, recognises the impact of isolation and loneliness on the mental health of people of all ages and backgrounds. Isolation and loneliness can lead to greater levels of depression and anxiety, and people who have poor mental health are at greater risk of isolation and loneliness. I therefore welcome the focus on mental health throughout the strategy: we are all on the right path in increasing the importance that we place on mental health.

Statistics show us that more children and young people are feeling socially isolated. It would be simplistic to blame that on the rise of accessible technology and social media. We must acknowledge that lack of opportunities to play and the significant pressure on young people these days play as big a role as social media and technology. It is paramount that we develop greater resilience in children and young people in order to lessen the impact of the social isolation that is caused by technology and social media. Previous generations did not experience the problem, so we must come at it from better understanding and knowledge of the impact of social media on mental health.

I support the ambition of the Scottish Government to build links with wider mental health policy, and to support work to tackle the health inequalities that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community faces. LGBT people are one of the groups that have been identified as being at greater risk of social isolation and loneliness. In the second half of 2016, a third of calls to the national LGBT helpline were from LGBT people who were experiencing loneliness and social isolation.

Recent Stonewall Scotland statistics show that LGBT people are at greater risk of poor mental health, and that they face discrimination from some healthcare staff. If we couple the statistics from Stonewall Scotland with the information in the strategy, that shows that we need to focus on improving the mental health of LGBT people in order to tackle their social isolation and loneliness—and vice versa.

Reducing the stigma of loneliness and social isolation, especially when mental health is involved, requires a substantial cultural change. We have come a long way in recent years in changing attitudes in respect of mental health, but we know that we still have a long way to go. The strategy is an important tool for reducing stigma. I support any initiative to achieve that.

I repeat my support for the strategy, but I also repeat my concerns that the good will in the words that it contains can be achieved only by fulfilling the ambition to fund our local authorities and third sector partners properly. Otherwise, the health and social inequalities that are linked to social isolation and loneliness will only grow.

16:15  

I am pleased to speak in this debate on social isolation and loneliness, which, as the motion states,

“can affect anybody at any stage, age or walk of life”.

I, too, am pleased to see the publication of “A Connected Scotland”, which is backed by £1 million of Scottish Government investment. It will support innovative approaches to bringing people together and, in so doing, will work to reduce social isolation and loneliness across our communities.

I have enjoyed the contributions this afternoon and will focus my time on projects in my rural South Scotland region that work with people who are at risk of social isolation and loneliness, such as retired farmers, retired agricultural workers and elderly people in remote and rural areas. I have been impressed by the activity across the region to address the issues and to ensure that appropriate support is in place so that people can be part of their community.

Farmers and agricultural workers across Scotland are a group that is at risk of isolation due to the large number of hours spent working outside, often alone. I have followed and supported the health and wellbeing in the farming community project, which seeks to address health and wellbeing issues that face the agricultural community in the Dumfries and Galloway area. It is a joint approach between NFU Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway health and social care partnership and Dumfries and Galloway Council, which aims to ensure that rural voices are heard to gain a better understanding of the concerns and issues that face the community and the barriers to becoming integrated and further connected to the wider region.

The project is currently taking forward action to reduce social isolation and loneliness and to reduce the stigma around some of the mental health conditions that social isolation and loneliness can lead to. An action plan is being developed to address the issues that were identified, from the lack of farming social groups to people not knowing who to turn to when they feel that they might be depressed or isolated or are feeling lonely. Poor connectivity—either to broadband or, indeed, through travel—is also a factor, as others across the chamber have mentioned.

Plans are now being put in place, including mental health training and awareness raising, to continue the Dumfries and Galloway retired farmers’ social group, working with men and women to support their continued engagement with one another. I ask the Scottish Government, as well as local authorities, to monitor the retired farmers’ group’s work, because information is being requested by areas in England due to the group’s success in promoting social integration.

Another initiative that ties into health and wellbeing in the farming community is the choir of farmers and their wives, with input as musical director from Dumfries and Galloway constituent Kate Picken. The choir was formed in 2013 and has more than 160 members. It has performed at Glasgow’s Hydro and at agricultural and other events across Scotland. It includes not just farmers and their wives; many people across the region have joined and attend.

The choir’s aim is to raise funds to donate to charities and to raise awareness of mental health and social isolation in rural areas. So far, its singing across Scotland has raised about £31,500 since 2014. Last Sunday, I attended its concert in Carlisle. I encourage anyone to download its track “Carry you home” on iTunes, as it is a great way to raise funds and to provide support for charities. I am sure that members across the chamber will be happy to welcome the choir, which I have invited to the Parliament to sing in the near future. I am sure that we will all feel good once we hear it singing; it is fantastic.

Priority 3 in “A Connected Scotland” talks about the need to

“Create opportunities for people to connect”.

Research suggests that one of the barriers to people socially connecting is

“a lack of awareness about the opportunities in communities to take part in activities that are enjoyable and that create opportunities to build meaningful relationships through the pursuit of shared interests.”

Signposting people to the groups and support that are available was highlighted at a national health service transforming Wigtownshire event that I attended. Many people do not know what is out there to help them and signposting is a way of supporting people out there. I am interested in that because, across Dumfries and Galloway and south-west Scotland, a wide range of third-sector organisations work for social inclusion. I do not have time to talk about them all, but I would like to briefly mention a couple.

Incredible Edible groups in Stranraer and in Dumfries have volunteers who grow edible plants across public spaces in D and G, allowing people to come together, socialise and get active outdoors while learning about growing fruit and vegetables.

The men’s sheds at Dalbeattie and Noble Hill allow men to come together and to connect, utilising the skills that they have in mending bicycles, picture framing, painting and wood-turning, as my colleague Ruth Maguire expertly described in more detail earlier. That reminds me that I have a bike that I need to drop off at the men’s shed at Noble Hill.

Malory House nursery and day care in Dumfries take the weans to Cumberland day centre to allow for intergenerational integration. It is a joy to witness the elderly folk and the weans together.

In conclusion, I welcome the positive steps that the Scottish Government is taking to reduce social isolation and loneliness. I encourage the Government to continue to work with groups across my South Scotland region and to look at some of them with a view to, potentially, rolling out examples of good practice more widely across Scotland.

16:22  

Social isolation is no small matter and is thankfully one of which the Scottish Government is keenly aware. The issue not only causes individual suffering but strikes at the health of our communities. Now is the time to act.

I whole-heartedly agree with Alasdair Allan about younger people needing to speak on the phone more. I am constantly telling my son and daughters likewise. I welcome the strategy document, “A Connected Scotland”, which outlines key priorities for combating the growing social isolation and loneliness in this country, and I commend the organisations that devote countless hours to researching and combating these issues and their causes.

It is more important than ever for the Parliament to prevent social isolation and to ensure the wellbeing of those who elected us, especially those most susceptible to loneliness, including armed forces veterans and their families and nearly everyone who has experienced a change in life at one point or another—in short, all of us.

As the research shows, the key to combating social isolation for all, from adolescents to pensioners, is prevention—from crisis intervention to crisis averted. An RAF battle of Britain Spitfire pilot in my area was befriended only two weeks before he died, having lost his wife one year earlier. Such situations are unacceptable and more co-ordination is needed to prevent them happening. Although we are unable to prevent all of life’s tragedies, surely we can do more, as a Parliament, to empower communities and, as individuals, to stop such avoidable tragedies.

Sadly, communities are drifting apart and the number of people living alone is on the increase, with only a quarter of adults feeling involved in their local community. By investing in current and future socialisation projects, we can actively fight isolation.

I welcome the report’s recommendation on community involvement and I encourage everyone to work with local councils to find best practice on that front. There is a fine example in my area, in Helensburgh and Lomond, where Grey Matters, which was set up many years ago, meets weekly with 70 senior citizens on a Saturday morning. They gather in the scout hall to discuss issues affecting them personally and collectively and, apart from the chat they have, to try to offer solutions. I would encourage the minister to visit Grey Matters in the scout hall in Helensburgh—that is the minister’s third invitation today; she has many.

I wish to highlight prevention, which is especially key at life’s transitional periods. Veterans, by nature of their profession, face a unique transition. Returning to non-military life is difficult and, without preparation, some families find themselves caught in between lifestyles. A 2017 survey found that nearly one third of ex-service personnel felt lonely or isolated. Thankfully, there are 230 military charities that often have breakfast clubs or other meets-ups that connect veterans with one another and their community. That is especially important when veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder and other life-changing issues from their military operational service overseas.

Last week, I met one such charity, Bravehound, which is an organisation that helps to train dogs for veterans. One veteran spoke glowingly of how training her dog had significantly improved her life and renewed her sense of purpose—having a constant canine companion helped her to feel less lonely. Nevertheless, there is still a need for Bravehound dogs to be allowed into premises throughout Scotland; at the moment, they are prohibited. Organisations such as Bravehound allow veterans to stay connected with people in similar situations long after their military service is over.

This morning, in Edinburgh, I attended the Ministry of Defence disability pension review panel for another Bravehound veteran—I am glad to say it was successful—and saw how essential it was for the review board to understand the effects on him from his operational tours with the Royal Engineers’ bomb disposal team in Gorazde in Bosnia with the United Nations forces in the 1990s. He struggles with life today. Nevertheless, he is grateful to his Bravehound dog, which has saved him from suicide on several occasions when he has been left feeling dejected and lonely.

Of course, veterans are not the only group to experience loneliness: new parents, university students, senior citizens and many others feel similar isolation. Without a support network of family or community, it can be easy to feel lonely during life’s transitional periods.

The Scottish Government should focus its attention on such times. “A Connected Scotland” recommends volunteering as one of the many ways to ease loneliness, and I whole-heartedly agree. For youth especially, volunteering is an effective way to stem the tide of their own loneliness and to alleviate loneliness in others.

Scotland has a vast network of befriending groups and volunteering opportunities that we can tap into and expand. I call for a national volunteer accreditation scheme to encourage that expansion. I also fully agree with Sandra White that we should set up a national register of organisations that deliver support in Scotland—well done to her for mentioning it.

One way to encourage inclusion is to focus on the hub of the community, to show what our local centres can offer to people who are more susceptible to loneliness. For example, Tesco in Maryhill is training staff members simply to personally greet customers at shops, and community centres can also go an awful long way. The places where we go each week, without a second thought—the local shop, the post office or our child’s football matches—are all places where community members can connect with each other and enjoy social interaction. For the elderly who live alone, that—or when the district nurse comes up the glen once a week—can sometimes be the only interaction that they have in a day, which is one reason why it is a shame that it is becoming more common for bank branches, such as those in Helensburgh and Renfrewshire, and community centres, such as Westerton library near Bearsden, to close.

We must encourage local councils to keep libraries open. Just last week a constituent said to me:

“it is depressing and demoralising to hear of the progressive dismantling of this vital service ... the trend needs to stop and ... reverse.”

She wrote of the bustle of families and neighbours, who are doing more than just checking out books. In the face of financial and community services moving online, there is no replacement for traditional human communication.

At the end of the debate, I hope that we can look forward in order to find the best solution to loneliness.

In conclusion, we need action to stem the tide of social isolation, which includes everyone: our veterans, our senior citizens, our university students, LGBT youth and more. The “A Connected Scotland” report is an encouraging step in the right direction, but it means very little without sustained efforts. I hope to see an increase in measures that create closer and more engaged communities, to see more volunteers in the community and for people to be aware of the resources that are available, before it is too late.

As is said—

No, no, no.

Look out for others, not just yourselves.

There you go, that was a long conclusion.

16:29  

I thank the minister for lodging the motion for debate and acknowledge that there have been many excellent speeches from across the chamber. It has been a very interesting debate, which has captured two broad areas. First, what we can implement at a practical level to reduce and tackle loneliness and isolation? Secondly, a broader cultural response is needed—for example, intervening early to mitigate loneliness when it occurs—and we should reflect on the extent to which our society creates environments in which loneliness and social isolation can occur. Although those problems will not necessarily be solved in one year, with one strategy or in one session of Parliament, a desire to solve them should inform our longer-term thinking.

I want to highlight some of the outstanding work that goes on in my constituency. Renfrewshire is home to Roar—reaching older adults in Renfrewshire—which does fantastic work across the local authority. I was pleased to meet a representative from Roar late last year to hear about some of its pioneering work, particularly around reducing falls in older people. Much of that work has taken place through Otago classes. Otago is a form of light exercise that was developed at the medical school at the University of Otago in New Zealand. It is specifically designed to help prevent falls in older people, but it also has the beneficial effect of creating an opportunity for older people to come together and socialise.

Roar has health and wellbeing clubs across Renfrewshire, including in Elderslie in my constituency, at Linwood health centre and at the McKillop institute in Lochwinnoch. Lochwinnoch is home to some other fantastic pioneering efforts. There is a brilliant Lochwinnoch elderly forum, which is led by the indefatigable Anne Nicholl. It is always a highlight of the year to attend the forum’s St Andrew’s lunch. The forum provides a treasured resource for many older people across Lochwinnoch and helps to tackle loneliness and isolation. Its members do not just keep themselves to themselves. They work with the community council, and there are bimonthly tea dances as part of Lochwinnoch’s position as a dementia-friendly village. I have had the pleasure of attending a tea dance, although I have been told that my slosh leaves much to be desired and that I have got a long way to go to match my constituency colleague Mhairi Black. However, I am working on it, and if the minister has an opportunity to come along, maybe we can try and do a dance together, as long as it is not the slosh.

I want to mention some of the other great community facilities in my constituency, such as the old library in Kilbarchan, which provides a fantastic hub. One that I was really looking forward to mentioning was the Barrhead men’s shed and its fantastic chairman Alex Storrie, which get a mention on page 36 of the strategy. I have engaged with the men’s shed in Barrhead over the past 18 months to two years, and I have been very pleased to be able to help it with specific matters relating to its premises. It was a great pleasure to meet Alex Storrie again. He did not remember me, but I remembered him from when I was five or six years old. He has taken his leadership attributes and applied them, as chairman of Barrhead men’s shed, to creating a resource that is much valued by men and women across Barrhead.

Barrhead men’s shed recently celebrated its fifth birthday, and I very much look forward to lodging a motion for a members’ business debate to recognise that anniversary and the men’s shed movement more broadly. I hope that when that motion appears in the Business Bulletin it secures cross-party support and we can all celebrate the fantastic work that men’s sheds do in communities across Scotland, particularly in tackling loneliness and isolation.

Alex Storrie’s words are well worth sharing. He said:

“Our members are proud and delighted to help the local community, schools and nurseries and retirement homes, but most importantly take time to share, help and listen to our members who are living in social isolation. As one of our widowed members said, ‘loneliness is a disease’. Let’s all help to eradicate this disease in our society.”

I have spoken with members of the men’s shed, and the impact that it has on them is clearly profound. Many say that they do not know what they would be doing if that resource was not there—some say that they would either go to the pub or sit at home watching television. Those personal testaments are incredibly powerful and underline the case for continuing to support the men’s shed movement, and I am glad that the Scottish Government has committed to do that.

I co-convene the cross-party group on carers with Mark Griffin, who was right to highlight the fact that eight out of 10 carers report feeling lonely and socially isolated. The Government has taken positive action with the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016, but we know that there is more that we can do.

One area that is incredibly important is the carer positive employer scheme, on which I secured a members’ business debate last year. I again encourage members to take up that issue, which is about promoting positive employment practices that allow carers to continue in work. We know that the professional and personal relationships that can be formed in the workplace make being in employment a very powerful and effective way to tackle isolation and loneliness. As we move from 700,000 people to more than 1 million people who will have caring and work responsibilities in Scotland over the coming decades, it is imperative that all employers—large and small—do all that they can to ensure that their workplace environments support carers so that they can stay in employment.

Many well-made points have been made about the two species of digital isolation: digital isolation from not being connected and not being able to access the internet; and digital saturation, whereby people’s lives become entirely mediated through social media forums, whether Twitter or Facebook, and through which artificial relationships can form that can have a damaging and negative effect, as has been highlighted.

I thank the Government for bringing forward the debate, and I look forward to seeing the implementation of the strategy over the coming months and years.

16:35  

I want to pick up on Sandra White’s comment that she was sorry that the Labour Party criticised the strategy. No Labour member has criticised the strategy today; indeed, we have made it clear that, whether or not our amendment gets support, we will support the Government’s motion, because we have consistently supported the strategy and we have consistently said that loneliness and isolation have a knock-on effect on health, including mental health, and wellbeing. For the avoidance of doubt, we absolutely support the strategy.

What we have said today and what our amendment tries to put forward is that it is really difficult to implement the strategy at the same time as failed austerity is impacting on communities and public services. Many of the organisations that have written in or sent briefings have said that.

I remember quoting the North Ayrshire-based charity Food Train last year. It described the strategy as

“just words on a page”—[Official Report, 18 January 2018; c 75.]

without funding for lifeline services. We see that no matter where we go.

The £1 million investment is obviously welcome, but that is against a £300-odd million cut in local authority budgets, the majority of which will lead to cuts in services such as many of those that have been mentioned. Members have talked about the cut to public toilets. They are among the first services to go in many councils, because it is an easy cut to make. Highland Council is the latest council to say that, like Scottish Borders Council and many others, it will cut toilets. Age Scotland and Age UK have produced reports telling us about the devastating impact on older people who go to shopping areas of the failure to have public toilets. Again, that is an issue isolation.

Fife Gingerbread says that it will have to pay off more than 20 workers and that it cannot continue to support 739 families. That is not because of a cut from the council but because, although it had secured project funding through the Scottish Government, the council and other organisations, that project funding is coming to an end. The £1 million spending in the strategy that we have talked about is to fund projects. The problem with funding projects is that, when the money comes to an end, if there is no core funding to support those projects, they will fall and all the good work that is going on will fall with them.

I say to Sandra White and others that there needs to be a bit of reality in respect of the strategy. We can have all the strategies in the world—the Parliament is good at adopting strategies—but, if people do not have the resources to support their implementation, they become meaningless.

Does Alex Rowley agree that the Smith commission recommended that the Scottish Parliament should have control of all welfare, but the Labour Party did not support that? Would that not have been helpful? He talks about austerity, but he must remember that his colleagues at Westminster supported that along with the Tories.

Sandra White can keep going back to who supported what and when, but I have always been very clear about my support for devolution. Those of us who support much stronger devolution for Scotland and for this place would say that if there is an overwhelming case that we need certain powers in this Parliament, we should have those powers. Whether they are powers over welfare, immigration or a number of other areas, if the case can be made to have them, they should be brought to this Parliament. I think that that view is widely supported across Scotland by people on all sides of the argument.

In its briefing, Inclusion Scotland said:

“Rationing of social care further increases social isolation amongst disabled people.”

When it comes to social care, we know what happens in councils: in order to make cuts, they change the eligibility criteria.

On Monday morning, the BBC Radio Scotland programme “Call Kaye” discussed how difficult it is for people to get social care support packages. Many who apply for such packages are being turned down—that is how much the eligibility criteria have changed. It is the same with lunch clubs for older people. The eligibility criteria have changed, so a person who does not have dementia or is not in the most dire need of support does not get to go to those clubs any more. That was not the case a decade ago.

We have to wake up to the reality that austerity impacts on front-line services in a way that will not help to achieve the Government’s strategy. We also need to accept that austerity is not an economic decision; if it were, it would be a terrible one. Austerity is a political decision, which was made by the Government in Westminster. It is a political decision to pass cuts from austerity—and additional cuts—on to local councils. That is where the impact is happening.

Home-Start Scotland produced an interesting briefing for the debate. It said:

“We also highlighted the threat of closure and contraction of local Home-Start family support services as local authorities wrestle with difficult budgeting decisions and the Big Lottery Fund’s grants budget for Scotland falls yet again.”

The Royal College of General Practitioners also produced a briefing that spoke about the need for more funding for local services.

Let there be no doubt that there is consensus in support of the Government strategy, but the people out there know that real-terms cuts are taking place in local community services across Scotland. They will reach the point of thinking that this place is full of hot air because we cannot deliver strategies such as the connected Scotland strategy. We can do that only by recognising that we need to halt austerity. Austerity is bad for communities, it is bad for Scotland and it needs to be halted.

16:42  

I welcome the opportunity to close for the Scottish Conservatives in what has been quite a valuable debate on the problems of social isolation and loneliness. There have been many well-considered and insightful points raised. Generally, it seems that the whole chamber is united in its desire to see levels of social isolation and loneliness reduced in Scotland.

The strategy document, “A Connected Scotland”, which was released last month, has enjoyed cross-party support—and rightly so, because it is based on community-led proposals for dealing with social isolation and loneliness. I am pleased to see that several of the points raised in the document align with those expressed in the Scottish Conservatives’ “Loneliness Action Plan” that was released last month and to which Annie Wells referred.

“A Connected Scotland” paints a vivid picture of the problem of loneliness and its statistics, many of which have been presented to the chamber today. They highlight the fact that loneliness can affect people of all ages and social backgrounds. It is reassuring that the Scottish Government has acknowledged that. Given the subjective nature of loneliness, it is important that local groups are encouraged and empowered to tailor support to the needs of their community.

The minister and a number of colleagues have emphasised the importance of volunteering in addressing the issues to do with loneliness. I will highlight an initiative that I have come across: volunteering for wellbeing. It began in 2017 as a joint enterprise between Volunteer Centre Borders and Borders NHS with the aim of tackling loneliness. The difference with the initiative is that it matches voluntary positions to those who have described themselves as lonely. Once they are in roles, the volunteers—the people who felt lonely—have regular meetings to assess how their voluntary work has eased their loneliness. That initiative is exactly the sort of thing that is needed to combat loneliness in communities. It tailors its support to each case and it seeks to help the volunteer and the locality.

Annie Wells said that 40 per cent of young people and 79 per cent of adults will experience loneliness. That means that pretty much all of us in the chamber and in the building are likely to experience loneliness at some point. It is important to be clear about the difference between being lonely and being alone. Loneliness feels draining, is distracting and upsetting and can have a significant impact on someone’s health and wellbeing, whereas being alone is a desired solitude that can feel peaceful, creative and restorative—as I come from a large family, I can very much attest to that. Understanding the difference will be important as we move forward, because that will be the key to facilitating people’s happiness.

Several members talked about the impact of social media, which I feel strongly about. We must not underestimate the importance of human contact in preventing loneliness. Annie Wells talked about social media; Alex Cole-Hamilton described how modern life has contracted social contact; and Alison Johnstone said that it is a sad paradox that, in a world in which we have even more means to communicate with each other, loneliness is increasing. We must think seriously about the things that have an impact on our social interaction.

Alexander Stewart talked about GPs’ important role in dealing with loneliness. A vast number of people go to see their GP simply to have somebody to talk to. I welcome the recently announced national implementation group—the announcement is so recent that I got the minister’s letter about it only this morning, so it is hot off the press. It is a great idea, but I am slightly concerned that GPs are not on the membership list. The minister might want to consider including as a member the organisation that represents GPs, as they are the first port of call for many lonely people.

That takes me nicely on to social prescribing. The Royal College of General Practitioners made the point that it would really help GPs to have a list of places to which they could send people. The royal college did not use the term “social prescribing”, but such an approach, in several formats, has been mentioned today. We need to give social prescribing more attention.

In my region, I recently visited Age Scotland in Edinburgh and witnessed its community connecting service in action. That is manned by fabulous volunteers who not only put older people in touch with a list of local organisations, but follow up to check that the older person had the confidence to continue and that the arrangement worked out. We might want to look at that kind of thing.

Absolutely. I spent quite a lot of time working in the third sector, where we had a number of iterations of a list of all the things that were available in communities. That has never been taken on board nationally and has never been systematic. The Royal College of General Practitioners said that, if a GP could look at a system and say, “Ah—Mrs Jones, you could go to this club,” or give someone a chitty to go somewhere, that would make a big difference. Perhaps we should think about that.

Sandra White said that there is no register of the groups that everyone has spoken about, which is true—although, given the invites that the minister has received today, I believe that she will have a long list of organisations to visit.

We have heard about a number of important areas that we need to pick up on. My colleague Maurice Corry talked about how lonely and isolated ex-servicemen can feel, which is to do with a change of life. When people have massive changes in their lives, it is important for them to have a point of contact that they can deal with.

I see that I am rapidly running out of time, so I will be brief. My colleague Jeremy Balfour, and others, talked about how disabled people can feel incredibly isolated because, as a result of stigma, they fear going out and being involved in society and because they have a major lack of opportunity in the employment market. We all know that our employment has a big part to play in our connection with the world, so that is something else that we need to look at.

Presiding Officer, I know that you are going to wave at me, but—

You must conclude.

I will wind up by saying that this is a very important issue, and there are lots of things that we can do to address it. I hope that parties can work together to do so.

I call Christina McKelvie to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Government.

16:50  

I have been very proud to lead today’s debate on the Scottish Government’s first national strategy on tackling social isolation and loneliness. The liveliness and passion of the debate are most welcome, and I hope that they continue throughout and beyond the lifetime of our strategy. The many invitations for me to visit fantastic examples of community projects included one to teach Tom Arthur to do the slosh. Who could turn that down?

At the outset of my closing remarks, I want to put on the table that I am happy to meet members to discuss issues raised in today’s debate and any of the impacts that we might have on social isolation and loneliness.

It was a privilege to take up the mantle of my colleague Jeane Freeman on this agenda. I know that, following her work, the Government was pleased to lead the way, as the first Administration in the United Kingdom to have produced a strategy addressing such issues. Members have raised many examples of issues, and I want to get through as many of them as possible.

Michelle Ballantyne, Alison Johnstone, Sandra White, Emma Harper and others raised the issue of a national information resource or register. The Scottish Government has acknowledged that, and the challenges of sharing such information, and has already taken them on board. We are absolutely committed to working with third sector interfaces to look at the ways in which they do that and to explore best practice. Voluntary Action South Lanarkshire’s locator tool is a perfect example of that.

We were delighted to see the UK and Welsh Governments join efforts to build a more connected society, with their respective publications of a strategy and a discussion paper. We look forward to getting to work on the next stage of our strategy, including looking at the many great ideas that were mentioned in today’s debate. We continue to look for the best practice and the best ideas across the piece.

Like Maurice Corry, I take this opportunity to thank the individuals, communities and organisations who contributed their time, effort and ideas to our consultation and engagement phases. As we heard from Mr Corry, organisations such as Bravehound—a great example—can be absolute life savers for our veterans. I hope that the strategy and its ambitions will resonate with those who contributed and that, through our commitments, they will feel supported in their efforts to create connected, cohesive communities.

Ruth Maguire, Tom Arthur and Emma Harper gave us a real insight into the value and positive impact of men’s sheds. I agree with them, and the Scottish Government is working with such organisations.

Another great example was raised by Alex Cole-Hamilton, who told us how Prostate Cancer UK is working with William Hill, with which I have worked very closely in my constituency. Just last week, I met its representatives to talk about the work that it is doing and how we can build social isolation and loneliness measures into that.

I particularly want to thank befriending networks. Alasdair Allan gave us a clear insight on those and talked about how valuable their work is in rural and island communities. I also thank organisations such as Voluntary Health Scotland, Age Scotland, Samaritans, the campaign to end loneliness and veterans’ organisations that have worked to shape the strategy and whose day-to-day work directly helps to combat the issues that we have discussed today.

The Scottish Government is aware of issues of geography, which Emma Harper and Alasdair Allan brought up in relation to islands and rurality. Working with the farming community is a great idea, and I am also looking forward to hearing the choir when it comes to the Parliament.

As we have just heard very clearly, a broad range of organisations is interested in this area, and they show a real commitment to ending the impact of social isolation and loneliness. Some such organisations have been around for a long time—such as Glasgow’s Golden Generation, which was rightly lauded by Sandra White—while others are very new and work in innovative ways. I believe that together, across Government and the public, third and private sectors, we can build a more connected Scotland in which we treat people with kindness and compassion and everyone is given the chance to flourish as valued members of our society.

Many members, including Fulton MacGregor, raised issues relating to people, especially young people, with disabilities. The shining stars additional support needs theatre school sounds absolutely amazing, and I look forward to receiving my invitation to visit it. As he always does in debates on the subject, Jeremy Balfour raised similar concerns on accessibility and how we might do things differently. I was very happy to support the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland with its production of an easy-read version of the strategy, which is a great addition to what we currently do.

I draw the attention of Jeremy Balfour and other members to “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Employment Action Plan”, which we published—I looked this up so that I would get all the details right—in December 2018. As well as consulting on a target for the employment of disabled people in the public sector, we held a congress on the disability employment gap that involved disabled people, employers and unions. In addition, fair start Scotland, which started in April 2018, provides employment support for disabled people. We are committed to publishing information on the disability pay gap, equal pay policy and occupational segregation for disabled people. I hope that that gives Jeremy Balfour an insight into some of the action that we taking to address the concerns that he always raises in the chamber.

I am glad that today’s announcement of the cross-sectoral national implementation group has been welcomed, and I look forward to chairing the group and establishing clear plans for developing and delivering on our ambitions. I am sure that Alexander Stewart, along with every member who is here, will be pleased to hear that I will also lead work to strengthen a cross-governmental approach to the issue. I will chair a steering group of ministerial colleagues whose portfolios include mental health; children and young people; local government, housing and planning; and business, fair work and skills. I am sure that that cross-Government approach will be welcomed.

We have all acknowledged that loneliness is a public health issue. What role does the minister see the new public health body in Scotland having in combating loneliness?

That is another aspect of the work that we are continuing to develop. I look forward to working with the new body to address loneliness.

In her speech, Alison Johnstone made some clear points about how we should tackle what is a public health issue, and Michelle Ballantyne mentioned the RCGP, which we are working with—indeed, I met the college at the end of last year. We have taken on board all of its recommendations and we will continue to progress them.

Alison Johnstone also raised the issue of transport, which I do not intend to go into detail on, as it is a huge issue. However, we know that accessible transport is vital to people’s ability to meet face to face and stay socially active, so we are carrying out a review of the national transport strategy from the point of view of accessibility to make sure that we plan future policy appropriately and provide better options.

Many amazing suggestions have been made in the debate. I would like to remind everybody that the University of the Third Age, which is a movement of retired and semi-retired individuals that encourages lifelong learning and social connection, is hosting an exhibition in the Parliament from today until 31 January. I look forward to seeing members there.

We recognise that the connected Scotland strategy is the first of many steps on a joint journey. Alasdair Allan gave us an insight into the pitfalls of social media. As well as talking about digital connectedness, many members talked about how digital technology can disconnect people and encouraged us to build up our communities. We are committed to taking time to reflect on what is working well. We will report on progress every two years, and we hope to gain an ever-increasing understanding of the complex issues of social isolation and loneliness and what works in tackling them.

Mention has been made of community link workers. Pilots are under way in Glasgow and Dundee, and the Government has committed to providing 250 community link workers by the end of the parliamentary session.

I turn to the Labour amendment. I have sympathy for the position of Alex Rowley and the Labour Party. We have all seen the impact that cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget have had, but I am sorry to say that I cannot support Alex Rowley’s amendment, because I am not supportive of the way in which it sets out his argument. I agree with him on the damage that the UK Government’s continued programme of austerity has caused, which countless organisations and the UN rapporteur have pointed out.

As well as vociferously calling for an end to austerity, the Scottish Government has sought to protect the people of Scotland from its worst impacts. Our progressive tax policies have meant that the Scottish budget is around £570 million higher. Between 2010-11 and 2019-20, Scotland’s discretionary resource budget allocation will have reduced in real terms by nearly £2 billion, yet our decisions on tax and borrowing, which are always made with the people of Scotland at the forefront of our mind, have meant that we have been able to reduce the real-terms reduction in our total fiscal budget from 6 per cent to 3.8 per cent. In the process, we have generated an additional £712 million for investment in public services. We take hard decisions to protect people from austerity, to say nothing of the £125 million that we spend every year to mitigate the effect of welfare cuts and protect people on low incomes. How many other things could we spend that £125 million on? I am sure that we have lots of ideas.

Mark Griffin raised some really interesting points on how we use social security to prevent and tackle social isolation. I heard those points and I am sure that the cabinet secretary heard them, too. We will discuss them further.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this important issue and our ambitious strategy before the Parliament. Sandra White was absolutely right to say that all of us here should be proud of ourselves. I am very proud of the valuable contributions that have helped to inform the processes that I am taking forward and I look forward to working with colleagues across the Parliament in building a connected Scotland.