Seema Kennedy is the Conservative Member of Parliament for South Ribble.
In the Spring of 2016, Jo Cox approached me with a proposal. She was setting up a commission on loneliness and wanted me to chair it with her, as she knew that I had already campaigned on isolation and loneliness. From our very first meeting it was clear that Jo was a woman with passion, purpose and just as importantly, a plan. From her own experience and through her work in Batley and Spen, Jo could see that loneliness was becoming a silent epidemic in our nation and was determined that the Commission would yield tangible results.
Having been employed by third sector organisations for most of her working life, she knew that too many well-meaning commissions in the past had produced reports which would then lie unopened on a policymaker’s shelf. She wanted to achieve something practical. Most of the thirteen partner organisations of the Commission were already on board by the summer and plans were taking shape when Jo was murdered on 16 June. I approached Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West, who had given a moving tribute to Jo in Parliament, and she agreed to take forward the work with me.
So along with Rachel, other parliamentarians, and the partner organisations, we are coming together to expose the growing crisis of loneliness and trying to find ways to overcome it. The Commission will shine a spotlight on different groups in society and explore why and how they experience loneliness and what practical steps can be taken to combat loneliness in that cohort.
The first spotlight period is on business, with others over the course of the year including men, carers and children. Throughout the Commission there will be a focus on what we can do as individuals, what business can do and what answers government might have. Each spotlight period will produce or examine research to look more closely into how the cohort affected comes to experience loneliness, how it affects their mental and physical wellbeing and the social and economic ripple effects which flow from there. It will examine examples of different projects and interventions which are already taking place but which could be magnified and multiplied across the country, as well as volunteering opportunities and small steps we can take as citizens and good neighbours.
This work will provide the basis of a manifesto with policy suggestions for government which will be published in December.
Almost everyone has experienced loneliness at some point in their lives but feeling lonely becomes a real problem when it becomes chronic and when for whatever reason a person cannot take action to address it. It is then that substantial impacts on mental and physical health occur and significant costs for businesses, state and wider society develop. A new study by the Co-op and the British Red Cross reveals that over nine million people across all adult ages are either always or often lonely and that between ten and 15 per cent of Britons experience chronic loneliness. The British habit of putting a brave face on it means that often people cannot express that they are lonely and reach out to others to ask for companionship and help.
This is worrying because chronic loneliness has significant health impacts. Research has shown that chronic loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For older people it is associated with an increased risk of dementia, strokes and heart attacks and a higher use of medication. Lonely individuals are more likely to visit their GP, use Accident and Emergency services and be admitted earlier into residential care. All these are significant costs to the state’s finances. With a growing, ageing population and more people living alone, it is an issue which could have massive implications if we do not take steps to reduce loneliness radically.
The good news is that there is already a body of robust research which shows that locally-led interventions can have a significant effect on reducing loneliness. Innovative programmes are in every part of the country. The Men in Sheds programme gives men an opportunity to meet and do woodwork together. It has been such a success that it is rolling out all over the country and some areas are now inviting women, too. Key Youth in Leyland in my constituency provides young adults who have experienced the isolation of homelessness a welcoming environment to meet other young people. Forward Assist works with veterans in the North East to reduce social isolation and promote community engagement with other veterans.
Loneliness is often triggered by transition points – parenthood, retirement, bereavement – but there are ways we can all build connections and resilience through our lives to face them. Using the idea “Start a Conversation”, the Commission hopes to mobilise the public to help themselves, whether it be talking to a neighbour, visiting a grandparent or volunteering for one of the partner organisations. The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission is a call to action. At its heart is a belief that, as Jo said in her maiden speech, there is more in common than that which divides us, and that working together – individuals, government and civil society – we can end loneliness, one conversation at a time.