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Legislating on loneliness: limitless or lonesome?

Date:6 NOV 2018
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OLWEN DUTTON, partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP, discusses the key aspects of the government’s loneliness strategy. Dutton also considers any potential ethical issues stemming from the social prescription aspect of the strategy, whereby GPs will be able to refer patients who are experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services.
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What is the context of this strategy being introduced?

On 17 January 2018, Theresa May remarked that for many people ‘loneliness is the sad reality of modern life’. Research undertaken by the Jo Cox commission on loneliness indicates that more than nine million people in the UK always or often feel lonely. Additionally, 75% of GPs who took part in a recent government survey indicated that they see between one and five patients a day who are suffering with loneliness. It is not surprising, then, that in the current climate of a weakening NHS, Theresa May has labelled loneliness ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’.

Numerous factors have been conducive in creating the culture of loneliness in the UK today. These includes, among other things:

  1. the rise of social media and a digital society—this is likely to contribute to young persons aged 16–24 being identified by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as more likely to report feeling lonely than any other age group

  2. it is well known that people now live longer than previous generations, and often with dementia or as widows/widowers on the edge of society—accordingly, those who act as carers for loved ones, and those who suffer from disability or ill health were also identified by the ONS as more likely to suffer from loneliness

  3. the breakdown of close neighbourhoods and communities has been one of the defining movements of the post-industrial revolution era—consequently, those who do not chat to neighbours or feel as though they belong to their neighbourhood, were identified by the ONS as likely to suffer from the negative effects of loneliness

Several government initiatives have already been put in place to assist an increasingly lonely UK population. These initiatives include improved mental health support and a programme that aims to convert unused spaces into green areas for use by the community. The efforts and initiatives already in place culminate in the appointment of Tracey Couch as Minister for Loneliness and the creation of the loneliness strategy, which was published on 15 October 2018.

What are some of the key aspects of this strategy?

The loneliness strategy focuses on reducing the risk of people feeling lonely by adopting a ‘prevention over cure’ approach. Generally, the strategy concentrates on three key aspects:

  1. the need to better understand the causes of loneliness and how it can be prevented

  2. introducing loneliness as a primary focus of government policy making

  3. the importance of fostering a national awareness of loneliness that will help breakdown the stigma surrounding it

The strategy sets out many noteworthy initiatives, including, among others:

  1. a commitment to improve how organisations and services connect vulnerable people who are at risk of, or suffer from, loneliness with support by enabling GPs to offer social prescriptions

  2. the creation of a national database of local social prescribing schemes, and social prescribing best practice guidance

  3. the carrying out of data pilots to enable easier access to information on loneliness support groups and services

  4. the expansion of the National Trading Standards ‘scam marshal’ scheme to improve the resilience of lonely and/or isolated elderly persons to fraud and financial abuse

  5. a commitment to ensuring that the UK’s future transport system is inclusive and can overcome issues such as isolation and social exclusion

  6. the undertaking of research into the positive impacts of community-led housing and cohousing solutions to loneliness

Who does the government envisage are going to be involved in implementing the strategy and, most importantly, fund it? Is this coming from existing budgets from local authorities, or from charities?

Many different organisations will be involved in implementing the loneliness strategy, including health services, businesses, local authorities, charities and community groups. Principally, loneliness will be addressed in the ministerial portfolios of multiple different government departments, such as:

  1. the Ministry for Housing, Community and Local Government

  2. the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

  3. the Department for Transport

  4. the Department for Health and Social Care

  5. the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and

  6. the Department for Education

In addition, numerous UK businesses have signed up to the ‘employer pledge’ whereby businesses pledge to provide additional support for employee’s in relation to their health and social wellbeing. The government is also partnering with technology companies to establish ways in which the effect of technology on the increase in loneliness can be prevented. Lastly, the government is piloting a scheme with the Royal Mail wherein postal workers will engage with isolated persons during their daily delivery rounds.

The funding behind the loneliness strategy stems directly from the government. Theresa May announced in June that £20m will be raised to support charities and community groups that aim to bring lonely people together. This funding includes a new £11.5m ‘building connections fund’ which has been created as a partnership between the Big Lottery Fund, the government and the Co-op Foundation. The money from the big connections fund will be distributed to applicants, be they voluntary, community, or charitable organisations, who strive to eradicate loneliness. Further, the big connections fund will finance technology projects working to connect isolated people in remote areas by improving transport connections. Other organisations have also committed to funding the loneliness strategy. The People’s Postcode Lottery has devoted £5m in grants to charities that aim to eradicate loneliness. The Health Lottery will also contribute £4m to UK charities that work to better the social links available to those in disadvantaged areas.

What are some of the potential ethical issues surrounding the social prescription aspect of the strategy? How can the government overcome these effectively?

Some argue that social prescriptions will create a problematic narrative around a person’s need for assistance with integrating into social groups—social integration being medically prescribed may cause a stigma to surround the individual, which may in turn impact the quality of any interactions they have with others in the community. To overcome this issue, the government’s commitment to tackling the stigma around loneliness will be crucial. In addition, it will be crucial for the government to encourage communities to actively engage with loneliness projects.

Further, social prescriptions could have significant safeguarding implications. The government will need to ensure that vulnerable persons who are sent into the community on social prescriptions are safeguarded against harm. The creation of a transparent loneliness services database, better links between GP surgeries and local/community services, and the roll-out of best practice guidance for groups offering support to lonely persons will help to ensure that vulnerable individuals are uninterruptedly supported through the system from GP surgery to community group.

What other steps are the government considering combatting loneliness?

The government state that they are ‘committed to long-lasting action to tackle the problem of loneliness’. Moreover, it is apparent that plans are in place that allow for the continuation, improvement and furtherance of proposals and actions set out in the strategy. The first step in ensuring the long-term success of the strategy is captured by the government’s pledge to create a sound evidence base on loneliness. The government will analyse the impact of the policies set out in the strategy, conduct further surveys to collect loneliness data, and appoint an independent evaluator to support grantees of the building connections fund to evaluate the impact of their loneliness projects.

Moreover, the government will take steps to ensure that a widespread and cross-government/cross-sector engagement with the prevention of loneliness is retained. Starting from 2019/20, government departments will be required to report on the steps they have taken to address loneliness in their annual single departmental plans. In addition, the cross-governmental loneliness action group will publish an annual report detailing the progress made on the loneliness agenda across the government.

Olwen Dutton would like to thank Anna Dearden, trainee solicitor at Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP, for her help with this interview.

Interviewed by Varsha Patel.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

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