Second Memorial Lecture, 31st October 2017: “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate”

Delivered by Rachel Reeves MP on 31st October 2017 at William Booth College, Champion Park, London


Good afternoon everyone.

I am honoured to be here today to give the second Tony Lynes Memorial Lecture on the subject of loneliness.

My thanks to the Southwark Pensioners Centre who have organised this event and to all of you for coming along today in honour of Tony Lynes.

I wasn’t lucky enough to know Tony but I do know his daughter Hannah Lynes who was the women’s officer at my university and our paths crossed again at an NCT class.

And I was delighted to be invited to give the second Tony Lynes Memorial Lecture in honour of Hannah’s father. Someone much revered for his commitment to others, particularly on the rights of women.

I wanted to begin by showing you part of, what I’m sure you’ll agree is a moving film – “The Age of Loneliness”

Something from that footage that stands out for me – was the woman who said that “you can only feel lonely, when you are lonely.”

For me, this brought to mind, the ways in which our bodies send us warning signs when certain needs are not being met.

Like hunger is nature’s way of telling us that we need food.

Thirst warns us to find water and drink.

Pain signals that our body is sick or damaged and needs repair.

Loneliness is also a warning sign.

But I’m not sure any of us would want to completely eradicate loneliness.

Because if we never felt loneliness, that need for human interaction – then we wouldn’t know what it felt like to feel connected again.

But for too many, loneliness is a feeling that never quite seems to go away.

Loneliness is today’s silent epidemic

it is far too chronic and acute – for far too many.

Loneliness can affect us all in different ways.

You can be surrounded by loved ones but still feel lonely

or you might be thousands of miles away from home and feel it too.

Statistics suggest 80% of people have experienced loneliness.

The harm loneliness does to our nation’s health is both physical and mental. gran

Just the other week Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chief of the Royal College of GPs said that loneliness can be as bad for your health as a chronic long-term condition.

She also talked in context of this about why it is vital to give doctors across the country the funding they need.

We can’t expect to ask our GPs to do more to tackle loneliness if we’re not going to resource it.

As was said in the film, loneliness could be killing us but we are not talking about it.

One person did talk about it though.

My friend and colleague Jo Cox

For Jo, however big and complex a problem was, there was always a solution.

And loneliness is a big and complex problem.

So today I’ll follow Jo’s lead.

And it is in my role, carrying on her legacy as part of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness that I am speaking to you today.

Tony Lynes

But first let me say a little more about Tony.

Tony Lynes, as I’m sure most of you will know, like my friend Jo, was a doer.

And also similarly to Jo, his political instincts were many years ahead of his time.

I know Tony was very involved with the Southwark Pensioners group – he set up various groups for older people, including an “explorers” group which organises regular outings, a choir and a recorder group. (I’m sure they play it better than my little ones!)

Tony’s work in this community in his later years might not necessarily be interpreted as doing something to tackle loneliness but in effect that is what it was. It was action to not only connect – but re-connect people together.

But of course as you will know, Tony is most revered for his work combating child poverty as part of the Child Poverty Action Group. And I wanted to allude to that today.

Tony Lynes was rather unique for his day in working almost exclusively for some brilliant Labour women. One of the reasons I know about them is when researching for my book “Alice in Westminster”, and for my forthcoming book “Women in Westminster” where I focus on those women MPs whose achievements have been overlooked by history.

I read about how Tony was a civil service adviser to Peggy Herbison (minister of pensions and national insurance).

Apparently he was told that he wasn’t allowed to ask to speak to her; she had to invite him to speak instead!

So, Tony would resort to ringing her at home and asking her to invite him to speak.

Staff of MPs today don’t realise how easy they have it!

While working for Peggy, Tony spent a year writing a memo on family allowances which was the beginnings of monumental Labour reforms in the area of family and child poverty.

Tony was subsequently an advisor to one of the strongest women MPs of our time in what was a hugely male dominated environment.

I speak of course of Barbara Castle.

Like my friend Jo, Barbara was an outspoken, driven and principled Yorkshire lass –

And like Jo, she also happened to be a Labour MP too.

Together Tony and Barbara pioneered the state earnings-related pension scheme and helped pilot the Child Benefit Bill – a non-means tested, universal payment for every child for the first time.

Tony’s work in these areas were of course the precursors to the tax credit system, and other supplementary benefits brought in under subsequent Labour governments.

Changes that lifted millions out of poverty.

And issues I have done my best to champion while representing my constituency of Leeds West and in my time in the shadow Treasury team and on the Treasury Select Committee.

Tony was ahead of his time on his proposals to link pensions to earnings and in terms of our thinking on the economy – on both the left and the right

So I’m sure you’ll agree that his legacy lives strong today.

Commission and loneliness

As I’ve alluded to already, Jo Cox was just as committed to the causes she championed.

Jo came into Parliament in 2015, wanting to do something about loneliness.

For her it was personal. She had suffered loneliness at university, like many of us do. She’d seen it out and about with her grandad who was a postman, when she accompanied him at work.

She saw that for too many, her grandad was often their only interaction that day.

Just weeks into her time as an MP, she recruited Seema Kennedy the MP for South Ribble and another of the new 2015 intake to set up a cross party commission on loneliness with 13 organisations, ranging from Age UK, to the Coop, Refugee Action and British Red Cross.

Jo was essentially a practical person whose natural instincts were to work cross party.

As she said in her maiden speech we have far More in Common than that which divides us.

When Jo was so cruelly taken from us, Seema recruited me to join her as co-chair of the commission and together continue Jo’s legacy.

Because of course Loneliness is one of those rare issues in public discourse that unites myself with my Tory colleagues!

Because we know we have to act.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the UK is the loneliness capital of Europe.

Perhaps Beveridge would recognise it today, alongside poverty – as the sixth giant social evil.

Jo said that “young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate” and the footage you saw in that film speaks to that.

For some the phases of loneliness are fleeting.

For others, they are chronic and debilitating, they can last for years.

Triggered often by moments of transition: the birth of a child, retirement, relationship breakdown, bereavement, seeking asylum, starting university, changing schools, moving home.

Older people

Loneliness is not just an older person’s issue, although too many older people in the UK do feel lonely and invisible between four walls.

Age UK research showed that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely, and that half a million people over 60 usually spend every day alone.

Our survey we commissioned with Gransnet for our age spotlight in March found that:

56% of those who said they are lonely have never spoken about their loneliness to anyone

71% say that their friends and family would be astonished to hear that they feel this way.

93% of Gransnet users admit it is possible to feel lonely even when you have a partner or family, with 82% agreeing that talking about feelings of loneliness is much easier when they are online and anonymous.

Loneliness surrounds all of us, from the quiet kid in class to the high-powered executive, from the new mum to the family carer, hiding in plain sight.

It is not simply someone else’s problem.

For our spotlight on men, our partners RVS and Independent Age found that 26 is the age that men think they had the largest group of friends and 38 when they had the smallest.

Of the men that had experienced or are experiencing loneliness the average age to feel most lonely was 35.

I’m sure you’re as surprised as I was by those findings.

The Loneliness Commission has shone a spotlight on a range of groups suffering loneliness – whether it’s the refugee unable to communicate effectively because of a lack of english language provision or the carer who simply doesn’t have the means or the time to leave the house.

For a long time, we saw permanently positive mental health as the norm and mental illness as an aberration. It turned out that that wasn’t true.

And the same applies to loneliness. It may come and go, but it comes to us all. Everyone feels disconnected sometimes, at different stages of our lives.

And Loneliness does not just affect the lonely:

  • Figures suggest that it damages our economy to the tune of £32bn per annum, costing employers alone £2.5bn a year.
  • Lonely people tend to visit GPs more often, stay longer when in hospital and find it harder to cope and heal, adding even more to pressures on the health service.
  • A Public Health England tool found that tackling loneliness through volunteering and social activities – every £1 invested results in an estimated saving to society of £1.26

Community solutions

For Beveridge if he were indeed alive today, perhaps alongside the need for bread and health he would add the need for attachment and connection.

And I’m sure he would follow up on his belief in voluntary action and the importance of giving more power to people.

Like our kind hosts today – the Southwark pensioners who bring people together through a range of activities – a group run by older people, rather than for older people.

It was said that this was the kind of organisation of which Tony thoroughly approved.

And the Southwark Explorers –  founded by Tony himself. Who take large groups of mainly over 50’s to places in the UK and abroad.

Because of course people need to have control over their own lives.

And they need to own their solutions too.

Chronic loneliness will never be overcome if we are relying on outsiders to swoop in, spend five minutes talking to someone before they leave again.

The solutions to loneliness have to come from the communities who experience it firsthand.

Here’s just a few examples I’ve come across over the past year;

  • In Leeds, not far from my constituency, the Robin Lane Health and Wellbeing Centre provides wellbeing activities and a community cafe
  • Motorbikers who take people, including older people out on their bikes for the day in Worcester
  • Men’s Sheds – where men come together for craft and companionship.
  • And through their work as members of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, The Red Cross are working with the Co-op on “Community Connectors”……Training volunteers to reconnect isolated people back into their community;

The work involves anything, whether it’s accompanying someone to a community chess club or if it’s helping them go out and do their shopping.

Because it’s not enough to simply tell someone to “get out more” – for many the barriers are far too complex.

And in my own constituency in Leeds, Bramley Lawn has been transformed from a struggling day centre into a thriving centre running support for people with Dementia, and bringing together young and old in a wide range of activities.


But every part of society has a role to play.

There’s business- which as thriving pillars in our communities can bring about positive action not only through their staff and customers – but in their practices.

And so we want to call on businesses in the marketplace to consider and mitigate the antisocial effects of their practices – including for instance, automation.

For too many automated services not only cause anxiety – but disconnection too.

If a supermarket is to move predominantly to self-service checkouts, it could introduce a slow lane alongside them as well.

Social media

And then there’s the unplanned and often unseen effects of the digital age we now live in.

Social media while a positive force for many, can be all-too-often for others, a stark reminder of our own disconnect.

Social policy

While in social policy, emphasis could be put not just on financial planning for retirement, as is already the case, but on social planning for it too.

  • A National Retirement Service could be created to enable older people to volunteer, rather than feeling like they no longer have a place in society, unable to keep up with the pace of change.
  • We have Teach First for recent graduates why not have “Teach Later” for older people who have so much to offer to our classrooms.

The opportunities are endless


And I’d like also to address the issue of stigma.

It is in society’s interests for us to reconnect – but it is also in our interests to talk and communicate our feelings more.

Some of us even struggle to tell our loved ones how we feel.

Our survey with gransnet showed that the vast majority would rather communicate feelings of loneliness online – rather than to their family or friends.

It might be the quintessentially British thing to do

But it also means too many suffer in silence.

I could finish this by making large scale policy recommendations

But Jo thought that solving the issue of loneliness started with each of us.

That’s why we use the slogans of

#HappyToChat and #StartAConversation.

You would have seen the badges – please do pick one up – only the other day someone tweeted about how after wearing the badge, a man on a bus approached her for a chat. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in days.

We’ve all been there – whether we’re out walking the dog or commenting on the weather. It seems that too often we seek permission, or we need some kind of excuse to talk to people who pass us by on the street.

It’s sad to me that we still need permission to interact with people who we don’t know. We need to be thinking more about how we break down these societal rules and codes.

But it’s not just about conversations. The future needs to be about us all playing a role – whether it’s civil society, business, politicians – they need to be factoring loneliness, isolation and connectedness into their everyday work.

We need communities who look out for one another. That’s why I brought together stakeholders working on loneliness in my constituency a few months ago.

Sometimes it just takes a conversation to get different groups seeing social isolation and loneliness in a new way.

We need to build a more connected society because loneliness can affect anyone at any stage of their life.

So let me close by addressing some of the things that I believe we need.

Why not have:

Social skills training for children – equipping children to reconnect with each other and the world around them

And of course Social prescribing. As the Royal College of GP’s said the other week, loneliness should not be disregarded as a “minor problem”.

One thing people have said to me during my time co-chairing the commission is that GPs are seeing patients book appointments often because they are lonely.

Our GPs need to be supported to give not just clinical prescriptions but social prescriptions too. A social proscription can be anything – from getting them to join their local choir to getting them to join their local pensioners group.

But we need the infrastructure to support it. We need support systems in place so acutely isolated people can be accompanied to such groups. Handing them a prescription they can simply throw in the bin is not enough.

And then there’s planning:

Local planners could work to ensure social spaces are designed to meet the needs of the communities they service

In the same way that planners have to abide with health and safety legislation –

Could they not also ensure that they mitigate against any structural developments that segregate people too.

So there you have it.

I hope that the future of loneliness will consist of things we can barely conceive of at this present time – things we can only dream of at the moment.

These networks and connections never really went away.

We just need to work – each and every one of us to reconnect.

We know that people who are lonely are more likely to die early. So we need to know what works in tackling it. And now I’d really like to hear some of your thoughts on what you think could be the solutions.

Thank you once again for having me here today to honour a great man and stalwart of the Labour movement.

I turn now back to Peter who is going to chair a discussion.

About Tony Lynes

Tony Lynes worked in the field of social security and pensions for over 40 years. After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, he worked with Professor Richard Titmuss at the London School of Economics from 1958 to 1965, became the first full-time secretary of the Child Poverty Action Group in 1966, and was a social security adviser to Labour Secretaries of State from 1974 to 1979. His past publications include books and pamphlets on pensions, the Penguin Guide to Supplementary Benefits, and a weekly column on benefits in New Society and the New Statesman. Until 1997 he assisted Labour shadow social security ministers and he claims to have drafted more (and better) amendments to social security bills than anyone else, alive or dead. In recent years he has been a pensions adviser to the National Pensioners Convention and has worked with pensioners' groups in Southwark (south-east London). His other interests include music - in his "retirement" he runs the CYM Library (the music library of the Centre for Young Musicians), which lends sets of choral, orchestral and band music to schools and amateur music groups in all parts of the UK.
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