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Women and Equalities

Volume 604: debated on Thursday 14 January 2016

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Child Poverty

1. What assessment she has made of the effect on equality of recent changes to the Government’s definition of child poverty.

(903004)

Before I begin, may I, on behalf of the whole House, welcome the new female First Minister in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, to her role and wish her all the very best? I am sure the whole House will also want to offer its support to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who made his personal statement yesterday.

The Government have not changed the definition of child poverty. As the Prime Minister set out on Monday, we are committed to attacking the root causes of poverty and improving children’s life chances. In the spring, we will publish a comprehensive life chances strategy. Our proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill introduce new measures on worklessness and educational attainment.

I thank the Secretary of State for her comments. Those of us on the Scottish National party Benches agree with what she said about the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and the First Minister for Northern Ireland.

If we are only talking about additional measures to tackle poverty, I agree that they would be useful. However, it is clear that the Welfare Reform and Work Bill abandons the poverty reduction targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010. Given that 64% of children living in poverty are in working families, does the Minister agree with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the End Child Poverty Coalition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Resolution Foundation that income assessment must be retained? Otherwise, the new measures will remove children from poverty in statistics only and not in reality. That is a cynical manoeuvre.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s last remarks. We remain absolutely committed to tackling child poverty and making sure that as many children as possible do not grow up affected by the blight by poverty. Since 2010, the number of children growing up in workless families has fallen by 480,000 to a record low. As I said, we want to tackle the root causes of poverty, and worklessness and educational attainment, both of which we are measuring, make a critical difference to whether a child grows up in poverty and continues to live in poverty throughout their life.

Since 2010 I have seen more people destitute, homeless and dependent on food banks in my constituency. Do the Government understand that changing internationally agreed definitions of poverty will seem like a cynical attempt to mask the true condition of Britain?

I also suspect that the hon. Gentleman sees more people in work and being helped into work in his constituency. As I said, we remain absolutely committed to tackling the root causes of poverty—worklessness and low educational attainment—and to making sure that children do not grow up affected by the blight of poverty. He will probably agree that an arbitrary consideration of whether somebody is over or under a financial income line by a matter of pounds does not change lives. What changes lives is tackling the issues set out by the Prime Minister in his speech on Monday.

16. The Secretary of State insists that the Government are not changing the definition of child poverty, so will they accept the findings of several respected organisations, including, most recently, the Resolution Foundation, which has indicated that, as a direct result of the summer Budget alone, between 300,000 and 600,000 children and 3.7 million and 3.9 million people on these islands will move into poverty by 2020? What discussions has she had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the likely impact of the changes on poor children on these islands? (903021)

I gently point out to the House that there is a difference between asking a question and leading an Adjournment debate.

Some 11.8% of children live in workless households, which is down by 4.4 percentage points since 2010. If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the impact of Budgets on people in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, he might like to know that 176,000 women in Scotland have been taken out of income tax since 2010 because of UK Budgets. Those sorts of measures have a direct impact on children’s life chances and families’ prospects.

State Pension Age

2. What discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on the effect of the increase in the state pension age on women. (903005)

Ministers regularly discuss matters of policy spanning their responsibilities, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that this issue was debated very recently.

That is correct. Last week’s Back-Bench business debate resulted in a unanimous decision, with Members on both sides of the House calling on the Government to correct the unfairness in the rules. Is it not time for the Government to lay down a strategy for introducing transitional arrangements to help the women most affected by these rules?

I gently refer the hon. Gentleman to the direction given by the Deputy Speaker following that debate in response to a point of order, when she made it absolutely clear that the Government were not bound by any vote or decision taken in a Back-Bench business debate.

It is estimated that, with the new threshold to qualify for auto-enrolment set at £10,000, 1.28 million people will miss out on accessing their pension. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s pensions policy negatively impacts women, and will he support the establishment of an independent pensions commission to look at all pensions issues, including investigating the inequalities facing women in the current system?

A lot is happening in the pensions world at present, and I think it important that we prioritise making sure that all that goes through, rather than thinking of new innovations.

Does the Minister share the Prime Minister’s view that the good settlement for pensioners extends to 1950s women, and will he explain the bits of that settlement that are best for them?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in a debate of 2011 a concession was made and the time period was reduced from two years to 18 months, at a cost of £1.1 billion to the Exchequer.

I was disappointed with the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). The Minister is correct that last week’s Back-Bench business debate is not binding on the Government, but will he admit that the Government have absolutely lost the argument on this case? Will he commit to justice for those women born between 1953 and ’56, who now face a huge pensions pay gap after they led the fight for my generation on the pay gap in the workplace?

This issue was not in the manifesto of either the Labour party or the Scottish National party. That is not surprising, given that undoing the 2011 measures would cost over £30 billion. If the hon. Lady persists in pursuing this policy from the Labour Front Bench, it is important for her to outline from where it would get that £30 billion.

Detainees: Pregnancy

10. If she will discuss with the Home Secretary the treatment of pregnant women detained for immigration purposes. (903013)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes these matters very seriously. Last year, she commissioned Stephen Shaw, CBE, former prisons and probation ombudsman, to carry out a review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. Mr Shaw’s report will be published today, and the Government will take appropriate action in response to his recommendations.

I am grateful for that answer, and we look forward to hearing what Stephen Shaw has to say, albeit that we are slightly sceptical about the remit that he was operating under. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that Government policy of detaining only in exceptional circumstances is, at the very least, put into practice and is not fiction? It would be even better if she ensured that the detention of pregnant women came entirely to an end.

It is Government policy that pregnant women should be detained only in exceptional circumstances. In normal circumstances, they should not be detained. Where a matter affecting a pregnant woman being detained comes to light, it is looked at with the utmost urgency.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the all-party parliamentary group’s report of 2014 on immigration detention, which dealt with the issue of women in detention centres more widely. Many women had been subject to quite horrific violence, including sexual violence. What steps is she taking to ensure that detained women, whether pregnant or not, are safe? Does she agree with me that these centres should not be detaining women at all and that detention should very much be a last resort?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that detention should be a very last resort. It is regrettable in many ways that we have to have detention, but as part of an immigration system that is fair to all, detention is needed in those exceptional circumstances where people refuse to leave the country when they have been ordered to do so. Women are treated with the utmost dignity, and it is important to treat all people in detention with dignity.

Body Confidence

4. What steps the Government are taking to address the issue of low body confidence in girls and young men; and if she will make a statement. (903007)

Strong body confidence is obviously really important for both physical and mental health wellbeing. That is why the Government are working with partners on projects such as media literacy that equip young people to be resilient and realistic about body images that they see in print and on our screens.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She will know that photographs in glossy magazines have been retouched by Photoshop, with little wrinkles smoothed out and little bulges slimmed in—in my case, of course, you see what you get—[Interruption.] Well, part of what you see is what you get, but we will not go into that. Does my hon. Friend agree that schools have a role to play in educating children in having realistic ideas about what is possible and what is not?

I entirely agree with you, Mr Speaker: there is almost nothing we could do to enhance the appearance of my hon. Friend—in my book, anyway.

My hon. Friend is right and his interest in this important issue is commendable. We want all young people to be informed and resilient. That is why we aim to improve media literacy. Our PSHE Association guidance on body image helps teachers to approach this topic sensitively and points them to the best quality-assured material. We also produce media-smart literacy resources for parents and teachers of primary school children to help them better to promote understanding of the images that young people see in the media.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the cost of eating disorders to society is about £15 billion a year. What extra measures are the Government introducing, not only for prevention purposes but to support those who are currently experiencing eating disorders, in order to ensure that the problem is tackled adequately?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, absolutely right: this is a key issue. We know that anorexia kills more than any other mental illness. On Monday, the Prime Minister set out our commitment to investing in mental health services. We will invest nearly £1 billion in a revolution in mental health treatment throughout the country, which will include the first-ever waiting time target for teenagers with eating disorders. They will be able to obtain help within a month of being referred, or within a week in urgent cases.

Young trans people can struggle greatly with their body confidence. Will the Minister, and her colleagues throughout the Government, undertake to look at the first report of the Women and Equalities Committee? It is published today, and it makes specific recommendations on how to improve the lives of young trans people.

Absolutely. I warmly welcome that report, and I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee—and, indeed, the whole Committee—for the valuable work that they have done. The report follows the Committee’s first inquiry, and it sends a clear signal about the importance of this issue. I look forward greatly to working through the report carefully and thoughtfully with those in other Departments, and looking closely at every one of my right hon. Friend’s recommendations.

Revenge Porn

5. What discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on tackling revenge porn; and what assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the revenge porn helpline. (903008)

As I have said before, the Government are absolutely clear about the fact that what is illegal offline is illegal online. We have criminalised this abhorrent act, and the revenge porn helpline has supported more than 3,000 callers since its launch last February. It is there to support anyone who is affected, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or age. No one should have to suffer as a result of this repulsive crime, and we will ensure that we continue to support those who are affected by it.

Will the helpline, and other measures, help more victims to come forward for support? Will they also help to take down the vile and abusive content from the internet, and prosecute and, indeed, take down the vile and abusive offenders?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously it is important for victims to receive the right support, but we want to go further and make it clear, through education and awareness, that this is a crime and that it will not be tolerated. The internet can be a huge force for good, but it can also be a platform for abuse and intimidation. Staff monitor the helpline and provide support, but they have also been very successful in ensuring that content is quickly removed from the internet, and they work directly with social media and website providers.

I thank the Minister for her earlier comments about the elevation of Arlene Foster to the position of First Minister. The Stormont fresh start agreement already looks brighter with her in charge.

My question relates to the ever-increasing digital society. The press is still full of stories about revenge porn incidents. Does the Minister recognise the need to raise awareness of people’s rights, and of the new offence in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which is intended to tackle the increasing amount of online revenge porn?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is an offence of which people are more aware, but, sadly, that means that there are more cases of it, which is why we have criminalised it and established a helpline to offer support. However, we must go further and make it clear that this is not an acceptable way for people to behave. We must also give guidance to potential victims, advising them to think very carefully about images that they share and how they could then be abused.

Sanitary Products: VAT

6. What progress the Government are making on negotiating the removal of VAT on women’s sanitary products. (903009)

I have written to the European Commission and to other member states setting out our strong view that member states should have full discretion over what rate of VAT they can apply to sanitary products, and that the matter should be considered in the context of the Commission’s action plan on VAT, which is now expected to be published in March

I am sure that the letter is very good, but I think the Minister should do more than that: I think that he should pursue the issue. When he does so, and when he succeeds—as I am sure he will—will he ensure that the money that he is currently providing from this unfair tax to finance domestic violence services is raised from general taxation? As a man, I think that it should be, so that the whole of society owns this problem.

In terms of the action the Government are taking, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that VAT rules currently do not allow us to reduce the rate below 5%, which is why when the previous Labour Government reduced it, they reduced it to 5% not zero. But we are making the case to other member states and the European Commission, and the right hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that, as the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement, for the first time we are using the funds collected from VAT on sanitary products to provide support specifically to women’s charities. We will, of course, review that in the event that we are able to reduce it to a zero rate.

The Minister will know that I voted with the Opposition on this issue. He is a good man and I am sure he is doing his very best to battle away on this issue, but is it not the case that those who want a zero rate on sanitary products at the earliest possible opportunity should find the easiest way of doing that, which is by voting to leave the European Union, and then we would be able to do it straight away?

My hon. Friend’s answer to this question does not entirely surprise me; it is in fact his answer to quite a lot of questions. The Government are engaging constructively with other member states and the European Commission. It is the case that EU rules prevent us from lowering the rate below 5%, but we are engaged in negotiating with other member states.

While any action is better than nothing, it does not appear that the issue has been placed alongside the Prime Minister’s other demands in the EU membership renegotiation, so we may not even have a report back prior to the referendum. Can the Minister reassure the House today that women’s rights are not a second-class issue on this Government’s European agenda by making those commitments, and will the Prime Minister or Chancellor come before the House to make a statement on this, as they have done on other EU issues?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer addressed this issue in his autumn statement, when he announced the additional funding for women’s charities, reflecting the sums that are raised from VAT on sanitary products. The Government are taking this issue seriously; previous Governments have done so too, but we are doing everything we can, and we are, I think, the first Government who have gone to the European Commission and to other member states and made the case for flexibility.

Will my hon. Friend explain why this is not part of the Government’s renegotiation strategy? Surely this country and this Parliament should be able to decide levels of VAT not just on sanitary products, but on fuel, defibrillators and so on—on all of which I think it would be better if there were no VAT?

We are engaged in a wide-ranging renegotiation addressing issues about economic competitiveness and the roles of Parliament and so on. This is not explicitly part of that renegotiation, but we are, as a Government, going out making the case to other member states, and we will have the report from the Commission in March and we have made our position very clear.

The funding the Government are putting into services for women fleeing sexual and domestic violence has been described as like filling a bath with the plug pulled out. End Violence Against Women says the tampon tax cannot possibly fill the gap, while across the country refuges and specialist services are closing. Will the Minister commit to a full review of the effect of the Government’s fiscal policies on the availability of services and to publishing the information?

We have already announced £40 million in funding for domestic abuse services between 2016 and 2020, as well as a £2 million grant to Women’s Aid and SafeLives to support early intervention. The hon. Lady raised a very broad point, and, in reply I would say the best future for the entire country is to ensure we have strong public finances, a credible economic policy and a long-term economic plan that delivers jobs and growth. That is what this Government are doing.

I am afraid that the Government’s economic policies are not protecting women from violence. Research published yesterday by Professor Sylvia Walby of the University of Lancaster shows that violent crime against women has been under-reported and has in fact been rising since 2009. That is a result of cuts to services, cuts in the police, a lack of housing to move into, financial pressures on relationships and difficulties accessing justice. Does the Minister not recognise that the holistic effect of the Government’s policies has been to place women in danger? Will the Government take urgent action to address this?

The hon. Lady makes the point that domestic violence is under-reported, and we accept that that is a problem, although reporting has increased. Indeed, the number of convictions has increased. She also made the point that there had been cuts in police services. The Chancellor made it clear in his autumn statement, however, that because the economy was performing better than had been the case before, we could afford not to cut police funding over the course of this Parliament. Again, I make the point that Labour can oppose every single cut and every single change that we make to try to bring the public finances under control, but if we do not take those decisions, I am afraid that we will run into a crisis. That was what the 2015 general election was fought on, and the result was very clear.

Misogynist Bullying: Social Media

Bullying of any kind, whether online or offline, is absolutely unacceptable. There is also no place for misogyny or trolling in our society. My Department has set up the Stop Online Abuse website to provide women and LGBT adults with practical advice on how to recognise abuse, including on social media. I also want to echo the welcome for the report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee on transgender equality, which was published today. It makes specific recommendations for addressing online safety and the treatment of transgender people, which we will take very seriously.

What conversations has the Minister had with social media providers about misogynistic online abuse, and will she make a statement?

I and other Ministers, including my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy speak to social media providers all the time about these issues. I welcome the recent statement from a Twitter director saying that it thought it was doing better on dealing with trolls, but I think it recognised that it needed to do more.

I hope that the hon. Lady will also recognise that there are issues closer to home. She will remember the statement made by her own party leader at her party’s conference last autumn, when he had to appeal to activists. He said:

“I say to all activists, whether Labour or not, cut out the personal attacks, the cyber bullying and especially the misogynistic abuse online”.

I hope that the hon. Lady will tackle her own party in regard to this issue.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what evidence there is of improved data collection to give us the true scale of this abuse? What evidence is there that police officers up and down the country are receiving appropriate training to enable them to identify and deal with the perpetrators of the abuse?

I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the question of data collection, which I am happy to do. I suspect that some organisations are better than others. I mentioned the revenge porn helpline earlier, which clearly is monitoring and keeping data. We want to evaluate such data one year on, in February or March of this year. I have already said that what is illegal offline is also illegal online, and that has been made very clear to all police forces up and down the country. We continue to make that case to them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the increasingly digital world in which we live makes it absolutely vital to help children, parents and carers to deal with this vile online abuse and cyber-bullying?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course it is much better to educate young people against any of this in the first place, to ensure that they are robust and resilient if they come across unwanted images or cyber-bullying. She is also absolutely right to mention parents and carers. There is a range of websites and organisations to help parents to understand how to discuss these issues with children, and the Government Equalities Office and the Home Office have invested £3.85 million in a new phase of our This is Abuse campaign, which tackles abuse within teenage relationships and will be launched later this year.

Following on from the earlier response to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), will the Secretary of State recognise the huge amount of online bullying that is being directed towards the trans community, leading to high levels of mental ill health and suicide within that community? Will she ensure that it is tackled when she reviews the trans inquiry?

My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee and I warmly welcome the landmark report that has been published today. It has highlighted lots of actions that are needed to be taken across government. He is absolutely right to mention the issue of social media and online bullying, which I have already mentioned, and the effects that that has on mental health, and the ability of members of the transgender community to take part in life, the workplace and elsewhere. We take such issues very seriously. We need to look at all the action we have taken on online abuse, and work out how we can ensure that it is also accessible to members of the trans community.

Gender Pay Gap

9. When the Government plan to publish their response to the closing the gender pay gap consultation, published in July 2015. (903012)

I am delighted that our consultation on closing the gender pay gap has had such a positive reaction, receiving around 700 responses, including more than 200 from employers and business organisations. We will publish the Government’s response to the consultation shortly.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Excellent work has been done on tackling the gender pay gap, but regional differences remain. In my constituency of Telford, women in full-time work earn 16% less than men in full-time work. What further action can be taken to address that kind of discrepancy?

The gender pay gap regulations, when published and put into practice, will help, because they will get employers to start thinking about these issues, and reporting on them. I encourage my hon. Friend to host an event in her own constituency. As a proactive and new Member of Parliament, she can highlight best practice and show the advantages of narrowing the gap. She might also like to think about the breakdown of the businesses within her constituency and work out how we can get more women and girls to participate in sectors such as manufacturing and financial services.

The north-east has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the country owing in part to the disproportionate numbers in the public sector, which has been cut, and in the sort of low-paid jobs that the Prime Minister yesterday called “menial”. Does the Secretary of State agree that failure to publish a response to a consultation six months after its publication is disrespectful to the many organisations and individuals who responded to it in the hope of doing something about the situation?

I am really sorry to hear the hon. Lady make those points, because they are not worthy of her. First, on the north-east, she is wrong. The gender pay gap in the north-east fell by 0.4 percentage points between 2014 and 2015. People want us to get the Government response right and to ensure that we have thought through the regulations and their impact. I have said that we will publish the response shortly, and that is exactly what we will do.

I hope that the Secretary of State, and indeed the whole House, will welcome the establishment of the all-party group on women and work, of which I am vice-chair. I know that she sent a member of staff to it the other day. Will she resolve to work with the all-party group to look at the challenges faced by women returning to work after having children or caring responsibilities, the impact of which is often seen in the gaps in their income, their progression and their career?

I thank the hon. Lady very much indeed. I warmly welcome the all-party group. Another group has also been set up on women and enterprise. I really welcome the fact that parliamentarians are setting up these groups, which will work on a cross-party basis. Of course Ministers and I will work with all of them. She is absolutely right. Evidence was given to the Select Committee which showed that, if women take more than a year’s maternity leave, it becomes much, much harder to get back into the workplace; we must change that.

Older Carers

11. What steps the Government are taking to help older female carers balance the demands of work with caring for older relatives. (903014)

Unpaid carers are the unsung heroes of our society, which is why the Care Act 2014 gave carers new rights, focusing on their wellbeing, which includes their employment. In 2015, the Government extended the right to request flexible working arrangements, and we are also investing £1.6 million in nine pilot sites, exploring ways to support people who are combining work and caring responsibilities.

I thank the Minister for her response. According to a recent report from the Department of Health, the cost to the Exchequer of carers being unable to continue working has been estimated at £1.3 billion a year. Will the Minister confirm what incentives are in place for employers to support carers in the workplace?

The report my hon. Friend refers to was a landmark one in demonstrating the business case for investing in carer-friendly policies. The Government have been working to raise awareness among employers of the issue and of the cost of leaving it unaddressed. Our £1.6 million project will be invaluable in helping us to establish the most effective forms of support for carers. We are also backing the Employers for Carers network run by Carers UK, which provides resources to implement carer-friendly policies.

Domestic Violence

12. What discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on securing long-term funding for domestic violence services. (903016)

The Government have already announced £40 million of funding for domestic abuse services between 2016 and 2020, as well as a £2 million grant to Women’s Aid and SafeLives to support early intervention. We will shortly publish a refreshed cross-Government violence against women and girls strategy setting out how we will do still more to secure long-term funding for domestic violence services and support for all victims.

Domestic violence is an enduring stain on our society, and while Government funding is welcome, a long-term sustainable approach is needed. What discussions has the Minister had with service providers, including Rape Crisis, about the long-term solutions, and what does she consider to be long term in this context?

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his questions. I must admit, I am used to seeing him on the Front Bench, but it is nice to see him anyway. As part of refreshing our violence against women and girls strategy, I have taken part in a number of round tables with service providers, commissioners and others to make sure that we understand the issues facing them and to look at that long-term solution, because he is absolutely right: service providers need to know that their funding is on a sustainable footing, so that they can continue to deliver services and focus on victims, as we all want them to do.

FTSE Boards: Gender Balance

13. What steps the Government are taking to improve the gender balance of the boards of FTSE companies. (903017)

We appointed Lord Davies in 2010 and have fully supported his work ever since, which has achieved an unprecedented increase in the number of women on boards. We welcomed his final report and back his new recommendations for a business-led 33% target for FTSE 350 boards. We are also in the process of establishing a new review focusing on the all-important executive layer.

What plans do the Government have to ensure that businesses of all sizes understand the financial and productivity benefits of diversity in their senior teams?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: companies with more diverse boards benefit from better decision making and better corporate governance; they are more responsive to the market and they can access the wider talent pool. It is a no-brainer: diversity is better for business. We have seen real progress with our business-led Government-supported approach, but we are not complacent by any means. We will continue to engage with businesses of all sizes and in all sectors to push this work forward.

Health Inequality

15. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for Health ways to address the relative inequality of health outcomes for men and women. (903019)

There are gender differences across a range of health outcomes. Women live longer than men, but that gap is closing. The Government are tackling health inequalities by addressing the social causes of ill health and promoting healthier lifestyles, all now underpinned by legal duties. Action is led locally to ensure that there are solutions to local gender and other health inequalities.

Over the past 30 years, female suicide rates have declined from 11 per 1,000 to five per 1,000, but male suicide rates have remained stubbornly high, at 19 to 20 per 1,000, and in that period 130,000 men have committed suicide. What will the Minister do, together with the Department of Health, to tackle that very serious problem?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), was keen to be here today, but she is at an LGBT conference. Suicide is the largest cause of death of men under 50, so this is a really important issue. That is why the Prime Minister’s commitment earlier this week to investing in mental health services will be so important in this space.