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International Men’s Day

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered International Men’s Day.

It is right that the House should consider the challenges faced by men and boys across our United Kingdom today, on International Men’s Day. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for its consideration in allocating the time forms to do so on the day itself—19 November. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for his work in co-sponsoring the debate, as well as those across the House who have supported it. I have drastically shortened my speech because our three hours have become one. That is perhaps indicative of the problem of men’s issues being pushed off the end of the agenda: it nicely typifies the problem. I also want to give as much time to colleagues as I can.

In these challenging times, it is hugely important that we have this conversation. We face a difficult situation because of covid and particularly because of the economic impact. We know that there were huge spikes in male suicide and depression following the 2008 economic crash due to losing employment, struggling to provide for families, and struggling to find purpose. It is also challenging because of the general discourse that so often seems to pervade our society that talks of male privilege, of toxic masculinity, and of men as oppressors rather than positive contributors or role models. Men are talked about, all too often, as a problem that must be rectified.

Too often, the constant drive for equality and diversity seeks to drag others down rather than lift everyone up. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke in Westminster Hall about the impact of equalities legislation, which sometimes seems to provide additional help for everyone except men and boys. One of my great passions in the campaigning I most regularly return to in this place is the plight of working-class boys in areas like Mansfield and in other parts of the country where there is deep and entrenched disadvantage. Figures from education show that these lads are least likely of any group to do well at school, to improve their lot in life, to get to university, or ever to have the opportunity to spread their wings further afield and aspire beyond the borders of the place they grew up in. Working-class white boys often seem to sit at the bottom of the pile.

Across the board in our education system, the advancement of girls has been noticeable. It should be celebrated and recognised that girls are doing much better in recent years. That is brilliant news, and it is the result of countless interventions and programmes of support. However, it also needs to be recognised that, more often than not, boys do not have the same encouragement. No matter the race, geography or social class involved, girls now outperform boys throughout the education system. For example, in GCSE attainment, three quarters of girls’ grades in 2019 were passes, compared with two thirds for boys. We have had reports of record-high gender gaps in university places, with girls a third more likely than boys to access higher education.

That brings me back to the Equality Act 2010, which is so often misinterpreted and misunderstood. If we know that boys are now hugely under-represented at university—a growing problem—where are all the programmes to support them into higher education? I am not keen on discriminating by gender or any other physical characteristic, but given that the Act pushes for positive action based on these characteristics in order to level the playing field, where is the support for those who are struggling? The figures clearly show that girls are already outperforming boys, so why are we allowing this misuse of our equalities law to exacerbate gender inequality, rather than fixing it, with countless programmes to support girls into HE and none for boys?

Will my hon. Friend join me in looking forward to the exciting prospect of the holiday activities and food programme? We must do all in our power to encourage maximum participation among working-class boys in particular.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Representing a constituency and community like mine, where these lads are really struggling, taught me about the need for face-to-face contact and support for the most disadvantaged children. That is hugely important, and I thank her for raising that.

What is the point of the Equality Act 2010 if its usage is based only on what seems popular or politically correct, rather than on reality in order to help those most in need? The reality and the figures tell us that boys need help getting into higher education, more so than girls, so are these interventions actually making this inequality worse? Possibly so. To be absolutely clear, that is not to say that we should not help girls, but simply that selecting who to help based on physical characteristics alone is the very definition of discrimination; that the need for this help should be evidenced if it is to comply with the law; and that boys need help too.

Boys seem to be consistently left behind by this kind of politically correct agenda. So long as the Equality Act continues to be so wilfully and regularly misapplied across gender, race and every other characteristic, it can do more harm than good. We need to make clear in this place that we should help people based on their actual need, and that the Act applies equally to everybody. Would it not be nice to try to help those most in need —based not on their physical characteristics but on what they need? Or at least to recognise that we all have equal protection under this law? Whether someone is gay, black and minority ethnic, female or a straight white man, those are all protected characteristics.

Men face countless challenges in our society. Three times as many men as women die by suicide, with men aged 40 to 49 having the highest rates. Men report lower levels of life satisfaction, according to the Government’s national wellbeing survey, but are less likely to access psychological therapies. Nearly three quarters of adults who go missing are men. Eighty-seven per cent. of rough sleepers are men. Men are three times as likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs, are more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and are more likely to be a victim of violent crime. Of course, men also make up the vast majority of the prison population. These figures really put that male privilege in perspective.

In recent years, it seems like more and more phrases coming into use are designed to undermine the role and confidence of men in our society. I mentioned a few before—male privilege, toxic masculinity, mansplaining, manterrupting, the trend of spelling “woman” with an x to remove the undesirable “man” part. That is wonderfully empowering for some, I am sure, but as I said at the beginning of this speech, somebody seeking equality of fairness does not need to drag down everyone around them. I am fairly sure that bad behaviour is not limited solely to the male of the species, nor is rudeness gender specific.

The outcome of this discourse and this language for many men is serious, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities. There is such a thing as working-class values—values that have lasted for many decades that might be considered old hat or even sexist by the modern establishment. They include holding the door open for a lady and expecting a man to stick around and provide for his family. The idea that a man being a worker and breadwinner is a positive role model for his children is still entrenched and well taught. That is not to the detriment of women or to limit their ambition, but about the promotion of family, of tradition, of strong male role models. These things are important.

Having been brought up with those values, a lot of men from those communities will feel lost if they are unable to find work due to our economic situation. They might feel helpless, or like failures. They are far from it, but they need our support. We might also find that young men looking ahead and seeking their purpose in life might struggle to find it when they are told that those things they thought were virtues—their good manners, wanting to provide for their family, wanting to be a man’s man, wanting to go down to the football at the weekend and have some banter with the lads—are in fact not virtuous but toxic and doing down the women around them; those manners and the way they were taught to respect the women in their life are now sexist; that banter is now bullying.

On family, rather than promoting strong male role models, we often encourage dads to be more like mums, trying to break down tradition, teaching them the opposite of what they were always told growing up and telling them that they have been doing it wrong. We talk of “deadbeat” dads. We have a legal system in the family courts that seems to assume the guilt of many men in a relationship. We see men being alienated from their kids. We talk more and more about how desirable it is to have different kinds of families, with the implication that we do not need those strong male role models. Is it any wonder that so many are struggling to figure all this out?

It is right that people should live by their own choices, and be who they want to be, however they are comfortable. That is true whether someone is gay or straight, black or white, male or female, and it is equally true if what they want is to fulfil the traditional role of a strong father, provider and breadwinner—to be, for want of a better word, a bloke. I fear that we are building up huge problems for the future when we forget the traditional role of men—indeed, sometimes we do not just forget it; we try to eradicate it from our society.

With few of life’s advantages on their side in such an environment, and when society seems insistent on ripping the heart out of things that they experienced growing up and the things they were taught, it is no wonder that so many young men tragically cut their lives short. We cannot continue to talk down the role and purpose of young men when we should be building them up.

Let me move on a little from the gloom and doom and speak about some positive things and actions we can take. I particularly want to play tribute to dads, and to all those dads who are putting their families first and doing the right thing, I say this: thank you. That is often taken for granted, but it is so important. I know myself how difficult it is in this job to balance being a dad with work, and try to keep oneself on a level and live up to expectations. It is not easy.

There are countless thousands of dads out there who have a much tougher task than me—dads who might be struggling financially or battling to see their kids, or fighting in the family courts to do the right thing. They are trying to be a role model for their kids, although truthfully, we are all making it up as we go along. Some dads might be trying to overcome their own challenges with mental health, work or stress, and they might feel as if they have to hide that away for the sake of their families and children.

I want to say a big thank you to good dads, and to those who are trying their best to be good dads and good men. That can make all the difference for our kids, for families, and for our society. There are places and people that dads can go to if they need help. Those are places such as the Samaritans, Rethink, the Campaign Against Living Miserably—CALM—helpline, Safeline, or a friend or relative. It is good to talk, as they say, rather than sweep things under the carpet.

What more can we in this place do? For starters, we can change the discourse here. Can we look again at equalities legislation? If we are to hold Departments across Whitehall to account, with people dedicated to ensuring—quite rightly so—that women are considered, why not do the same for men? Why have a Minister for Women, but not one for men? Why single out one characteristic for a special mention? Can we ensure that equality means just that, rather than positive discrimination at the expense of certain groups, and ensure that the male is as equally protected as the female? We could do worse in this place to confirm how the Equality Act 2010 should be properly used.

Can we promote the role of fatherhood, and stop shying away from its importance? Yes, families come in all shapes and sizes. I do not wish to detract from anyone who wants to do things differently, but the positive role to be played by an active father cannot, and should not, be ignored. Modern families are all different, but we can guarantee that every one of them has involved a dad in one way or another. The vast majority of families still look like a mum, dad, and kids and we should not shy away from that.

Can we push forward an action plan to look at male suicide? We know the figures are awful, and we should have someone in Government accountable for delivering that plan, including better access to mental health support. Can we review our legal system, which is not always balanced, and our family courts, which too often seem to consider dads guilty until proven innocent? Parental alienation seems to be increasing, and more and more dads feel that they have been let down by the system. Can we reform the Child Maintenance Service—the bane of every MP’s life, by the way—so that it is fairer to all parties and works in the interests of families? Can we have a long-term plan to improve available alcohol addiction services, as those who need them are overwhelmingly male? Can we boost support for new fathers, as well as mothers, at a time when men often feel totally helpless?

Although, as the name suggests, the Prime Minister’s Race Disparity Unit focuses particularly on race, I am pleased that its remit includes looking at education, attainment and support for white working-class boys. There are regional, cultural and gender-based inequalities, and the challenge faced by boys in education cannot be denied. The figures show a clear picture of increasing numbers of left-behind boys who grow into troubled young men seeking purpose. That is a huge challenge for our wider society, and I hope we can build on that work and consider it in more detail. I will end with that, Madam Deputy Speaker, so as to give colleagues as much time as I can. I thank the Minister for her consideration today, and I look forward to listening to the thoughts of colleagues across the House.

Order. We will have to rush into this with a time limit of three minutes for Back-Bench speeches, and there will not be much time for Front-Bench speeches either.

As I have said before, there are many areas where men are disproportionately affected that do not get enough focus in the House. This debate should be about highlighting those areas. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for his speech. Unsurprisingly, I completely agree with him, particularly with regard to the points he made about the disadvantage and poor outcomes, especially in education, of white working-class boys—something that the politically correct lobby has brushed under the carpet for too long.

Just this week, Bradford Council has consulted on its latest equality plan. It has set targets for people in jobs, including one for 65% of its top 5% of employees to be female. I do not believe in quotas and targets. I believe that each job should be awarded on merit and merit alone, but even if we go along with all this so-called equality, where on earth is the equality in that target? The leader of Bradford Council represents a ward in my constituency with a high proportion of white working-class people in it, yet she is completely silent about that in her so-called equality plan, despite the fact that she must know the disadvantage they face.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield brilliantly defended good dads, and I want to echo that message. I know of men who have had their lives ruined because of a relationship breakdown, which has needlessly led to a whole family breakdown and, in some cases, a mental breakdown, too. I have talked about parental alienation before and do not apologise for mentioning it again. It is quite simply abuse, and the many people who have written to me with heartbreaking personal stories show how this happens all too often. It is abuse against the alienated parent—not just men—and against the sons and daughters of the parent. It also affects a host of people in the wider family.

I am pleased that the Government have taken some of my points on board and included parental alienation as an example of abuse in the draft statutory guidance for the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is going through Parliament. I hope that they will continue to look at ways to prevent this, as it would make a huge positive difference to so many if it could be stamped out.

Finally, that leads me on to suicide. Men’s suicide has been a common theme of all the past debates on International Men’s Day, and rightly so. Suicide rates among men are three times higher than for women in the UK. The connection between relationship breakdown and suicide risk in western countries has been studied, and the data from those studies indicates that, unsurprisingly, relationship breakdown elevates suicide risk in both sexes, and more so for men. None of the studies apparently investigated the specific effect on the likelihood of suicide of fathers’ separation from their children, despite charities reporting that it is the overwhelming source of distress. It is quite clear to me that we need to do a lot more to ensure that fathers are not stopped from seeing their children, to save lives. In these covid lockdown times, it is too easy to imagine how this will be causing even more mental health problems and, unfortunately, more suicides.

As someone who used to work in the national health service, I would like to focus on the health challenges faced by men, and I will look at three primary areas in the short time available to me.

The first is in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. Public Health England’s review demonstrated that, despite making up only 46% of diagnosed cases, 60% of deaths are among men, 70% of admissions to intensive care are men and working-age males diagnosed with covid-19 are twice as likely to die. The Minister is doing cross-departmental work to understand the risk factors associated with this disease, so I hope she will continue to look into the reasons why that disparity exists.

The second health risk I would like to focus on is cancer. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the UK and the second most common cause of death, with around 12,000 deaths in 2017. In addition, since the early 1990s, testicular cancer incidence rates have risen by nearly 24% among men in the UK. Great strides have been made in this area, including in survival rates—particularly for prostate cancer, which has gone from 76% of people dying within 10 years in the ’70s to just 16% now—but there is still a lot more to do. The NHS long-term plan has an ambitious cancer screening commitment, but that must be coupled with work to tackle the stigma around men’s health, particularly male cancers, and too many men leaving it too late before they seek help.

As Members have already outlined, one of the most chilling statistics comes in the form of mental health and suicide, because it truly is a terrible thing that the single biggest cause of death in men under 45 in the United Kingdom is taking their own lives. Men account for about three quarters of suicide deaths registered in England and Wales. Middle-aged men in the UK have the highest average suicide rate of any age group.

I again draw attention to the good work of the NHS long-term plan, which is working to design a new mental health strategy and improvement programme, which will focus on suicide prevention. Ministers say that reducing suicides remains an NHS priority, and I urge them to ensure that is the case, because it cannot be right for the most common cause of death among people of any age, gender, sexuality, race, religion or creed to be from them taking their own life. I urge the Government to do all they can to ensure that these terrible health statistics are consigned to the dustbin of history as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who made a very informative speech. He has touched on many of the points that I wish to raise, but in beginning my comments, I, too, commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for highlighting these issues. He has been an ardent campaigner in this area since he was elected to the House and beforehand. These are issues that we just have to talk about.

I want to focus my comments on three areas in particular: domestic abuse, mental health and the attainment gap, which my hon. Friend articulated so well. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) for piloting through the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently awaiting Second Reading in the other place. It will ensure that all victims have the confidence to report their experiences of domestic abuse.

We know that 786,000 men have reported being victims of domestic abuse. Looking at the numbers, we find that only just over half of men will report domestic abuse, whereas 88% of women are prepared to do so. There are 37 refuges and safe houses with 204 spaces. Of those 204 available spaces, only 40 are dedicated for men. In Greater London, there are no spaces for men needing refuge from domestic abuse. The Respect Men’s Advice Line has said that some male victims of domestic abuse have reported sleeping in cars, in tents or in the gardens of their relatives to seek refuge from their abusers.

As someone who has seen domestic abuse at first hand, I know that the ability to escape is fundamental to ensuring that people survive. We need to be doing more to ensure that there is provision, because there is clearly a gap, although I pay tribute to those organisations supporting the victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington articulated the mental health issues perfectly. Some 75% of suicide deaths in England and Wales are men. We need to tackle that, and we must do so across the board. It is not right. We need to look at the fundamental underlying issues that lead to these deaths.

I do not want to repeat the stats that my hon. Friend read out, but I round off my comments by saying this: ultimately, this is about ensuring that we all have access to the services and support that we need. We should value everyone as an individual—as the person they are at their core, irrespective of gender, what they look like or where they come from. This debate highlights that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield has drawn that out once again. I pay tribute to him, and I pay tribute to the fantastic work being done to support men in the areas I have highlighted.

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for securing this vital debate. I agree with his comments about the underperformance of white boys from underprivileged backgrounds in the school system. The facts speak for themselves and they cannot be disputed. I think it right that the Education Committee, on which I serve, is currently looking at that issue in depth. That is not to say we are not going to look at other issues, but why should we not look at that one issue as well?

I want to talk about men’s mental health, which is getting more attention now than it ever has. The simple fact is that many men who struggle with their mental health do not feel comfortable talking about it. They might think deep down it is a sign of weakness—of course they are wrong, it is not—but they should feel comfortable to talk about it. Awareness of mental health is greater than it has ever been, because there is not a single person in this country whose mental health has not been impacted to some extent. I think even about my own father. If I had spoken to him a year or two ago about mental health, he probably would have said, “Man up—stiff upper lip,” and taken a very masculine approach to it, whereas he is now 75 years old and has had to shield himself, and when I talked to him about this very issue not long ago, I never thought that I would hear it but my dad was talking about his mental health. That is a good thing, and we should encourage more of it.

There are great challenges, and the pandemic has brought this issue to light more than ever. Many of the things that men rely on, such as going to watch the football, fishing and golf, have not been possible, particularly during this second lockdown. I wish, though, to highlight something brilliant that is happening in Chantry in Ipswich. Over the summer, the local landlady, Penny, spoke to me about the problem of men’s mental health and how she wanted to do something about it. After a short period—two to three months—she now has 33 members of her men’s mental health support group in Chantry, including Rex Manning, a professionally trained chef from the local area. They have secured an allotment at the Robin Drive allotments, and all the men go down there, become members and talk. Even if they do not feel comfortable talking about their mental health directly, engaging in something like that, which is so good for their wellbeing, really brings people and the whole community together. They make produce with the vegetables, and Rex collects it and they all eat it together in the local pub.

Men’s mental health is a very challenging issue, and it is right that we have this debate, but there is a great opportunity here. The pandemic has highlighted mental health more than ever before, but talking about our mental health is not a sign of weakness; it is something that should be encouraged. It is right that we have this debate today, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for securing it.

Order. An hon. Gentleman has, unusually, withdrawn from the debate, which gives us a tiny bit of extra time. I am therefore going to raise the limit on Back-Bench speeches to four minutes.

Thank you for the good news, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for securing this very important debate. We both understand the acute disadvantages and difficulties —ranging from health and education problems to incarceration and suicide—experienced by men in our region of the UK. I welcome the opportunity to draw the House’s attention to this unacceptable inequality and to stand up for men and boys in my constituency.

We do not talk about men’s mental health enough, and toxic masculinity is a severe problem. Tragically, suicide remains the biggest killer for men under the age of 45. Research suggests that men who are less well-off and living in the most deprived areas are up to 10 times more likely to die by suicide than more well-off men in affluent areas—a grim statistic that is relevant to areas of high deprivation such as mine in Rother Valley, with the likes of Maltby and Dinnington. This must be addressed.

Beyond the realms of health, many men suffer from low attainment and reduced opportunities at every stage of life. This is of particular concern to me in Rother Valley. At school, there is an old adage that girls consistently outperform boys at GCSE level, and they have done so for the past 30 years. At higher education level, more than 67,000 fewer men than women accept places at university—a huge gap of 35%. After 10 years of Government reforms, standards are increasing, but for areas such as mine in Rother Valley, this cannot come soon enough. We must continue to put pressure on schools, universities and companies to do more for working-class boys and men. Only this week, I read that in 2016 SOAS did not accept any white working-class boys into the university. That is a disgrace.

It is worth noting that women in Rother Valley are in full support of empowering our local men. They see the everyday struggles of their fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, grandfathers and friends. They do not have the reductive mindset—pushed by many in the liberal metropolitan elite of the Labour party—in which men as a whole species are blamed for gender inequality. Instead, they recognise that while women still face substantial social inequality—and they absolutely do—so do many of our men. For example, 79,000 people are in prison, and 96% of them are male—a shocking statistic. These men cannot be blamed for having privilege that they simply do not possess.

I am in full agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield on this point: I want to lift up everyone, men and women, rather than dragging them down. This fits with my persistent campaign for Rother Valley to be levelled up across the board, in all areas and all sectors, but especially for all people. Growing up in Maltby or Dinnington should not mean that a person has a lesser chance of succeeding professionally, and it should not mean that they lack access to high-quality services and facilities. Unfortunately, too many men and boys in Rother Valley tell me exactly this: they feel abandoned, left behind and forgotten. It is in everybody’s interests that we raise our men’s aspirations and help them to use their inherent talents to reach their full potential. I firmly believe that this Government are doing so for men, boys and everyone, and especially for those in Rother Valley.

International Men’s Day has been an annual event since 2010, and the UK has the most events of its kind anywhere in the world. It is overseen by the Men and Boys Coalition, a registered charity including over 100 organisations, academics and professionals who believe in a society that values the wellbeing of men and boys.

There are some positive themes: it makes a positive difference to wellbeing, it raises awareness and funds for charities supporting men and boys and it promotes a positive conversation about men, manhood and masculinity, all of which is a good thing. There are some serious themes, too. In 1998, my very closest friend sadly committed suicide. It was a devastating event for me, his family and all his friends. I am well versed in the mess left behind. We must end the stigma around men’s mental health and commend the truth that it is okay not to feel okay. The simple answer is: please seek help.

International Men’s Day is also about the challenges faced by men and boys at all stages of education, shorter life expectancies, infertility and workplace death. It is about the challenges faced by the most marginalised men in society and homeless boys in care. It is about inner cities and black and white working-class males. It is also about male victims of violence, the challenges faced by men as parents, and survivors of sexual abuse, rape and domestic abuse. That is all relevant.

In this era of identity politics, it is becoming increasingly popular to ridicule men who display traits of traditional masculinity such as self-reliance, personal responsibility, discipline and courage—even fatherhood. Guess what? I do not subscribe to that, because all men matter. Indeed, the UK prides itself on being among the top meritocracies in the world. Equality of opportunity is something we absolutely must strive for, so it is about black and white, gay and straight, male and female. Everyone has a role, and no one should feel ashamed of who they are. It is not about men as a comparative species; it is simply about drawing attention to particular issues affecting men.

Lastly, I have some quick stats. In 2018, almost 5,000 men took their own lives at a rate of 13 a day—17.2 per 100,000—which is the highest rate since 2013. Men also make up 75% of suicides. Girls are now 14% more likely than boys to pass exams in English and maths, while boys are permanently excluded more than three times as often, with 6,000 permanent exclusions. I think much of that is down to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and to autism spectrum disorder, which is a separate issue in itself but one we need to look at closely. Of the 79,000 people in prison, 96% are male. So we have work to do.

It is estimated by the World Health Organisation that globally 800,000 people die every year due to suicide. In the UK, three quarters of suicides are of men. I question why it is that men suffer the most with suicide, and I think it is often down to the challenges in society and how we, as a male species, do not ask for help.

During my maiden speech, I spoke about the concept of HOPE being an acronym standing for Help One Person Everyday. Sometimes, that one person has to be ourselves, but it is so hard to ask for help when that is seen as a weakness. I say to anyone out there right now who is suffering that it is not a weakness to ask for help and support; it is a strength. When I look at the social media narrative and the often divisive debate around masculinity and men, I draw on my belief that we cannot heal divisions by being divisive, we cannot tackle hatred by being hateful, and we cannot show our strength only by belittling those who show weakness. The debate that we have in this Chamber today should not be limited to the time we have here.  It should be a societal debate about how we tackle these big challenges in society. How do we look at tackling the stigma, not just through medical and NHS support but through the narrative that we provide as politicians and members of the public?

We need to listen to each other. Sometimes when I look at the world, especially through the lens of social media, the web and the media, I feel as if we are in a world full of those who are shouting and it makes me ask who are those who are listening. Let us all listen to what people are saying. Let us not consider men to be the enemy. We are all part of the important fabric of society. We all have differences. To anyone who is struggling right now, who is thinking the worst thoughts, remember that you are unique. You are one of 7 billion on this planet and you are the only version of you. You need to continue your story. You need to be here for one more day; just give it another few minutes, another hour. Just give yourself a bit more time to find out why you are really here. The power of your story, of overcoming it, will make a difference to others and to those around you and, by God, it will make a difference to your family and friends. If they do not have you here tomorrow, if they do not have the stories of the difficult times as well as the joyful times, we all lack because of that.

So I say to everyone: please ask for help if you need it and ask others if they need help. Remember it is okay not to be okay, as my hon. Friends have said. It is also okay to ask others if they are okay. It is okay to say to them, “Are you really okay?” Ask them more than once. That second or third time might be the chance for them to open up in a way that they never have before. I am so pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) organised the debate today because without it we might not have these voices. Today we might change someone’s life. If, off the back of today, we stop just one person from committing suicide, even if it is over the next hundred years, that will have made this debate worth while.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell). I have always thought, since he arrived in the House, that he was an incredibly thoughtful person, as that speech typified. Thank you.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for securing today’s debate. I take this opportunity to welcome to the Dispatch Box my friend the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). I understand that it is her debut at the Dispatch Box. She is a fellow member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, so when I finally shut up and sit down I will certainly be cheering her on.

Clearly, the covid-19 pandemic has hugely impacted everyone’s lives. Many of our constituents now face insecurity of employment and financial hardship alongside having to deal with restrictions on seeing loved ones. Never before in our lifetimes have we experienced a pandemic that effectively shut down society, closed businesses and required us all to stay at home. I worry about everyone’s mental health at the moment. I know that continued lockdowns and restrictions can be incredibly tough, especially as we are now heading towards the winter months, full of colder days and darker evenings. Today’s debate is a good opportunity to focus on men’s mental health. We know, as others have said, that men are typically less likely to reach out for help with their mental health. Just over three out of four suicides are by men, and suicide is the biggest cause of death among men under 35. Men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent, and men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women. Indeed, only 36% of referrals to psychological therapies are for men.

I know from personal experience that conversations about mental health can be tough, sensitive, private and awkward, but they are so important, especially at the moment. With further restrictions and lockdowns, we are all more isolated than ever. A survey in April showed that one in four UK adults had feelings of loneliness, compared with just one in 10 before the pandemic. Young people aged between 18 and 24 were most likely to experience loneliness since lockdown began; indeed, before lockdown one in six said that they felt lonely. Since lockdown, young people are almost three times more likely to experience loneliness, with almost half feeling that way. At a time when more of us are feeling isolated and lonely, it is important to reach out to loved ones. A simple text, phone call or FaceTime can make a world of difference.

In terms of men’s mental health, there still exists that stigma around acknowledging that we are struggling and seeking the help we need. For example, in 2016 a survey conducted by the opinion leader Men’s Health Forum found that 34% of men were ashamed to take time off work for mental health concerns, compared with 13% for a physical injury. Some 38% of men were concerned that their employer would think badly of them if they took time off work for a mental health concern, compared with 26% for a physical injury. The hon. Member for Mansfield touched on this, but phrases like “man up” and “toughen up” only reinforce the stereotypes that men should be stoic and face such problems alone. That is dangerous rhetoric and it prevents men from pursuing help. I am really glad that all hon. Members who have spoken today have put that on the record.

It is important that men come together and support one another. That is why I am such a passionate supporter of Men’s Sheds, as well as the Menself group in my constituency led by Jim Malcolmson. We should encourage men to acknowledge that the stresses of this unprecedented public health crisis will naturally have an impact on our mental health. Whether it is due to a loss of employment, financial insecurity or just missing our loved ones, I think we would all agree that this is a very tough time for everyone. My message to everyone, not just to men but to men in particular, is please reach out to your loved ones. Let them know that you are always there to listen and take care of one another, because this too will pass.

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. As shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, I am conscious that we should seek not to pit the problems of men and women against each other, but to aspire to raise outcomes where one is below the other.

We have heard a number of important contributions in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing the debate through the Backbench Business Committee. We see that it is now truly an annual occasion after a year’s absence, as it fell during the election campaign last year. Having read, in Hansard, previous iterations of this debate, I am reassured that we are continuing to emphasise these important issues, but concerned to note that they still need to be raised.

The ongoing tragedy of male suicides has continued, with the rate in England and Wales of 16.9 deaths per 100,000 the highest since 2000. That remains in line with the rate in 2018, and makes up about three quarters of suicides. Males aged 45 to 49 still have the highest age-specific suicide rate. A number of colleagues have mentioned charities that work hard in this field, so I commend the work of CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, Rethink, Mind and the other organisations that have been highlighted. I would also like to remind all Members that the Samaritans can be phoned at any time, day or night, on 116 123.

The same messages are given every year and are ever more relevant in 2020, with all its stress and fear. Men should feel able to talk about their problems with friends or professionals. They do not have to do it in public as hon. Members have today, but society must accept and embrace a more open understanding of men’s feelings and concerns. I include in that men who may be gay, bisexual or transgender who feel alone or scared about their very identities. They must be more supportive of each other. I note the news today that the Government are ending the £4 million funding for anti-LGBT bullying in our schools. That is a real step backwards that will prolong harm for too many young boys.

I cannot join Movember, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I praise the Members who are doing it this year and hope that they may continue to brighten the spotlight on men’s health. Most obviously, covid has had a disproportionate fatal impact on men. As further research unearths more about what is still a very new virus, we may find out why. On prostate cancer, the second-biggest killer of men worldwide, I encourage men to discuss it with their doctors at 50, and black men or men with a family history of prostate cancer should discuss it at 45. On testicular cancer, men should know how to test themselves. It is not taboo to look these things up. Men are more likely to die prematurely than women, including from diseases that are considered preventable. Please do not be too scared to ask questions for fear of some toxic male expectations or image. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for raising these health issues.

We have rightly heard today about the challenges of boys’ educational attainment and the need for schools and the Department for Education to address this. Whether this means more male teachers, more male role models or closer support and attention to alternative teaching methods, it is a real concern. The literacy gap between boys and girls peaks at 16, when children are beginning to consider their choices for life after school.

Men are still more likely to be victims of violent crime in the UK—men are nearly twice as likely as women to be a victim of violent crime—and among children, boys are more likely than girls to be victims of violence, while more than two thirds of murder victims are male. It is worth mentioning the male victims of domestic violence, and the statistics show that they are less likely to speak out or confide in somebody about it. They must not be forgotten, as was mentioned in a powerful contribution to the debate by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey).

As the days and nights get colder and wetter, it is sombre to think of the thousands of rough sleepers on our streets. The Government’s actions earlier in the year showed that it is possible to eliminate rough sleeping, but now, once again, there are huge numbers of people forced to choose between a cold winter on the streets of our country and the threat of catching covid in an overcrowded shelter. Government statistics state that 86% of rough sleepers in England are male. I hope the Minister can say what will be done to end this awful situation.

Finally, it is worth remembering that today is International Men’s Day, and we should consider the problems that men and boys face around the world, where they die on average six years before women, thousands are forced into becoming child soldiers, and gay men in particular are all too often oppressed with threats of violent death. Once again, I thank all the speakers, and I hope that in next year’s debate we will be able to report on progress in these many important areas.

Order. Before the Minister starts, I must commend the House. I said we would have to rush through this and I was expecting the Minister to be on her feet with only five minutes to spare, but the House has been so disciplined, and speeches have been so to the point, precise, moving and clever, that I hope other people will learn that brevity is indeed the soul of wit. I am not going to mention the fact that very few women have taken part in the debate this afternoon.

I am pleased to be standing at the Dispatch Box on International Men’s Day. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting a debate on this important subject, and I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who have made heartfelt contributions. I also welcome the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) to her position as shadow Minister.

International Men’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate men and boys in all their diversity and to shine a spotlight on the issues that affect men—from shared parenting to health and wellbeing. I think it is sad that, on a day like this, it seems to be mainly Members on the Government side of the House who felt interested enough to speak. I recognise that the shadow spokespeople have been here, but it does highlight the fact that this is an issue that many people believe is not important enough to speak on. I hope that next time the hon. Lady will speak to her colleagues for that reason.

I just put it on the record that the restrictions on virtual participation may be why there are fewer Members taking part in this debate.

I understand that, but this is not the only debate that has taken place today, and others have been very well attended. I am afraid I do not accept that position and, as I said, I hope that at the next International Men’s Day debate we will see many more Members participating.

This Government are committed to levelling up opportunity and ensuring fairness for all. As Minister for Equalities, I want to ensure no one is left behind, regardless of their sex or background. Both men and women in the UK benefit from our having some of the strongest equality legislation in the world. The equality hub will consider sex, along with factors such as race, sexual orientation, geography and socioeconomic background, so we can ensure we are levelling up across the country. This will support data-driven policy to reduce disparity across the Union and make the UK the best place to live, work and grow a business. Levelling up is the mission of this Government, and every one of us should be free and able to fulfil our potential.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) mentioned the coronavirus, which, as we all know, is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in decades, and we are not alone. All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this disease. We know that men have been disproportionately impacted by covid and that, after age, sex is the largest single risk factor. However, not all men are the same and not all men will be affected in the same way. My report on covid disparities showed, for example, that the job someone does, where they live, who they live with and their underlying health all make a huge difference to their risk of covid-19. We recognise how important it is that each individual understands how different factors and characteristics combine to influence their personal risk. The chief medical officer commissioned an expert group to develop a risk model to do just that, and the Department of Health and Social Care is working at pace on how to apply the model.

As well as its impact on lives, covid has had a huge impact on Britain’s livelihoods, which give us pride and a way to support our families. Of course, men and women do not exist separately and in isolation; we are part of families, businesses and our communities, which is why the Government’s support is targeted at those most in need and looks at how issues are impacting on individuals, not homogenous groups, so that we ensure a fair recovery for everyone. As a Treasury Minister, I am particularly proud of our comprehensive package to protect jobs, which the International Monetary Fund highlighted as

“one of the best examples of coordinated action globally”.

As this House has heard time and again, we have given unprecedented support through the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme to ensure that people can get the support they need, especially those in sectors most affected by covid-19.

My hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Dean Russell), for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) spoke passionately about mental health. The challenges this year have no doubt taken their toll on many people’s mental wellbeing. It is very understandable during these uncertain and unusual times to be experiencing distress or anxiety, or to be feeling low, and we know that this affects many men. Those are common reactions to the difficult situation we all face. Anyone experiencing distress, anxiety or feeling low can visit the Every Mind Matters website and for advice and tailored, practical steps to support wellbeing and manage mental health during this pandemic.

Will the Government also consider research by the Samaritans that talks very much about middle-aged men who are often missed by community-based support when facing a mental health crisis, which can often lead to suicide? Perhaps the Government could factor that in, so that those people, who are not as visible as those most at risk, can also be supported at times of crisis.

I completely agree with the hon Gentleman. We know that some men are less likely than women to seek help with their mental health and that some can be reluctant to engage with health and other support services, and it is right that he highlights that. That is why I say to every man that the NHS is open for business—we really want to stress that. I urge any man, whatever his age or background, who is struggling to speak to a GP to seek out mental health support delivered by charities or the NHS. Services are still operating, and it is better to get help early.

This week, the NHS launched its “Help us help you” campaign, which is relevant to the point the hon. Gentleman just raised. It is a major campaign to encourage people who may be struggling with common mental health illnesses to come forward for help through NHS talking therapies, also known as improving access to psychological therapies, which are a confidential service run by fully trained experts. I am sure the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention will consider the hon. Gentleman’s point and the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for an action plan on men’s mental health and suicide. I also wish to remind people that the “Help us help you” campaigns have sought to increase the number of people coming forward if they are worried about cancer symptoms, including those for testicular and prostate cancer. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) spoke movingly about his friend who tragically lost his life and urged men to seek the help they need, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). The current campaign will run throughout the winter to ensure that men feel able to come forward to get tested and treated earlier.

The hon. Member for Warrington North asked about rough sleeping, and I want to answer her question on what the Government are doing. On 18 July, we launched the Next Steps accommodation programme, which makes funding available to support local authorities and their partners to prevent previous rough sleepers returning to the streets. The programme comprises £161 million to deliver 3,300 units of longer-term move-on accommodation in 2020-21, and £105 million to pay for immediate support to ensure that people do not return to the streets.

On 17 September, we announced local authority allocations for the short-term funding aspect of this programme. Some £91.5 million was allocated to 274 councils in England to help vulnerable people housed during the pandemic, and recently, on 29 October, we announced allocations to local partners to deliver longer-term move-on accommodation. More than 3,300 new long-term homes for rough sleepers across the country have been approved, and that is backed by Government investment of more than £150 million. As the House can see, quite a lot is being done on this issue, which we take very seriously.

I would like to close by taking a moment to celebrate the contribution that men and boys make to our society. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) talked about men and boys in his constituency feeling that they have been forgotten. It therefore seems opportune to celebrate our fathers and our sons, our brothers and our friends, and, indeed, our colleagues this week, and the progress we have made in supporting them under this Government.

For example, since 2010, we have seen the introduction of shared parental leave, allowing mothers and fathers to share the highs and, indeed, the lows of caring for their new babies. The Government are also committed to making it easier for fathers to take paternity leave, as set out in our 2019 manifesto. Subject to further consultation, we are committed to introducing measures to make flexible working the default for men and women unless employers have a good reason not to allow it. As someone who came back from maternity leave only this year, I can tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that my husband was able to take paternity leave and it made my return to work much easier, given my two ministerial responsibilities as well as my work as a constituency MP, so this is a policy that I am very passionate about.

That is all very well, but will the Minister also look at making it easier for absent fathers to have access to their children and speed up the process through the family courts, which is often a tortuous one that causes so much heartache for so many fathers?

My hon. Friend is right and, yes, that is something we can look into. I recognise the work that he has done to raise awareness of fathers who feel a sense of alienation after losing access to their children. He will be pleased to see that the draft statutory guidance to be issued under the Domestic Abuse Bill currently recognises parental alienation as an example of coercive or controlling behaviour, no doubt in part due to his representations on this issue. I thank him and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield again for their tireless work on these issues and for securing this debate.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield for his vigorous campaign to support boys from white working-class backgrounds. He raised many issues about the way the Equality Act is interpreted—protecting groups when, actually, what it protects is characteristics, which we all have. Some of his questions, especially about whether we should have a Minister for men, are above my pay grade, but I will definitely raise them with the Minister for Women and Equalities and the Prime Minister on his behalf. I assure my hon. Friend that the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which I sponsor, is currently studying how we will improve outcomes for these boys in the towns and regions of our country.

I also pay tribute to the equalities Whip—the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who, as a Whip, rarely has a chance to speak these days—for his successful campaign to get the HPV cancer jab given to men and boys. We are very proud of the work that he has done.

In conclusion, I am honoured to have taken part in today’s debate on International Men’s Day to mark the progress that we have made, and to highlight what more needs to be done.

I thank the Minister for her response and for the work that she is doing to get the equalities agenda right, and particularly for the hub that she mentioned, which includes socioeconomic and geographical factors for the first time—I raised this in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago, and I am very pleased about that. I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), to her place and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for talking about reaching out to our loved ones at this very difficult time.

I say a huge thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I am very sorry that he had only three minutes to speak, because he is as responsible as I am for securing this debate. It is a great shame. He should have half the credit at least that colleagues have paid to me in the Chamber. I thank all colleagues for their thoughtful contributions. I do not have time to go through them all, but others have, and there were some very moving, heartfelt ones.

International Men’s Day is one day that we celebrate annually, but this is not a conversation just for one day. It is a chance to raise great role models and huge challenges—things that we can do every day in this House in the very privileged position that we hold. The public discourse—the negative attitudes—that I mentioned pervades every day. The support that men and boys need is needed every day, and is available every day. We should all be helping men to reach out and seek help, and continuing to raise the issues that we have discussed today—many of which relate to mental health, suicide and our services—at every opportunity in this House, not just on International Men’s Day, but when this day has long gone.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered International Men’s Day.