Thursday 25 November 2021
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
International Men’s Day
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Men’s Day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Sharma. I have been asked to send apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). He wanted to speak in this debate, but with the date change, he was unable to make it.
International Men’s Day—I am not really a fan of these days. We seem to have a day for everything at present. However, as someone who cares deeply about preventing young boys and men from being left behind, it is fitting that I lead today’s debate. In recent years, there has been a creeping narrative that males have it easy; that their life is a breeze and there is nothing to complain about. My standing here may, in fact, be used as evidence of that, yet it is clear that life is tough for many men and young boys, and many of our boys in schools are far from privileged. I certainly was not; in fact, I came from what I would consider a pretty standard working-class background. I do not begrudge that fact at all, because coming from such a background gave me the attitude that if I did not do something myself, no one else would. That attitude is what put me here.
However, it is clear that many young men and boys are struggling and, for whatever reason, are lacking the can-do attitude that will enable them to get on in life. The statistics speak for themselves: as a whole, men and boys are doing disproportionately poorly in education and health settings. To give a few statistics, boys are lagging behind at school, especially in maths and English. Some 13.2% of men are not in employment or education; the equivalent figure for women is 10%. Suicide rates for men are three times higher than they are for women. Life expectancy for a man today is four years lower than for a woman, 83% of rough sleepers are men, and a staggering 96% of the prison population are male. While I do not believe that men are a wholly victimised group, it is clear that if we witnessed such disparities between other groups, there would quite rightly be uproar. However, such statistics do not generate the headlines they should, because issues that affect men do not seem urgent enough to talk about.
Why is that the case? Personally, I believe that this place operates like a pendulum, swinging from left to right as it continually struggles to correct wrongs and injustices. That is a very noble endeavour that has been pursued in this great institution for many centuries. However, I am afraid that the pendulum often swings so far that reaching an equilibrium is no longer the objective. As such, over the decades during which this place has rightly corrected society’s injustices—empowering females and protecting sexual and ethnic minorities from discrimination—we have unfortunately left the struggles of many males out of the discussion. Some may say that men have had their turn, and it is women’s turn now. I find that poor argument rather infantile, yet it is something I have heard within these walls during private discussions, and it is a narrative that I feel has penetrated popular discourse.
I am in no way denying that men have had many opportunities that women have not had, and that remains the case in too many instances. That is wrong and should be continually challenged and put right. However, such a wrong should not be corrected by simply ignoring the issues that many men and boys face. As the saying goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” So what can we do? And why did coming from such a working-class background not stop me from reaching the position I am in now?
First, we must consider the need for boys to have male role models, just as they need female ones. The need for such male role models is highlighted by groups such as Lads Need Dads, a fantastic charity that has done some excellent work in encouraging boys to pursue their passions and to learn skills from male volunteers. The results speak for themselves, and I urge all Members here to look into the organisation’s work and to promote the group in their constituencies It is time that we recognised the need for positive male role models for our boys. After all, failure to do so will only mean that boys continue to be let down.
Secondly, we clearly need more male teachers in our schools if we are to address some of the educational disparities that I touched on earlier. I have spoken to teachers in Don Valley who said that the poor behaviour of young boys with no positive male role models at home is often exacerbated by the lack of male role models at school. Consequently, I say to the Minister that an active campaign to encourage men to become teachers ought to be a fundamental part of the teacher recruitment and retention policy.
Thirdly, it is clear that boys need to have their own clubs, just as girls need their own clubs. It is indeed a wonderful thing that women’s football is on TV, and it is terrific that female tennis stars are finally starting to be paid as much as their male counterparts. As the father of a daughter, I applaud all who have corrected that wrong and hundreds of other injustices. Yet I will also reiterate something that seems very topical at the moment, although much more for women than men, which is the need to have their own identity and for masculinity to be something that can be celebrated at times rather than being continually vilified.
Everywhere, not least within the cultural sphere, there seems to be a call from a tiny yet very vocal minority that every male character or good role model must have a female replacement. One only needs to consider the discussions about who will next play the James Bond to see that. And it is not just James Bond. In recent years, we have seen Dr Who, the Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker and The Equalizer all replaced by women, and men are left with the Krays and Tommy Shelby. Is it any wonder that so many young men are committing crimes? Such programmes make crime look cool. Trust me, a lifetime in prison is not cool, and neither is living with the memory of a stabbed son or daughter.
There is no doubt that we have witnessed awful events over the past year in which the victims have been women. Being the father of a daughter, as I have mentioned, my heart goes out to the victims of such crimes and their families. Yet the awful events that have taken place have led, in many ways, to the word “masculinity” being preceded by the word “toxic” more and more frequently in our public discourse. Yet again, we have to ask ourselves, “Who does this help?” I have an answer: no one. How will this situation make boys and young men see themselves? Poorly, that is how.
If we are to strive to be a safe and inclusive society, we should not vilify 50% of the population and neither should we immediately vilify the term “masculinity”. That is because, just as I hope all women love being women, I love being a man. Most of my friends are men. Indeed, coming from an electrical engineering background, most of my former colleagues are men. My understanding of the world has largely been shaped by the fact that I am a man. I do not think that being a man makes me superior in any way, yet being male is an essential part of my identity, and just as with any other identity—whether religious or ethnic—I believe that male identity should be celebrated, not vilified.
Some may argue that I did not choose to be born male and so it is ridiculous for male identity to be celebrated. I do not suspect that anyone would say that about any other identity. In short, I believe that we should encourage boys and young men to be proud of being men, because it is important for boys to know that, as males, they can make a positive difference to society.
Following on from that, I will just go back to how I ended up here in Parliament. First and foremost, I came from what I believe was a very good home. I was lucky to have good parents and two wonderful brothers. Overall, I was surrounded by excellent role models, who often told me, “Don’t say ‘I can’t’. Say ‘I can’ and ‘I will’.” I did, and look where it got me.
I also went to a great school with the best headteacher, Mr Stephenson, who knew what it was to be a great role model, and I thank him for the time he spent with me. I went to Scouts, practised taekwondo, and became an apprentice at 16. Throughout that time I was surrounded by male role models, many of whom were very good, speaking positively about each other and where they lived. If more of our boys and young men had that experience, we could make enormous strides for the most disadvantaged of boys.
Going back to the earlier mentioned statistics on education, some excellent research contained in the report by the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, “A Boy Today”, highlights some of the reasons why boys may be disadvantaged. One such reason is that boys are likely to be taught better in a vocational setting, than in a classroom. The Government must take this seriously and tackle the fact that boys generally do much worse in a classroom setting.
Speaking from a personal perspective, I can see why this may be relevant to many boys in education. I can completely relate, because I am an action person. I prefer to learn something on the job and for a reason, after which I like to put it into practice. Basically, I just like getting on with it. I can imagine many boys and young men in education feel the same.
We need to find out what the boys who do not do well in traditional educational settings are good at and provide the resources to support them. If it is something out of school, it should, where possible, be brought into school, even if it is just an assembly piece. While we should encourage and champion all children, research suggests boys are much less likely to push themselves, so this needs to be addressed at every opportunity.
In school, the workplace and home, we should also begin to recognise that language is most important. Negativity is never the right approach. One of the greatest lessons I learned as a parent and an employer of many young male apprentices over the years is that we must speak positively in front of young people. Any concerns should be addressed privately with other adults who are responsible for the child’s development or young person’s progression. Telling a young person they are useless or will never achieve is catastrophic. This kind of language is too often directed at boys. I have witnessed it myself.
When a young boy hears such things and continually hears masculinity linked to toxicity in societal discourse, it is no wonder that many suffer from feelings of worthlessness and isolation. I never felt left behind or disadvantaged, because no one told me I was. Instead, I had positive role models who took the time to teach me what an upstanding man should be. We need more of that these days in youth clubs, schools and homes.
I say to the House and the Minister, let us provide families up and down the country with the help and support they need, but let some of that help be directed to our boys and young men. Let us do all we can to introduce policies that help to build strong families. Let us help our communities organise themselves around assisting young boys to turn into great men—great men who can look after themselves, lead and be role models for the next generation.
However, this quest to uplift young men and boys must not come at the expense of the progress women are making in all walks of society. That is especially true after this year’s events, which have shone a light on how many women feel vulnerable in many situations. That is clearly not right. As has been pointed out, men have a role to play in solving this societal issue, yet this cannot be done by vilifying men. Instead, it can be achieved only if we encourage young men and boys in educational and family settings to think highly of themselves and be respectful of others, particularly women.
Therefore, we need to encourage a type of masculinity that promotes individual responsibility, educational achievement and looking out for people, especially women. We should also teach young boys in the classroom and at home not to objectify women, but to be much more like the moral, upstanding male role models who were in my life growing up.
As espoused by Lads Need Dads, give a young lad a good dad or a male model, teach him what is right and what is wrong, watch what he watches—I cannot stress that enough—and who his influences are. Teach him to be proud of what he is—a boy—because from this you will get a man who is an asset to society, a fantastic son or husband and may be even a fantastic dad.
As a society we should continue our pursuit of inclusiveness, but not so that policy makers forget half of society. If we get that right, we should need fewer police, not more. We should need fewer courts, not more. We should need fewer prisons, not more. This is a long game; we need to help men at all stages of their lives. Some are already in a bad place, and we need to help them, but we also need to prevent our next generation from following them. Addressing the disparity that many men and young boys face should be a long-term goal; one that recognises that there will be no quick fixes. However, with a clear strategy and the right people, good things can happen.
Let us celebrate International Men’s Day each and every year by speaking men up, not talking them down, and by speaking well of our sons, our dads, our brothers and our husbands. If we speak well of them, highlighting whenever we can their good points and not their bad, then we will watch them bloom, trust me. They will bloom into someone who is an asset to society, someone to rely on, someone to be proud of and someone who is, most of all, a good man.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my fellow Yorkshireman, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), on a brilliant speech and the excellent work he does as the chair of the APPG on issues affecting men and boys.
Unfortunately, men’s issues have been swept under the carpet for far too long as society focuses on the false narrative of male privilege. The very mention of men’s issues will have hypocritical virtue signallers seething as they try to condemn white men as oppressors. People will no doubt sneer and ask why we even need an International Men’s Day. However, the statistics on a number of key metrics are contrary to that popular misconception. The damning facts show that there are more male suicides, men’s health outcomes are worse and boys’ attainment in education is below that of girls. As a former schoolteacher, I have seen at first hand how boys, specifically disadvantaged white boys, fare far worse than their peers on all key attainment measures during education.
Earlier this year, the Education Committee concluded that decades of neglect have let down white working-class children. There is, of course, no simple fix. However, if we do not fully acknowledge and accept that this is a persistent and real issue, then a co-ordinated cross-departmental plan to target and reduce this educational gap injustice will never be achieved. A 2017 report from the University of Edinburgh highlighted that there are improved outcomes in education for boys who have a positive father figure, as well as improved mental health and lower levels of police contact.
Men are too often run down and berated in society and the media; they are presented as villains or the butt of jokes, rather than being shown as the positive role models they are. The promotion of traditional family values and male role models is vital. It has been suggested that one in 10 fathers suffer mental health problems in the first few years of their baby’s life, and that many fathers do not speak out because they do not want to detract and take attention away from the health needs of their partner. Studies have shown that when men speak up and seek help, there has been a positive effect, both for themselves and for the child. Encouraging that would reduce the far too high number of children having little, or next to no, contact with their father, and the detrimental consequences that follow.
All too often men do not seek the mental health support they need. Data shows that, although men report lower levels of life satisfaction, they are less likely to access therapy. Despite recording fewer suicidal thoughts, men are three times more likely to commit suicide. Men are also three times as likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs, are more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and more than eight out of 10 rough sleepers are male—as my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has already mentioned.
It must also be remembered that men can be the victims of domestic violence, and statistics show that they are less likely to speak out about their suffering on this issue. Furthermore, men are more likely to be victims of violent crime in the UK and twice as likely to be murdered and, among children, boys are more likely than girls to become the victim of crime and violence.
Those statistics shine a light on the so-called reality of male privilege. Rather than campaigners undermining the role of men in our society in the name of equality and diversity, or leaving white working-class boys at the bottom of the pile, we should be trying to increase opportunities and raise ambitions for all. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on International Men’s Day to try to increase awareness of the challenges facing men.
It is not a sign of weakness to ask for support, and I encourage men to access help when they need it. There are some fantastic initiatives and charities out there to provide help, including Elliot’s Place in Blackpool, a sanctuary garden in memory of Elliot Taylor, who tragically took his own life in my constituency last year after battling with mental health problems.
Action must be taken. We cannot simply let this debate become an annual event and then gloss over the issues men are suffering with until this time next year. There are challenges affecting men each and every day, and I hope at next year’s debate we can stand here celebrating some genuine progress and achievements.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) for securing this important debate about last Friday’s International Men’s Day. I know the hon. Member for Shipley also sponsored last year’s debate on this topic in the main Chamber, and that he will be disappointed that he cannot be here today, but I am sure his ongoing commitment to men’s and boy’s issues does not go unnoticed.
As a society, we are becoming more aware of equalities issues, and today’s debate is an opportunity to highlight those that impact on men. This past year has been a watershed moment for women’s rights, and rightly so in the light of many recent events, but it is important to remember that there are issues that disproportionately impact on men too. I also acknowledge that today is White Ribbon Day, founded by the White Ribbon campaign, a global movement of men and boys working to end male violence against women and girls. It is in that spirit of solidarity that we should remember that the fight for equality can only be won when that equality is given to all, regardless of gender.
A few months ago, I met Jason Schroeder, chief executive officer of the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association. Men’s Sheds are an excellent example of a true grassroots movement. A Men’s Shed is a space for men to come together informally and voluntarily, whatever their background. They can come together for social or leisure activities in a relaxed, zero-pressure environment. Perhaps most importantly, unlike the vast majority of social spaces and activities aimed at men, they are completely alcohol free. I am proud to have the Rutherglen and Cambuslang Men’s Shed in my constituency. Its impact is invaluable, and I hope all hon. Members will join me in thanking Men’s Sheds for their contributions across Scotland and the UK.
My conversation with Jason was enlightening and his passion for the movement and the men involved is unquestionable. He explained how the sheds help men across a broad spectrum of ages and backgrounds in innumerable ways. In particular, the support they provide for men who might be stigmatised for their mental health problems or employment status, or who are suffering from things such as alcoholism, is vital. It was clear that a common thread tied many of the issues back to one big problem: isolation.
Social isolation is an issue for men of all ages and comes as a result of a variety of factors. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that 8 million men of all ages felt lonely at least once a week. Another 3 million said that they felt lonely on a daily basis, and one in 10 men said they would not want to admit to feeling lonely. That is a problem that must be addressed. Increased social inclusion can address a number of problems. Having a solid support network is key, but they can be hard to build, even more so for men who live alone or who might have lost their support network under tragic circumstances, or for men who suffer with conditions such as depression and anxiety, which we already know are underdiagnosed because men are less likely to proactively seek diagnosis or support.
That brings me to another way men can be isolated—through the healthcare system. Because men are more likely to internalise their feelings thanks to an outdated social stigma, there is a higher risk of mental health issues worsening, which can lead to self-medication and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drug use. In turn, that leads to physical health issues, a deteriorating mental state and, sadly, feelings of overwhelming hopelessness and an increased suicide rate.
It is not just mental health services that men can struggle to access. Physical health literacy among men must also be improved. Social isolation makes men much harder to reach when it comes to preventive healthcare measures and early intervention. Does the Minister agree that further research should be done on how barriers to preventive healthcare for men can be overcome?
These issues are even starker when we look at men from ethnic minority backgrounds. Cultural differences can severely impact on the ability of those men to seek formal support, maybe for reasons stemming from their faith or because of the taboo that poor mental health carries in some communities. Black, Asian and minority ethnic men are more likely to grow up and live in impoverished areas where health services can be so over-subscribed that they cannot meet demand. Language barriers can also present real logistical difficulties in accessing healthcare. All of these issues can combine to make the very idea of seeking out support completely insurmountable. Will the Government review the barriers to accessing healthcare for ethnic minorities? Each community has its own cultural taboos and stigmas. Will that be looked at in more detail, so that support can be better tailored?
While we are on the topic of health, I highlight the work of the Movember Foundation, which sets out every November to raise awareness of health issues such as prostate cancer and testicular cancer, to increase early detection rates and effective treatment, and to make a difference in mental wellbeing and suicide prevention. A movement born from a small group of men in Australia is now impacting on the lives of men across the world.
Another group of men who might find themselves socially isolated are single parents. One Parent Families Scotland, a charity that operates in my constituency, told me recently that, although its services are predominantly accessed by women, it has seen a noticeable rise in single fathers seeking out help over the past 18 months. That is a position that is often overlooked, unsurprisingly, as men make up only 10% of single parents. We should think about what that might mean for those 10%—for a start, it could mean a lack of peers, which brings me back to my earlier point about the importance of a strong support network. Mother and baby groups are part and parcel of life for many single mothers, but a lot of fathers would not feel comfortable going along and socialising when they might be the only man present.
The prevailing belief in society that mothers should be the primary caregiver, which is problematic in itself, means that single fathers face a raft of unfair assumptions. That very British stereotype of a stiff upper lip means that fathers may often not be seen as warm, loving and caring. If a child has a parent who loves them and does their very best for them, that is all that should matter.
This debate is so important and I am happy that has been recognised here today. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak. I hope that, through discussions such as this, we can work towards a society that is truly equal and fair for all.
It is a great pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for his opening speech. While we deeply miss my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and always will in debates like this, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley did an extremely good job in opening this important debate. It was also good to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). It is interesting that we have two men from Yorkshire and two Members from Scotland in today’s debate—perhaps we need to spread our geography a little wider. I am here as the token Member from Hampshire, but I am sure other colleagues from Hampshire would want to be here if their diaries allowed.
I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) because she raised a number of incredibly powerful issues, particularly the social isolation that men can feel not only if they are single parents but as they get older. I have visited a number of Men’s Shed projects around the country, which are particularly good at reaching out to older men to enable them to understand better the importance of comradeship in older age. I applaud the Men’s Shed in my community, which does so much in that area.
On 19 November we celebrated International Men’s Day, as a way of recognising the positive values that men bring to our society, our families and our communities. I have to celebrate the men in my life—I hope you will allow me to do that, Mr Sharma—including my father, who was a self-made businessman; my husband, who is a highly successful lawyer; my two brothers, who are very successful in their own family lives; and of course my two sons, one of whom was born on International Women’s Day. He has had to endure me referencing him for 15 years now on International Women’s Day, so I am glad to be able to reference him now in relation to International Men’s Day. He is a highly successful young man, just embarking on his university career.
This debate continues to be incredibly important. With the advent of shared parental leave, the right to request flexible working for everyone, and equal marriage for same-sex couples, all of which have come in during the last 10 years, I do not think that British men have ever had more opportunities to challenge some of the really negative gender stereotypes that have been alluded to already. May I gently say that men need to find their voice? Three hon. Gentlemen have taken time out of their busy schedules to be part of this important debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley would have been present if his diary had allowed him, but people—particularly male leaders in our community—need to be prepared to speak out and challenge status quos that they feel are not right.
I was really privileged last Friday evening to be at an event organised by a constituent of mine on the importance of challenging ethnic stereotypes. At that event, one of my councillors talked about the importance to him of the changes that had happened in our society that affected gay men, how important it is that gay men can now have a marriage in the same way that anybody else can and adopt children, and the incredible way in which our society has adapted and changed. I do not think that we should forgot that in the debate.
There is, however, still much more to do. When we turn on the television or the radio we hear stereotypes—in the media, online and in advertising—that portray men as if they may be failing if they are not a dominating male breadwinner, or if they have experienced family breakdown or been made redundant through no fault of their own. Issues of consent in intimate relationships can feel very complex and even frightening for young men, so International Men’s Day is a real opportunity for us to voice some of those issues and really challenge that. I urge all Members of Parliament, particularly the men, to see their important role in doing that in their own community.
The pressure of stereotypes could be very closely linked to the issue that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West talked about: the prevalence of suicide among men, which has a devastating impact on not just a family but a whole community. Suicide is disproportionately likely to happen to men. It is the biggest killer of men under the age of 50, with those aged 20 to 59 at the highest risk, as well as people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Last year in England, 75% of all suicides were men, with a similarly high, or higher, figure across the UK. Even more worrying is the gap between men and women, which has increased over time.
We can all play a part in dismantling the stigma around mental health and, as the hon. Lady said, supporting men to access medical support more easily, particularly mental health support. It is really important that we do that, because although men report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, which is startling enough, according to the Government’s national wellbeing survey, NHS data show that they are less likely to access psychological talking therapies for even common mental health problems. I really hope that the Minister takes away from this debate that iniquity of access, because it affects all of us who have men in our families, and we do not want them to feel as if they cannot access these things.
By having open and honest conversations with our family and friends, we can remind the men in our lives that they are not alone. I am pleased that the Government have already invested £57 million in suicide prevention through the NHS long-term plan, but I hope that that is part of a bigger plan for supporting men to access the sort of mental health support that they need. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South said, many organisations can help anyone who experiences distress or anxiety or who feels low. I would encourage anybody to visit the Every Mind Matters website and gov.uk for advice, particularly on practical steps to support their wellbeing and to manage any mental health problems. I also take this opportunity to highlight fantastic mental health services and suicide prevention organisations such as MIND, Campaign Against Living Miserably and Rethink Mental Illness, which are doing incredible work alongside organisations such as Samaritans.
Men face many challenges in society, including attainment levels in education, which my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley talked about, high levels of prostate cancer, higher levels of absence from family life, high levels of rough sleeping and difficulties in reoffending. These are incredibly complex issues, which is why I am glad that we are able to shine a light on them today and to look at how they disproportionately affect men.
I will spend the rest of my time in the debate talking about one of the themes of International Men’s Day this year: better relations between men and women, which we always strive for in my household. This is a simple concept, but it encapsulates the core action needed to achieve and embrace equality, so that we can lift each other up. I am particularly keen to press for better relations to be fostered and strengthened online, because too often we hear about cases of abuse between men and women; behaviour that would be difficult to comprehend in the offline world appears every day in the online world.
I hope that the Online Safety Bill, which will hopefully come shortly, will address some of these issues. For instance, the Government’s own research found that there is a substantial evidential link between the use of pornography by adult men and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women. Studies also reveal that the algorithms of porn websites have been actively promoting sexual violence, and even illegal pornography, with one in eight video titles on the home pages of porn sites promoting this content. It is not right that tech companies should fuel division between men and women through their algorithms, so I hope that the Bill will address that.
Practices such as image-based abuse primarily affect women but can affect men too, and can thwart men and women from having healthy relationships and respect for one another. This attitudinal problem trickles down to cultures between boys and girls in school, as was evidenced in the recent Ofsted report on sexual abuse in schools. It is with the combined strength of men and women that we will be able to create a fairer online world, fairer workplaces and fairer communities. We should work together on this.
I end by thanking the inspirational men not only in my life but in my whole community for helping to tackle the inequalities and challenges that men face and for the way they work with women to create a stronger and fairer society. I hope that, in future debates, more male colleagues will find time to come and find their voice on these issues. We have huge support among male colleagues for the many debates we have on women’s issues. I wish they would find a voice to talk about the issues they face as well. By doing that, we can find the right solutions for everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I commend the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing the debate and for his opening speech. I may have misunderstood him, but he mentioned a number of television shows. I am not sure if he would think that Queen Latifah taking over a role in “The Equalizer” from Edward Woodward, and now Denzel Washington, means that strong female characters are negative, when I see that as a positive myself.
I enjoyed the opening speech a lot more than I enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). I disagreed fundamentally with his opening remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and others mentioned the organisation Men’s Sheds. I have visited the Men’s Shed in my local area, and it is a fantastic group. She made some fair points about male single parents, as well.
The former Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), mentioned one of the themes of International Men’s Day—better relations between men and women—and said that she sought better relations in her own house. I am completely outnumbered and surrounded by women and girls in my house—even the cat is a girl—so I have no say whatsoever in my house.
I agree with much of what has been said on men’s mental health, suicide rates, social isolation and men’s health in generally, but these subjects all merit their own debates in which we can drill down on the issues involved. They are very serious issues that we have probably not shone a big enough light on in this place. They deserve more attention, not just in this place but in society at large.
This is where at least some of my consensual remarks end, because International Men’s Day is anathema to me. It is a rather cruel joke concocted in response to feminism, women’s rights and International Women’s Day. My personal view is that international days are usually for the oppressed, the underprivileged or those facing inequality. It is shameful that in 2021 International Women’s Day is still all too necessary, and even sadder that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is even more important than ever. It is the bitterest of ironies that this men’s debate takes place today, on that very day. It is also called White Ribbon Day and it marks the start of 16 days of activism.
The vast majority of people involved in International Men’s Day, particularly here in the UK, are doing so for the very best of reasons. I pay tribute to what they are setting out to do. I do not want any of them to think that my negative comments cast aspersions on them, but I have a fundamental problem with the day itself.
I want to briefly address one of the substantive issues raised by Members, because the Scottish Government are taking action on the issues that impact men and boys in particular, including improvements in mental health support and suicide prevention, which every Member here has spoken about.
The Public Health Scotland has stated:
“There were 805 probable suicides registered in Scotland in 2020, which is a decrease from 833 in 2019.”
As far as I am aware, that is a similar rate to the rest of the UK. It goes on:
“Just under three-quarters (71.4%) of people who died by suicide in 2020 were male…The highest crude rate of suicide for males occurs in the 35–44 age group.”
There is regional disparity in Scotland, and the further north one goes the higher the rate of suicide, with Orkney the highest at 19.3 deaths per 100,000, and 18.9 per 100,000 in the Highlands, compared to 14 per 100,000 for the whole country. We know that these suicides sadly occur for a variety of reasons, but sexual identity, societal and cultural conditioning and role models all play a role. This says a lot about the psychology, behaviour and mental health of men in our communities.
The Scottish Government published Scotland’s mental health transition and recovery plan last year. It prioritises rapid and easily accessible support to those in distress and ensures safe, effective treatment and care of people living with mental illness, long-term physical health conditions or disabilities. Between 2002-2006 and 2013-2017, the rate of death by suicide in Scotland fell by 20%. Under the current plans, the target is to further reduce the rate of suicide by another 20%.
I want to go on to talk about men’s achievements, although I doubt they will be the kinds of achievements that Members want talked about today. I am not sure that the hon. Member for Blackpool South will be keen on my remarks. It is fairly easy to make sure that men’s achievements are celebrated regularly when, essentially, the entirety of western society has been run for the convenience and security of men over women since God was a boy. That has also meant that men’s other achievements—the ones that are not so positive—are also pushed down the pecking order.
The Femicide Census, published last year, found that more than 1,400 women and girls were killed by men in the decade starting 2009. We know that high-profile cases, for whatever reason, capture the headlines: Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Nicole Smallman and so on. They are the tragic tip of a much larger iceberg of endemic male violence against females: 92% of defendants in prosecutions relating to domestic abuse are male; 84% of victims relating to sexual offences are female; one in three teenage girls have experienced some form of sexual violence from their partner; and one in five have experienced it since the age of 16. Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend that Members watch the BBC Three documentary by Zara McDermott on rape culture and sexism in our schools, which I watched last night. It is essential viewing.
Those statistics prove why we should have an international men’s day and why we should speak men up instead of continually putting them down. As I said in my speech, the vilifying of men and continually expecting them to fail makes the situation worse, not better. We should, with the help of the Government, help families and young men to live good lives in which they feel valued and not isolated, and proud to be men instead of having to cover up all the time and feel awful for being men. If we celebrated men and said, “You can do good things and you are a good person”, we would see the statistics that the hon. Gentleman spoke about, which are absolutely dreadful, fall. Let us talk positively instead of negatively about men all the time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have a lot of sympathy with elements of the point he made, but before we get to that we need men in general to take responsibility for what men have done and continue to do. We see it in our papers and news bulletins day in, day out. We need to take responsibility. We need to stop this at source. It is up to us not to walk on by and allow abuse or anything of that nature to happen in the streets and dressing rooms. I played rugby for 17 years. I heard plenty of sexism and misogyny in that time. To be completely honest, for those 17 years when I was younger, I probably did not say a thing about it, either, but that is what we need to change.
Although I accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s point, I think we need to get to a state of acceptance first and take responsibility for the issue at hand. It is men who are overwhelmingly responsible for the violence and misery suffered by millions of our families, friends or colleagues—misery that they suffer purely because they are women. Frankly, I am a bit sick of hearing unadulterated mince about how hard done by men are becoming, as we have heard in this debate as well. We are not the ones who are afraid to go out on the streets, especially after dark, with this time of year effectively keeping many women prisoners in their own homes.
We are not the ones who are outnumbered two to one in this place and who have had the right to vote on the same basis as men for less than a century. We are not the ones, 50 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970, still sitting at the sharp end of the gender pay gap. It is not women who are setting the pay rates. Under 40% of FTSE 100 board members are women, and only eight of those companies are headed by women.
I will complete my point first. I do not for one moment suggest that if boardrooms suddenly looked a bit more gender balanced and reflected wider society, we would suddenly see an outbreak of pay rises and better terms and conditions, because big business will always be big business, but as men we should accept our part and our responsibility for maintaining the status quo.
On the point about how women are not doing as well as men, I pulled together some statistics before the debate to see where we are, especially in Doncaster. Some 27 of the 32 primary school heads are female, and four out of seven secondary school heads are female; chief constable for South Yorkshire Police, female; Doncaster district commander and chief superintendent, female; senior coroner, female; South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue chief fire officer and chief executive, female; chief executive of Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust, female; Doncaster Council directors, two female and three male, and assistant directors nine female and four male; elected Mayor, female; opposition council leader, female; chair of the board of Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, female. Shall I go on? The idea that women are completely oppressed is definitely and utterly incorrect.
All that proves is that it can be done. I presume the hon. Gentleman was talking about his local area, constituency and local authority. That sounds fantastic, but I am citing the overall figures for the entire country, and I stand by them. His part of the world might be a pocket of equality, but those figures simply do not stand up to scrutiny from a nationwide point of view.
International Men’s Day should be, in part, about us all reflecting on our own behaviours and attitudes, and those of our peers. The patriarchy was not created out of thin air; it is a product of how we and our forefathers have viewed the world and women’s places in it in relation to men. For far too long, that place has been the second-class section of society. Some of those behaviours and attitudes were on display in Parliament when it came to ratifying the Istanbul convention, which is the gold standard in preventing violence against women and girls.
I campaigned pretty hard on that issue, and indeed, I spoke about it during my Westminster Hall debate on men’s role in ending violence against women and girls. I was thoroughly delighted when my then colleague Eilidh Whiteford was able to make the ratification of that convention a statutory obligation for the Government. We are now coming up to the fifth anniversary of the Second Reading of her Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017, however, and we still have not ratified the convention.
I remember that day well. A certain MP spoke for well over an hour in an attempt to talk out the Bill, which aimed to ensure that the UK met its international obligations, as well as its obligations to women and girls. That is the kind of behaviour that confirms for many that the pervasive attitudes at the top of society have not changed much over the decades. When that same Member says:
“I don’t believe that there’s an issue between men and women”
while speaking at a conference for an organisation that issues awards for “Lying Feminist of the Month”, it simply speaks to a wider perception that there is a serious whiff of misogyny and hardcore sexism about this place.
For the avoidance of doubt, that Member was the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who originally co-sponsored this debate. It would be an understatement to say that that undermines what many who support International Men’s Day were hoping to achieve for this debate—[Interruption.] Yes, I emailed the hon. Gentleman to let him know that I was going to mention him, if that is what you are about to ask, Mr Sharma.
I am moving past that very brief mention of it. I know that those perceived sexist attitudes are not held by the majority of Members, and it falls to us to say that these antediluvian attitudes do not represent us or, I hope, how our Governments and civil society think.
The hon. Gentleman is certainly making some interesting comments. On the advancement of women in politics, it is brilliant that the number of female MPs in this place has risen so starkly since 1997. Of course, that has been replicated in the Scottish Parliament, where we have a female SNP leader.
The hon. Gentleman has been speaking more broadly about some of the negative effects that men have had on society, particularly in relation to sexual violence against women. What impact does he think the purported actions of the previous leader of his party have had on the confidence of women and girls in Scotland to come forward and report issues?
I am not really sure that I will dignify that question with a response. It is for that person to justify his actions. There have been plenty of court cases on that issue; I will not stand here and defend anyone.
To go back to International Men’s Day, as you hoped I would, Mr Sharma, let us talk about the full achievements of men: centuries of subjugating and belittling half of the population, and having to be dragged kicking and screaming to give women the vote. I appreciate that it is all very negative looking backwards, but my point is that we need to accept the reality. Far too many men still do not accept the reality or take responsibility for these actions, which we need to look back on and accept before we can move forward. These actions included locking single mothers up in homes with their babies until the right adoptive parents came along, at which point the male-run state forced those mothers to sign over their own children. That happened not once or twice but hundreds of thousands of times across these isles.
Yes, there are issues and challenges specific to men, which must be highlighted and tackled: the attainment gap in education, the lower life expectancies linked to poorer health and care, and the huge human cost of prison and recidivism. However, let us not pretend that the balance sheet is not tipped hugely in favour of men and against women. That culture and our deeply ingrained structures in society contribute to a toxic masculinity that is to the detriment of both men and women.
I hear what the right hon. Member says. She obviously speaks with a great deal of knowledge, with her background in Government and Committee. However, while I accept the premise of her point, I have stressed before that there are far too many people in society and in this place who still cannot accept the reality of the situation. Until that is the case, we cannot really move on, and that is my central point, which is exactly in the spirit of what the right hon. Lady suggests. Once we get to a point of acceptance, then we have to move forward in lockstep and improve the lives of everyone together.
The combination of our culture and our deeply ingrained societal structure is toxic, but we are gradually moving beyond a model of families and households that treat one partner as inferior towards a model where gender roles are ignored. I welcome the progress of Governments both north and south of the border in expanding free early years learning and childcare, although I would say that our colleagues down south have some way to catch up. That is helping to reshape the expectations for family life towards a more equitable set-up. This has been helped by changes in attitudes and entitlement to paternity leave.
We are not going to change this country’s culture and ingrained attitudes overnight, but we can make significant changes that help women and men redefine their positions and place in the world. A transformational boost in paternity leave would be one of those changes. I hope that the Minister will take that back to her Department for further study.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group for the White Ribbon campaign, and I am proud to be an ambassador for both White Ribbon UK and White Ribbon Scotland, whose badge I wear on my lapel today. That campaign, which was referenced already by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, was set up in the wake of a horrific massacre in Montreal, where a self-identified “anti-feminist” murdered 14 women in cold blood. That was in 1989. Decades later we are still seeing that toxic masculinity embed itself in large parts of society with the rise of the incel movement. What links those is a learned behaviour of men and boys towards women and girls. That behaviour and the social cues and norms that back it up have to be challenged by men—all of us.
We have to acknowledge the wrongs we have perpetrated on women for millennia. We must each do our bit to try and roll those wrongs back for the future. The fight for gender equality needs action at the top, from our Governments to our businesses, employers and public services. It also needs individual action from every one of us. We need to tell our friends when their behaviour is unacceptable and tell our colleagues when their actions—while perhaps unintended or unknowing—are helping to continue the cycle of disrespect.
If International Men’s Day is to be something worth commemorating each year, it should be as a reflection and acknowledgement of the damage and human suffering that our place, versus that of women, has caused and is still causing. It should be a time when we come together to discuss and debate how best to change our own behaviours to support women and build a better, more equal and fairer society.
It is a real pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma.
Let me of course congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on opening the debate, and all the right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed. We have had such an interesting discussion over the last hour. As the shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, I want to stress how important it is to me and my party that we address inequalities wherever we may find them and however they manifest themselves. We will never, as a country or a society, be able to truly flourish if we are not enabling all our people to access opportunities and fulfil their potential, whatever their background. As we have all heard this afternoon, for too many men in our country that is not always possible, and for many men it has become harder over the last 10 years.
I will begin with one of the starkest statistics of all. It has been referred to by a number of speakers in this debate. It is the very disturbing figure that men are now three times more likely than women to commit suicide, and that gap has grown over time. We must all ask ourselves what more we can do to support men who feel that they have lost all hope, and how we can reduce that awful figure. Part of the answer advocated by specialists in this field, and referred to in this debate by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), is to break down stereotypes that make it harder for some men to talk about their mental health. I add my praise to the various organisations that work on this: the Men’s Sheds project, Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, the Samaritans and so many others that do tremendous work, and of course the many volunteers who support those organisations.
Another part of the solution is ensuring that we have better provision of mental health services overall. That is more important than ever, given the dreadful waiting lists for mental health support in many parts of our country. I am sure that all Members here today are aware of that, having seen in their postbags quite how long those waiting lists are now. My party, the Labour party, has said that we would take strong action to reverse that trend and ensure access to mental health treatment within a month for everyone who needs it—a distant dream for so many men and women across our country currently—and that we would hire 8,500 new staff, so that 1 million new people could access treatment by the end of our first term in office.
It is also clear from this afternoon’s debate that we need early action to prevent the problems that some men and boys face from arising in the first place or worsening over time. We need a serious discussion. I found some of the debate a little confusing, perhaps reflecting some of the confusion reflected by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). I probably misheard the suggestion that, for example, discussion about who should be the next 007 was a reason for boys potentially turning to a life of crime. The situation is surely far more complex than is suggested by an easy read-off from cultural discussions of that type.
We know, and have discussed this afternoon, that boys tend to perform worse than girls in education. That is the case at the end of primary school, with 60% of boys reaching the standard expected of them compared with 70% of girls, but also at the end of the GCSE year, when 75% of girls achieve at least grade 4 in both English and maths compared with 69% of boys. We also know that boys are three times more likely than girls to be excluded from school—something that I know causes tremendous concern to many people.
Reducing those disparities requires early and sustained intervention. It is of course very concerning that we have seen the removal of Sure Start centres, which provided that early intervention for so many families and supported them, and that we have not seen the sustained programme of education catch-up that is so necessary, with many boys and girls of course missing out on the support that they need. My party has called for both a proper catch-up education plan and a catch-up for children’s social skills. That is why we say that breakfast clubs need to be provided for all children as an element of catch-up—something that has not happened.
We also need early intervention when it comes to addressing men’s health issues, about which a number of concerns have been articulated during the debate. Early intervention is particularly important for male-specific cancers, and overall cancer incidence is 24% higher for men than for women. More men than women are overweight or obese, and in 2020 almost 14,000 more men than women died from heart disease. I am particularly concerned by both the extent of drug-related deaths across the UK and the very stark gender disparities there. Men are far more likely to die drug-related deaths, and, disturbingly, that rate has been going up in our country, particularly strongly and worryingly in Scotland. We must deal with that.
Those stark statistics show the need for a proper public health strategy focused on acting early to support people so they can nip problems in the bud, live healthily and get the care they need. There have been substantial cuts to public health budgets, and even before the pandemic only half of all adults over 40 in England were attending the regular health checks that were introduced by a Labour Government in 2009. Those checks are particularly important for the men who may not proactively seek support with their health, and they are especially important for spotting disease early on, not least cardiovascular disease. To address the problems we have heard about this afternoon, we need to turn the tide on rising health inequalities and improve health for men—indeed, for everyone—by tackling problems at source and seeing health as not a stand-alone policy issue, but one that is embedded in, and impacted by, everything the Government do.
We also need to consider these issues at a more detailed level than just the overall category of men and boys. In the three areas that I have just highlighted—male suicide, educational attainment and men’s health—we know full well that not all men and boys are affected in the same way: other deep-rooted inequalities are overlaid on those worrying trends. The Government’s own suicide prevention strategy from 2012, for example, highlighted that gay and bisexual men are at higher risk of experiencing suicidal ideation, self-harm and substance misuse, and as well as the educational attainment gap between boys and girls, there is an even starker divide between children from poorer backgrounds and their wealthier peers, with secondary children on free school meals being 18 months behind by the time they take their GCSEs. Disturbingly, life expectancy is actually falling in some parts of the country. That is not happening in many other countries, but it is happening in ours. The largest decreases have been in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in the north-east of England, while the largest increases in life expectancy have been in the least deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in London. We need to look at these inequalities in the round and we need a Government who are committed to addressing all of them. It is that holistic, ambitious approach that will ultimately improve life for everyone in our country, men and boys included.
I will finish by mentioning a fact that a number of other Members have drawn attention to: we are discussing International Men’s Day, which, of course, was last week, on 25 November, which happens to be White Ribbon Day—a day on which men across our country are called upon to make a promise that they will never commit, excuse, or remain silent about male violence against women. The comments made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke about online harms are very important in that context. We need strong reform and for internet companies to take strong action against online harms against women and girls.
We also need strong action against other forms of violence, including domestic violence. Yesterday’s truly appalling statistics showed that overall levels of domestic abuse have doubled in the last five years—I am slowing down to emphasise that appalling state of affairs—and three quarters of domestic homicide victims were women. It would be remiss of me, therefore, not to mention that we are in the midst of an epidemic of violence against women and girls in this country. Sadly, that epidemic is not being dealt with effectively by Government. The number of charges and prosecutions has actually dropped year on year over the last five years; the figures have been getting worse.
The hon. Member for Don Valley seemed to suggest at various points—I am sure that he did not mean to suggest it, but that is what it sounded like—that there was some kind of a trade-off between celebrating the achievements of men and boys, which I am sure we all want to do, and taking action on violence against women and girls. Of course there is no trade-off; we must do both. As I say, I am sure that he did not mean to suggest that there is a trade-off, even inadvertently.
We must all take action against forms of violence against women and girls, so I hope that everyone will listen to the messages from the very important White Ribbon Campaign today and that everyone will act to ensure that, in every action we take in this place, we also celebrate the achievements of everyone in our country, including boys and men.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this debate and for his ongoing work to ensure that the issues faced by men and boys are not neglected. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, he headed up the publication of the report “A Boy Today”, which is essential reading on the barriers that many boys and men face in today’s society. I thank him and all the members of the APPG for their work, and all those who contributed to that valuable report.
We are now in the seventh year of marking this day with a debate, illustrating the importance of the event to all of us here. The issue, of course, is not just important in this House. Over 400 organisations across the UK are taking part this year; I think that “Loose Women” even became “Loose Men”, if only for one day. My hon. Friend should know that these swapsies happen across the board.
I thank everyone who has spoken in the debate for their thoughtful contributions to it and the shadow Minister in particular for the spirit in which she made her remarks. We have highlighted the wide-ranging areas on which we need to continue to make progress if we are to achieve equality for everyone—the areas on which we agree and those on which we disagree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley spoke movingly about the issues that men and boys face. I would like him to know that I agree with him that we must not pathologise masculinity or any other protected characteristic. Men and women are not in competition with each other, and our vision of equality is one where both sexes thrive and succeed, rather than one succeeding at the expense of the other.
If hon. Members will indulge me, I will talk a bit about covid because I have spent quite a lot of the last two years working on it. This year has been another dominated by covid, which has had a huge impact on us all. We know that the health and economic impacts of the pandemic have not been felt equally by everyone. Being male is the single biggest risk factor for covid after age, and men have seen higher redundancy rates over the course of the pandemic than women.
However, men are not one homogenous group with one shared experience, and it would be ridiculous to treat them as if they were. That is why we have focused our efforts on ensuring that support gets to those who need it most. We will continue to do that as the successful roll-out of the vaccine and booster shots progresses.
We are also determined to ensure that covid does not have a lasting impact on children’s education. The hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) mentioned educational catch-up; no doubt she will be pleased to know that we have set up the national tutoring programme to help schools access targeted support for those hit hardest by the disruption. Over the next three years, we expect that programme to deliver 90 million hours of tuition across the country, which will particularly benefit those in more deprived areas—including white working-class boys, who I know are of concern to Members from all parties in this House, as evidenced by the recent Education Committee report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) mentioned that one in 10 fathers suffers from mental health issues. I send my condolences to him and to the family of his constituent, Elliot Taylor, following Elliot’s tragic death. We take mental health very seriously. The challenges that we have faced over the past year have shown the importance of taking care of our mental health and that of those around us. We know the value of asking for help when we need it. Sadly, we also know that some men are more reluctant than others to ask for help.
The Government’s national suicide prevention strategy highlights men, especially middle-aged and young men, as a group at high risk of suicide. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) mentioned that the Government will invest an additional £57 million in suicide prevention by 2023-24 through the NHS long-term plan, which includes funding to reduce male suicide. She will be pleased to know that that is not all we are doing: we are also providing an extra £5 million for this financial year, specifically to support voluntary and community sector organisations working to prevent suicide. We have ensured that the suicide prevention funding for local areas is used to test different approaches to reaching and engaging men.
Despite all this work, we are not complacent. We must all do more to encourage men to seek help and ensure that we listen more closely to those who do. I urge any man who is struggling to speak to a GP to seek out mental health support delivered by charities or the NHS. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for highlighting the work of charities such as Men’s Sheds and Movember and the need to remove barriers that prevent men from seeking help. I am sure my colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care will be happy to hear from her on more work that could be done in this space.
Several Members mentioned stereotypes and role models, and I agree with the arguments made. Not only can stereotypes prevent some people from seeking help when they need it, but they can also limit people’s aspirations in school. Capable young boys can be held back from reaching their potential. We see this, for example, when young men say they want to work in the care sector or with children, when too many people around them act surprised or laugh.
A 2017 report suggests that 46% of men aged 18 to 30 feel that society tells them it is not good for a boy to be taught how to cook, sew, clean the house or take care of children. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West made an excellent point about the stigma surrounding what men should be seen to be doing. We should all counter these messages when we see them, so that young men—as well as young women—can make the most of all the opportunities available.
This highlights the importance of role models. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley praised the organisation Lads need Dads, for example, and I pay tribute to their good work. Fortunately, there is no shortage of positive role models in public life, including those here today, as well as in business. However, these sectors have not always represented the full diversity of men in the country and I am pleased we are making progress so that young boys who may be LGBT, disabled or from working-class backgrounds can also see people who look and sound like them in public life. Aspirations should not be determined by who you are or where you live, but by your talents and abilities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke raised an important point about the Online Safety Bill and its role in tackling the promotion of sexual violence through pornography. We agree that the online world is a place where very harmful stereotypes are reinforced. I am certain that she will be working with the Government to help us tackle this issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is not here. I am afraid I did not tell him that I would mention him, but I suspect he would be very concerned if I did not mention the issue of family courts and parental alienation, which we have not touched on too much in this debate. He is right when he highlights that, unfortunately, not all families are happy ones, but a child’s welfare is best served by the continued involvement of both parents, provided that that involvement is safe.
We know that parents can face difficulties when attempting to spend time with their children after a separation. Sometimes that is because of the obstructive behaviour of the parent the child spends most of their time with. Family courts recognise the problems that such situations can cause, as does the draft statutory guidance for the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which highlights parental alienation as an example of coercive and controlling behaviour for the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley for his work on the issue, which will ensure that more children benefit from contact with both parents.
One of the themes for this year’s International Men’s Day celebrations is better relations between men and women. This reflects the Government’s equalities work. It is not about pitting one deserving group against another, but about ensuring that everyone is able to make the most of the opportunities offered in our country and gets the support they need to make their lives a success. That is why my combined Government responsibilities make so much sense together; as Minister for Levelling up, Communities and Equalities I can work to ensure that everyone can benefit as we build back better, wherever they are in the country and regardless of their sex, age or any other characteristic.
One particularly interesting part of the APPG report on men and boys is the focus on getting a better understanding of why they face specific barriers. This priority is shared by me and other equality Ministers. Our data and evidence-driven approach to equality ensures we consider sex alongside factors such as race, sexual orientation, geography and socioeconomic background, so we can be sure that we are levelling up right across the country. That approach helps to inform policy making across Government, so all my ministerial colleagues contribute to tackling the specific problems faced by men and boys.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) took an interesting approach to this debate. I tend to believe that on these occasions we highlight the positive more than the negative. I thought I might give an alternative view on some of the statements that he made. He said that it is men who are overwhelmingly responsible for the violence perpetrated against women, which is true. However, men are also overwhelmingly responsible for perpetrating violence against other men, the numbers of which are far greater. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said that this is not a zero-sum game. What we want to tackle is violence—whether violence against women and girls or violence generally. We highlight areas where we think there are particular problems, but a holistic approach is the best way to resolve the issue.
We can talk about identity in a way that is too negative, emphasises difference and builds walls between groups, rather than talking about equality and how we can bring people together to solve problems. Yesterday, I was in this Chamber to speak in the debate on Islamophobia Awareness Month. Members across the Chamber agreed that there is too much pathologising of identity, where people target Muslims as perpetrators of particular acts, which is very bad for the general population.
I do not believe that every man is a risk. There are some who have committed atrocious crimes, but I treat people as individuals. My experience—whether in my family, with my father, brother or son, or with my male hon. Friends in this House—has been overwhelmingly positive. As someone who is black, female and an immigrant, when I hear the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North say such things, I can tell he is saying them to sound positive; however, the way he makes those comments is not as constructive as the way Government Members make theirs. Their approach is the better way to resolve those issues. I am very happy to share more of my views on the topic outside of the debate.
It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to join the debate again this year and to celebrate the essential contribution that men and boys make in all our lives. I close by thanking all those who work in or raise money for organisations supporting men across the country —people such as Martin Seager, my constituent in Saffron Walden, whose work on male psychology is to be commended. By working together, we can make real progress on the important issues raised today.
It has been a very good debate. International Men’s Day is extremely important. The essence of my speech was to get an equilibrium by lifting up all men and women at the same time, and I think that is what most Members want too. We should be able to celebrate men without downing women, and celebrate women without downing men. That is basically what we want to do.
I stand by what I said: if we talk up the behaviours of men, rather than continually talking about how some men—a very minute minority—do bad things, we stand a better chance of being good role models for young people. The debate is huge and covers all sorts of issues. Hopefully, over the next few years, while I am fortunate enough to be here, we will talk about a men’s health strategy and a rehabilitation strategy—maybe next year. There are lots of other issues.
However, I did want to speak about bringing up young boys and the influences we have in their lives. The more positive—instead of negative—male role models in the cultural sphere, and the more everyone speaks up about the good things men can do and how boys can turn into upstanding citizens and upstanding men, the better. We should try to do more of that. I thank all Members for a really good debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered International Men’s Day.