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International Men’s Day

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 17 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered International Men’s Day.

It is an honour to lead this year’s debate on International Men’s Day. I hope that this year’s speech gets as much publicity as last year’s did. Last year’s speech led to much controversy, but I believe the message got over that boys need role models, and positive role models at that. I asked to hold the debate again because I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, and as such International Men’s Day, which we mark on Saturday, is an important date in the diary. It is a time to highlight many issues that men and boys face, and to celebrate many of the wonderful charities out there that are doing such wonderful work—Andy’s Man Club, Men’s Sheds, Lads Need Dads and the Men and Boys Coalition, to name just a few.

I also want to speak about these issues because I want to help society as a whole. I am a father of both a boy and a girl—well, now young adults—and I want both to do equally well. However, the reason I joined the APPG on issues affecting men and boys is that I see too many issues, at a constituency and national level, that have a negative impact on men and boys, with no concerted action to tackle them. Of course, those issues have a negative impact on women and girls too, whether it be a brother’s suicide, a partner dying from prostate cancer, a son who is failing at school, or violence that a man commits against a woman, sometimes in the most horrific ways. Men and women all share lives and society together. My reasoning is therefore this: if we help half the population to become better equipped at handling life and more comfortable being themselves, we in turn help the other half of the population. It is a win-win. With the help of debates such as this, and in my role as chair of the APPG, I hope to do just that.

Much of the work that our APPG has done recently has been on the issue of men’s suicide. It is tragic that 13 men each day see this as the only solution to the problems they face. Our evidence sessions discovered that, although getting men to talk and open up is an amazing thing to do for them and helps so much, it is not enough. There are often underlying causes, and if those are discussed but not properly dealt with, men still often see suicide as a genuine way out, regardless of therapy.

I thank my hon. Friend for holding this important debate. My brother sadly took his life recently, so I would like to give a big shout-out to all the community initiatives and charities that support men, particularly the Amlwch Men’s Shed and the Amlwch walking football team, who do so much to support men’s mental health and wellbeing right across Anglesey.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I am ever so sorry to hear that news. I am hoping that, through debates like this, we can reduce that number to zero.

The issues that can cause this include chronic health issues, such as a bad back that stops a man working, money worries through not earning enough or poor financial management, or a sudden bereavement of someone close to them. One of the main issues I have seen in my constituency is the consequences arising from the breakdown of marriages and relationships. Each of those has its own reasons why it can often appear more difficult for men to deal with.

Take the bad back. Like whiplash claims and now mental health issues, men suffering with chronic pain can often be accused of “trying it on”. Paid days off work and no obvious visible signs of injury often lead to the opinion that a man must be swinging the lead. I am sure that some have tried it on over the years, but that is what is so dangerous—the fraudsters. They make it so much worse for the genuine cases. Years of chronic pain with no one believing you is no fun. “The man of the house” is a saying that, unfortunately, does not help, when a man is not able to fulfil the role that he believes he should and that, far too often, society believes he should too.

We have two paths: a path of help from someone who listens and then helps, or another path of health problems, depression, anxiety, addiction and loneliness, and some will think about suicide. Talking is good, but practical support is needed too.

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is aware of the TikTok video in which a woman asks, “What do you do as a man when you have a problem?” and then a collection of men say, “Nothing. No one cares. I have no one to speak to.” Is that not the biggest problem when it comes to men’s mental health—when they talk about it, they feel there is no one there to support them, and they feel forgotten about and ignored? That is the key to getting a policy in place to support men and their mental health.

I could not agree more. This is why Andy’s Man Club, Men’s Sheds and organisations like that are helping enormously with this issue. The growth of Andy’s Man Club over the past year has been phenomenal, so the need is there. I thank my hon. Friend for his comments.

It is the same for a man who has lost his job and feels he has no other job to go to; again, he feels he has no worth and no value. The more he feels like that, the less he values himself, and the less chance he has of getting a job or climbing the ladder to get a better job. He wants to be the breadwinner—another unhelpful word—and wants to have the best for his family; he does not want to say no to his kids. It ends up with an eviction notice, car finance too much, electric metre cutting out, or sometimes with someone in his ear telling him that he is a failed man. Again, we have two paths: a path of help from someone who listens and then helps, or another path of health problems, depression, anxiety, addiction and loneliness, and some will think of suicide. Talking is good, but practical support is needed too.

Marriage breakdown is always a bad time for both individuals. It has a real impact, but even more so when children are involved. When I spoke to a local divorce lawyer, he said that the best outcome that a man can expect from a divorce is 50% of the assets and to see his kids every other weekend. That can lead to other significant problems.

The man should rightly pay his dues, and should want to—he needs to provide for his kids—but he has to have somewhere to live too. He can end up in a situation where he is in a lonely bedsit with noisy neighbours, the heating off and an empty fridge; where there are continual breaches of child arrangements orders with no consequences except more ignored solicitor’s letters and legal fees; where there is parental alienation, because their children’s heads have been needlessly turned against them by the other parent; and where the weekend with the kids gets postponed for no good reason and the kids are not keen on seeing their dad because the bedsit is cold and he never has any money, so the next weekend is missed too, which means that a solicitor’s letter must be sent, only to be ignored—more money spent on legal fees that he does not and should not have to pay.

My mailbox is regularly filled with letters from fathers—and some mothers, to be fair—complaining about the injustice of it all. They are heartbreaking to read and I am sure that other hon. Members receive the same. Again, we have two paths: one of help from someone who listens and then helps, and another of health problems, depression, anxiety, addiction, loneliness and, for some, thoughts of suicide. Talking is good, but practical support is needed too.

The APPG heard that some men believe that suicide is a practical solution to a problem—can we believe that? They cannot see their way through. They cannot cope. They feel that nobody will miss them and they have no value. They think that they got themselves there and that that is not what a man should be like. They have tried to get help, but either no one can help, no one cares, or no one will listen, so that path led nowhere. They think, “This is it. This is my path. Goodbye.” No, that cannot be right. We must stop that. We really need a Minister for men who can co-ordinate action and champion issues affecting men and boys, whether that is lower exam results than girls, men sleeping rough, or understanding why 80,000 men are in our prisons. We also need a men’s health strategy to help to deliver firm action and break down many of the health barriers that men face.

I was a GP before I came into the House, so I saw the way in which men present differently from women, and the different ways in which people choose to interact. They are gross generalisations, but in medicine, a generalisation is a useful way to understand patterns, and pattern recognition is important. It is about understanding that the status that a man brings, and the need for status, is important. It is also about vulnerability and building up trust to allow them to speak about the issues that may come in. Equally, men can be transactional. We need a men’s health strategy to understand those differences and to balance against the women’s health strategy. Does my hon. Friend agree that now is the right time for that?

My hon. Friend is helping enormously with the debate. I have spoken to him before about a men’s health strategy and yes, now is the time. There is an old phrase that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” That is exactly where we are with the men’s health strategy, and a Minister for men.

We need someone to be accountable across Government, which also means putting pressure and targets on health bodies and the education system. Ensuring that the Government Equalities Office gives equal reference to men as a group that it supports would be a welcome start. Equality means equal and fair treatment. When members of the public, including in so-called red wall seats such as mine, are asked whether it is fair and equal to have a Minister for Women and not a Minister for men, of course they say no. They believe, as I do, that we should have both. Why would anyone who truly believes in equality think differently? Let us stop talking and start doing.

Why do many men get through life and many do not? Is it luck of the draw or is it a solid family upbringing? I do not believe in luck, but I do believe in family and I do believe in good role models—good dads, good mums and good role models—such as the dads and men who put their kids first, not the ones who just say it; those who put their kids before themselves every time; those who help with homework before the football; those who put school shoes and a full fridge before a big TV; those who tuck them into bed, not those going down the pub; those who show them how to treat women properly and how to love their mum; the dads that are good role models, and the mums and wives who let their partner be that good role model, too. That is not luck, just good role models who show boys how to become men, how to cope and how to deal with life’s knocks.

We know families do break up, and we know it can be just as much the man’s fault as the woman’s, but we must remember that, whatever caused the break-up, the kids must come first. Why? Because they need a male role model just as much as a good mum. Equally, however, dads need their kids. They need that value in their life and that part of their life where they are genuinely worth something—not just money or material things, but just the value of being a dad—and when I talk about good dads, I mean good step-dads, too.

By letting this happen, we let the child become a good man, and one who does all the things we want good men to do. So if we see a man struggling in his life, we need to talk to him, find out what has gone wrong and what the real problem is. We need to find out what the solution is, write a plan with him, put our arms around his shoulders and help put the value back in him. He might not have had a good role model himself. He might not know what he is doing wrong and he might not know how to put it right. However, if we help him, we can give him another path, and maybe—just maybe—he will turn into a great role model himself.

I am not sure this speech will get as much publicity as the earlier one today, but I hope it does. I hope that we can all help a man in our life, who in turn will treat the women in our lives well, and show the next generation what a good life can look like and what a good man can look like. Some men do wrong, some men struggle and, sadly, some men take their own life. We should rehabilitate the ones who do wrong, help the ones who struggle, listen and practically support the ones who are desperate, and celebrate the majority of men who are good. Let it not be a competition between men and women; let it be a family and a population working together for good.

I ask, at the end of my speech, that we put in place a Minister for men; someone who can champion their cause, take an overarching look at Government policy and be made accountable for reducing the many sad statistics that will no doubt be repeated throughout this debate. We need a Minister to champion the places where men talk, but also look at the solutions that can and should be put in place to practically help men and boys with their issues. As we said in our latest report, there is no point in listening if no one is acting or doing. We need a Minister who can make sure that boys have the male role models they need away from home so that they grow up to be good men. We need to have local government and community groups in place for those men who have missed out on a good man in their life so far. It is often said that prevention is better than cure, and I applaud that sentiment, but some men have already been let down, so we need both—role models for our boys and help for our men. Let us celebrate International Men’s Day 2022 with a Minister for men.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this year’s debate and on chairing the APPG so well, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate in the Chamber this year.

International Men’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate boys and men, and their contributions to society and their communities. It is also an opportunity to look at the issues facing them in the modern world, raise awareness and, I hope, spark meaningful change. It would be remiss of me not to mention the team behind Movember, who for so many years now have worked hard in successive Novembers to raise awareness of prostate cancer, which is a really important issue to shine a light on for men across the UK. I also want to thank the Samaritans for sharing its briefing with colleagues ahead of today’s debate, so that we can address one of the most crucial issues impacting men today and the reasons behind suicide. I want to pass on my sympathy to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on the loss of her brother.

Some of the darkest statistics we will hear today are around suicide. Men account for three quarters of all suicides, and it is the leading cause of death in men under 50 here in the UK. Each life lost to suicide is devastating. It leaves a hole in the lives of families, friends and communities that can never be filled. Most tragically, almost all suicides could be preventable if the person had access to the right support, and if societal and socio-economic factors could be addressed.

Today’s social media age has brought with it new challenges, building on a pressure—the pressure to look good—that has existed for women for centuries. This was not a new phenomenon that came with the birth of Facebook or Instagram, and men will also have been influenced by glossy photos of celebrities and models on magazine stands and in films. That constant pressure has consequences for those of us who do not wake up every day looking like an airbrushed model from a catalogue. The discourse around this issue often focuses on the impact felt by women, and although there are reasons for that—the pressure is ingrained in girls from a much younger age, and much more overtly—the impact that that pressure is having on boys and men is often overlooked. The way such pressure manifests in girls and women might look different, and is perhaps more easily recognised, while men struggling with body image or eating disorders might focus their energy on exercise or the gym. To the naked eye that might seem healthy, because they are bulking up and building muscle.

I am hugely grateful to the hon. Lady because she brings up such an important point about body image, and especially the male physique. Between 0.5 million to 1 million people are using anabolic steroids to try to get that perfect image, and that is ongoing in the UK without us being aware. Does she think there should be more focus from the Government on those kinds of issues that specifically affect men?

The hon. Gentleman is an expert in this area, and I absolutely agree with him. It would be good if the Government could look at that issue—hence me raising it in this debate. Societal beauty standards are different for men, and while thinness might be an aspirational expectation set through the media for women, for men it generally is not. For men there is an image of fitness and muscular build, which means that often those signs in men are not recognised.

Eating disorders are indiscriminate when it comes to gender. There are many, and while anorexia is of course devastating, there is also bulimia and compulsive eating. Those disorders can ravage the body, but they also have an extreme detrimental effect on the mind. Although research on eating disorders in men is inconsistent, having only really begun in recent years, there are some figures that might illustrate how much more prevalent such disorders are than many of us realise. A 2021 study by Beat estimated that approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. The same survey estimated that about 25% of those people are male. That is tens of thousands of men and boys suffering with these conditions, and struggling to access the right support. Some of those males may not even realise that they have an eating disorder.

Two big issues are at play, and both come down to eating disorders being viewed as a “female” problem. First is the social stigma and difficulty that men experience in recognising that they have an eating disorder and in seeking help. Anorexia, for example, is often seen as a problem caused by vanity, which is not only untrue but a simplistic and narrow view of an unbelievably complex disease. The social stigma attached to male mental health is huge, and the less such issues are spoken about, the more isolating and shameful it can feel. Secondly, as a result, men and boys will hide their feelings, and they will not proactively seek help. With the NHS as stretched as it is, and because eating disorders are more commonly recognised in women, health professionals are less likely to spot the signs in men.

I referred to the body ideal for men as being seen as muscular, and I want to touch on muscle dysmorphia, a form of body dysmorphic disorder, which has a higher incidence in men. Sometimes referred to as “reverse anorexia”, muscle dysmorphia is defined by being preoccupied by worries that one’s body is too small or not muscular enough, despite having a normal build, or in many cases an objectively extremely “buff” physique. It is basically a completely distorted view of their body. Although muscle dysmorphia has some overlap with eating disorders, it is not one, but the fixation on that body type, and the steps men take when pursuing it, can lead to unhealthy eating habits, strict dieting, and develop into an eating disorder. Media and pop culture, magazines, TV and computer games all perpetuate that imagery and stereotype, which is unnecessary and only feeds into a hyper-masculine cultural ideal that is harmful to men and boys in somany ways.

The occurrence of eating disorders in men and boys is closely linked to a number of other mental health conditions. Risk factors include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and mood disorders. One study showed that men with eating disorders are twice as likely to have comorbid substance abuse issues, misusing drugs such as cocaine or stimulants for their appetite-suppressing side effects. That is a monumental issue for the men experiencing those problems. It needs better recognition.

I am pleased to hear the hon. Member highlighting the terrible crisis and tragedy of male eating disorders. Does she share my concern not only that insufficient attention is given to men and boys who suffer from eating disorders but that we are not generally good as a society at supporting those people who have been through the acute phase of an eating disorder—they may have got their weight back —to recover? We are better at that post-acute rehabilitation phase with girls and young women, but we are terrible at that with boys and men.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. Yes, that rehabilitation stage does need to be better and include men and boys, not just women. As I said, this is a monumental issue for the men experiencing these problems. It needs better recognition, and they need better help.

I mentioned obsessive compulsive disorder, which, as with most mental health issues, affected men do not find easy to talk about. Representations of it in the media have often presented it as quirky or comical. It is also trivialised: how many times have we heard someone say light-heartedly, “I’m really OCD about that” when talking about keeping their desk neat or their kitchen clean? However, OCD is a serious mental health concern. Like many others, it has a spectrum of severity, with some people experiencing milder symptoms whereas, for others, the constant intrusive thoughts can really limit quality of life. It is not just rituals like those we see on TV of switching on a light exactly ten times. All these traits are common. It is also about feeling completely unable to control the brain’s darkest thoughts and worst fears until they are all-consuming and nothing can be done to stop it.

OCD often has a distinct thought pattern, with obsession, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and temporary relief. It is a cycle that repeats and is commonly comorbid with anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Most people with OCD say that their compulsions are irrational or illogical, but still they feel an overwhelming need to act on them just in case. Because of its perception in the media and more widely, it is another condition that men struggle to admit experiencing. Many see it as shameful or a weakness.

People with OCD and depression will often experience suicidal ideation. I therefore want to reflect on the links to eating disorders, suicide and male mental health in general. There are organisations who can help support those who think they may have an eating disorder. I encourage anyone who thinks that they might—or if they know someone who might—to take a look at Beat’s website, where there is lots of good information. Its national helpline is open 365 days a year to offer swift help and advice.

It is so hard for many men to break down the barriers to accessing the right mental health support. As a society, we need to do better at looking at the men in our lives and letting them know that it is okay to need some help. In fact, it is normal.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for his work in securing the debate. I must say that I am a little disappointed. I would have hoped that, on a debate about half the nation, the Benches would have been it bit more full. Perhaps that is a sign of what the challenge is, because when we talk about men’s issues, we often do not talk about men’s issues. I am afraid that in a debate where we should be celebrating all the immense impacts of men across society, my speech, like others’, will focus on mental health and suicide and how we should be talking more and encouraging men to talk more about the challenges they face. Men contribute so much to society. I wish I was here with full Benches talking about the immense impact that men have for good in our society, just as we would if this were International Women’s Day and we were rightly celebrating the impact of women on us all.

I want to start with a point I have mentioned many times in this place, which is about mental health and the need for greater support. I had a 10-minute rule Bill, which I will try to bring back at some point, which aimed to ensure that mental health first aid awareness is part of physical first aid in the workplace. One challenge is that people, men in particular, do not know how to talk about issues they might be facing. They do not have to wait until the worst time, when it is affecting them in a way that is visible; they should be able to talk at an earlier stage about the challenges they might be facing.

One part of the challenge we have in society is the idea that men are supposed to be all strong. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned the idea of the physical nature that men had to have—the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and the Sylvester Stallones that I grew up with in the 1980s. Ultimately, men had to be strong and not show weakness. As a man it was weak to show weakness. Actually, I say the opposite: that to show a weakness, to talk about a weakness and to ask for help is the greatest strength to have. The challenge for many is that they are not asking and are not looking for support, because they do not always know where to go for it. They do not know who they can trust, who will not mock them or ask them questions about things they do not feel comfortable talking about.

That has been exacerbated—this was mentioned earlier—by social media. Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. I say, sadly, it is now 15 minutes of shame. When you raise a concern, you get mocked for it. If you are not popular, then that is somehow a reason why people can attack you. They can say horrid things to you and move on to the next person. We see it in politics. I call it sniper politics: the idea that you take out one individual, whether a politician, a celebrity or someone in the community, with a hate pile-on. People are vile to a person in the moment and then move on to the next victim and the next victim. Is it any wonder, then, that men and women—in the context of this debate, men in particular—feel awkward raising concerns and talking to their friends in a way that might be shared or laughed at?

It does not have to be that way. There are a lot of opportunities for men to take control of their lives by asking others to help them. One is by forming stronger networks and by having a society where we help each other and listen to each other. That is why debates like this are so important and why I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, especially after the pile-on he experienced last year for making comments in this place. From being attacked in such a way, he has come back today, in a place that could have been quite vulnerable and open to attack, to say, “No, I do believe in this. This is a strong place to be in.” That is a strength.

Sometimes it is hard to go against the grain. Sometimes it is hard to talk about issues that others do not always agree with. That is why this place is so important. That is why I would have loved the Benches to be full of people talking about the challenges they face. We are, ultimately, whether people like us or not, role models. Within society, we have to look at how role models play a part, whether they are teachers in schools, sports people, doctors, or a nurse down the road working at a care home. All those people, across society, are people that young kids, boys and girls, can look up to and see a career option. That can break down barriers. When people think of nurses, they should think of men and women. When they think of care home workers, they should think of men and women. They should not just think of a particular type of role for a particular type of person.

We can also think about places such as gyms. In my Watford constituency, I visited NRG gym recently and I have visited one called CageFit. I heard amazing stories of people who do mixed martial arts fighting. Thankfully, I did not get in the ring—I do not think I would have fared too well—but people talked about the impact of going to such gyms. One of the gentlemen I was chatting to said that once people learn that they can fight in the ring for money, they do not want to fight on the streets for free. That was really about antisocial behaviour and kids in certain areas or in difficult circumstances perhaps being encouraged to join gangs. By joining a gym, they can be around other positive role models and learn that they have value in other ways, through their physique or mental capacity.

My hon. Friend has hit on something: we should not be shy of masculinity. It is about how to use that in a positive way, whether we are talking about sport, going to the gym or being a father figure. That is really important and if we try to close that down, it closes status, and that results in bad mental health. Does he support that philosophy after what he saw in his gym?

Absolutely, and I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he does, especially on physical attributes and ensuring that people do not feel that they should be attacked online because of their body image. I agree—this is not only about surrounding oneself with role models, but about someone feeling as though they can be the best version of themselves. We often see that challenge. We are potentially creating a society, partly through online media, that shapes people to be something that they are not. They can use digital tools to change the way that they look online, but they then compare themselves in the mirror to that unrealistic ideal.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He is talking about the negative impact of social media and pile-ons online, and so on. Does he agree that the more time that boys, in particular, spend online, the less time they spend offline in the physical presence of other young men and boys, doing things like climbing trees, taking appropriate risks, and doing things that will improve their mental and physical health much more than they will sitting in their bedroom alone on the internet?

My hon. Friend makes an important point; she understands this area very well and has done incredible work in this space. I agree 100%—there is, of course, a place for digital, social media and the internet, but if that becomes the world in which someone exists, that has to be a bad thing. Girls climb trees, too, and boys can climb trees with girls, but this is about going out into the real world and spending real time with real people, learning social cues and understanding the challenges that one faces. People can learn about rejection in the real world and in the virtual world, but they learn how to deal with it with friends and by talking about that.

To come back to a point that I made in my maiden speech, I often use an acronym HOPE, which stands for Help One Person Everyday. Sometimes that one person has to be ourselves. We sometimes have to be able to say, “Look, I need to go to speak to somebody about how I’m feeling. I need to go to the pub on a Friday night and have a laugh with my friends. I need to chat about stuff that has been challenging me or issues that I have and not feel like I have to keep all that inside.”

I will start to conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker—I am conscious that there will not be many more speeches, but I will not speak for the full hour that we have left, although you know that I probably could. I want to mention a couple of important points about suicide, which has been discussed. Men are invariably more likely to take their lives than women. That is a saddening statistic and it is the same around the world. In the UK, we have to try to stop this. It is not just about speaking to people, but about making sure that the network exists. Also, for those who have gone through that process and have, sadly, got to the point of perhaps trying to take their lives, it is about making sure that they have long-term support. I ask the Minister to make sure that we have the mental health support for young people and everyone alike, so that people have long-term support to get through the challenging times. I visited the Samaritans in Watford recently, and found that they do incredible work in ensuring that they are at the end of the telephone line for somebody—and, of course, there is anonymity to ensure that they are supported.

I am particularly proud of the fact that this is one of Hertfordshire County Council’s top priorities. It wants to create a county that is suicide-free, and I want to create a country that is suicide-free, but we can only do that by talking about it. We can only do it if each one of us, in each of our constituencies, says that we need to make this a top priority. We need to save lives, we need to change lives, and we need to make sure that the next generation knows this is important.

Let me end by repeating a statement that I made last time I spoke on International Men’s Day. I want to remind everyone who is watching the debate that they should ask others if they are OK—not just once, not just twice, but every time they see them. They should also ask themselves, “Am I really OK?” By doing that, we can ensure that we have a society that cares and people can be signposted to the help that they need, but also ensure that we really do deliver a compassionate country that saves lives, changes lives, and gives people the ability to be the best that they can be.

It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), who made an excellent speech. Let me also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing the debate, and on his phenomenal work—to which other Members have referred—in supporting men and boys. Let me say to him, as one Yorkshire MP to another, that I admire his ability to say it as it is, even if he sometimes gets some stick.

I must declare an interest in this debate. I have a husband, a dad, brothers, nephews and two sons. I was even fortunate enough to reach the age of 40 with both my grandfathers still alive. Sadly one of them passed away recently, at the age of 92, after a long and fulfilling life which included growing churches on the islands of the Torres Strait off North Queensland. The other recently reached the age of 90. He too enjoyed a fulfilling life and an amazing career, and could beat me at table tennis until the age of 80. I am extremely fortunate to have a family full of amazing male role models, including fathers such as my own husband, who at this moment is probably juggling teatime, homework and piano practice. I am very grateful to him for that.

It is a real privilege to speak in this International Men’s Day debate to honour all the great things that men contribute to our families, our communities and our nation, and also to discuss some of the unique challenges that are faced by men and boys in this country. Men and women are different—biologically, psychologically and socially. We have evolved to perform very different functions, in society and in families. Men and women are equal, but not the same. I think that one of the mistakes in recent years has been to push for equality between the sexes—which is right—without recognising important differences, and without celebrating male virtues and male roles. We frequently talk—rightly—about how to get more women into engineering or technology, but pay insufficient attention to the decline in the number of young men gaining technical skills, and the fact that boys are falling behind girls in education. When the traditional virtues of masculinity and male identity are portrayed as redundant or negative or not uniquely male, what is left for young men to aspire to? This is certainly a confusing time to be a young man.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. Toxic masculinity is potentially very dangerous. We set our young boys up to think that there is something innately wrong with them in relation to the way in which they interact with society. Does my hon. Friend feel that that is a problem?

Absolutely. I think that the danger of not giving a positive version of masculinity—something that is unique, positive and good for society—is that, sadly, we are driving some young men and boys to the far right. They are given a version of masculinity that none of us here would support, but which offers them something that, at present, some of the discussions that take place in society do not offer. That is why it is so important that we do offer something to young boys.

I think that some of the economic and social changes that have taken place over the last 40 years have had benefits but have also led to significant costs, particularly for working-class men and boys. The decline of industry and hence of skilled, well-paid, secure jobs has caused a drop in wealth, health and status for many men.

The steelworks in the town of Stocksbridge in my constituency used to employ 11,000 men; it now employs 750. Steel jobs still pay 50% more than the average Yorkshire wage. They require skills and they confer status, but they are now few and far between. The economic and social consequences for men of the loss of such jobs have been severe. We need to consider how we can reinvest in British industry, not to go back to the past but to pivot to the skilled, advanced manufacturing jobs of the future, such as those at the specialty steel plant in my constituency. Not only would a revival in manufacturing and industry be good news for men; it would be beneficial for the UK economy, which has a terrible balance of trade—we make nowhere near enough stuff ourselves—and for our security and self-sufficiency in important materials such as steel.

While industrial and manufacturing jobs have declined, the number of young people going to university has soared. Of course, that has brought benefits, but there is no clear relationship between the number of graduates and the nation’s GDP, and we now have far more graduates than our economy requires. About 50% of recent graduates are thought to be in jobs that do not require that level of academic education. This focus—I might call it an obsession —on cognitive credentials and degrees over technical or vocational skills has been particularly disadvantageous to working-class young men.

Recent research shows that the median earnings of men who graduated from the bottom 23 universities are less than the median earnings of non-graduates. In other words, a significant number of younger men would be better off not going to university—and that is not to mention the debt they will acquire while there. I am delighted that the Government are pushing a skills agenda, but we must do more to open up apprenticeships to young men. The Chancellor’s announcement today that we will move towards a German and Swiss model of skills education is great news, but we should also consider whether some of our enormous higher education budget—I think it is about £14 billion a year—could be better deployed for the benefit of young people and the economy.

Men and boys have also suffered as a result of the decline in family stability over the last few decades. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, the most stable form of family—and the one with the best outcomes for children—is where the parents are married. That is not a value judgment; it is clear from the evidence. Married parents are twice as likely to stay together as non-married parents. By the age of five, 53% of children with cohabiting parents will have experienced their parents’ separation, compared to just 15% of those with married parents. Married men live happier, longer, healthier lives, and boys with committed, present fathers have better outcomes than boys in families who do not have that presence.

Marriage is good for men and boys, yet marriage rates have declined significantly over recent years, particularly among lower income groups. Marriage has almost become a middle-class secret. Of the highest earning 20% of white couples, about 85% are married. In the lowest income group—the bottom 20% of white people—only 19% are married, and the divorce rates are much higher. A poor white child is very unlikely to have a father; a rich white child is very likely to have a father. That is how stark the difference is.

There has been a rise in loneliness among middle-aged men as a result of family breakdown. Family breakdown is also contributing to the housing crisis. I think it might have been the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) who pointed out that a second home is needed when families break down. That adds to the housing crisis and creates financial problems for the family.

The UK is an outlier among western nations, in that our policies and our tax system do not recognise families, nor strong couple relationships and marriage. For example, in the UK we are taxed on an individual basis. HMRC sees only our individual income and we pay tax on that, without any account of how many people that income supports. If someone earns slightly more than £50,000 per year, which is considered a high wage—thinking about the tax thresholds—but they support, say, a family of six, they are taxed the same as a single person who earns the same amount but supports no one at all. As people enter the higher tax rate, they also lose their child benefit and there are all kinds of knock-on effects of the tax system. Other countries such as France, Germany, Canada and the US have different systems, in which the household is taxed or in which family policy recognises the benefits of parenting and supports families. We need to reform our taxation system to be much more pro-family and to make it easier for couples to stay together. I am delighted about the Government’s family hubs programme; we need to determine how family hubs will support fathers to be involved in the early years of bringing up their children.

Finally, there is an issue affecting the health and wellbeing of men, particularly boys, in a truly alarming way. We have a growing public health crisis as a result of the proliferation of online pornography. In 2020, pornography websites received more traffic than Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Zoom, Pinterest and LinkedIn combined. For too long, society has viewed porn as a private matter, assuming that what people do in the privacy of their own home is their own business, but it is clear that the impacts on society have been significant and negative.

We must wake up to the destructive impacts of internet pornography. There is nothing “mainstream” about the porn now available online. Mainstream pornography platforms host vast quantities—unknown quantities—of filmed crimes: videos of trafficking, rape, non-consensual sexual violence, child sexual abuse material, sexual coercion, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and children, intrafamilial rape, humiliation, punishment, torture and pain, all available at the click of a mouse or the touch of an iPhone.

Analysis of 130,000 titles of videos that were recommended to first-time users of Pornhub and other major sites found that one in every eight described sexual activities that constitute sexual violence. “Teen” was the word that occurred most frequently across the dataset; the second most common category was physical aggression and sexual assault. Viewing such videos affects what men, particularly boys, think about sex—what they think is normal and what they think is acceptable.

It is right to think about the impact of pornography on women and girls. It is notable that so many high-profile rapes and murders in recent years, including the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, have been committed by men who were addicted to hardcore pornography. However, children’s consumption of online pornography has been associated with the dramatic increase in child-on-child sexual abuse, which now constitutes around a third of all child sexual abuse, so we also need to think about the negative impact on boys.

Approximately 50% of 12-year-olds have seen pornography online, and 1.4 million children in the UK access it each month. A UK survey found that 44% of boys aged between 11 and 16 who regularly viewed pornography reported that it gave them ideas about the type of sex that they wanted to try. We have seen the normalisation of strangulation during sex, and of anal sex among young people. A year or so ago, a case was reported of a boy who raped a girl in school; when the teacher asked him why he had not stopped, he said, “I thought it was normal for girls to cry during sex.” How are these boys ever going to enjoy normal, loving, fulfilling intimate relationships?

During puberty, boys’ brains develop an erotic imprint in which what they see as normal and appropriate sexual behaviour is laid down. That imprint will stay with them for the rest of their life. How many of these boys will be drawn into serious sex offences? How many will endure broken relationships or broken families, or never form relationships at all?

Pornography also affects boys’ health. There has been an increase in erectile dysfunction among teenage boys. At the extreme, the constant use of pornography can quickly lead men not to become aroused by anything other than hardcore online porn. That is why it is so important that we pass the Online Safety Bill when it returns to this House, and that it goes through the House of Lords and becomes an Act of Parliament. We must introduce secure age verification so that no children can access pornographic websites. We must stop children accidentally viewing or deliberately sharing pornographic images with one another online. While children’s brains are developing, it is so crucial that they do not have access to extreme material.

At the moment, internet pornography is completely unregulated. I am afraid that people who say it is parents’ responsibility to make sure their children do not view it are not living in the real world. Even if a child has no phone and no computer, all it takes is a classmate to put their own phone in front of the child for them to see this stuff. A child is only as safe as the least protected child in their class. It would be a bit like telling parents to teach their children to cross the road safely if there were no speed limit, no crossing points and no side of the road that we legally had to drive on—it would be completely impossible.

As well as being completely unregulated, internet pornography is a public health disaster. On top of the Online Safety Bill, we need the Department of Health and Social Care to lead a public inquiry into the harms of pornography—not only the harms to women and girls, the harms to the economy and the criminal aspects but the harms to boys and men and to their happiness, fulfilment and physical and mental health. The future social impact of this porn epidemic will be catastrophic if we do not protect our boys and girls. I believe that online pornography is the opiate trade of our age, and we should be outraged by what our children are seeing.

Our families, our communities and our nation need strong, confident, healthy and skilled boys and men. It is therefore in all our interests to invest in skills and industry, to support marriage and families, and to end the destruction caused by online pornography.

I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for opening this debate, all hon. and right hon. Members for their valuable contributions and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate on International Men’s Day, when we recognise not only the contribution of men to society but, more importantly, the long-lasting systemic issues faced by many of us.

As an MP sent here from Scotland, and as a representative of the Scottish National party, I stress the importance to me and my party that we persistently address inequality wherever and whenever we find it. As a nation and as a society, we will never truly flourish if we do not allow all our people the opportunities they deserve and the chance to fulfil their potential, whatever their social or economic background. For far too many men across these islands, that chance and those opportunities are not always possible. Indeed, they are becoming increasingly unattainable for many of us.

Far too often, we hear of the consequences of negative mental health for men but little of its factors and root causes. According to studies conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, societal expectations and traditional gender roles and stereotypes contribute to why men are far less likely to open up and discuss or seek support for their mental health problems.

We know that the gender stereotypes faced by women, such as the idea that they should behave, look or dress a certain way, can be hugely damaging not only to them as individuals but to society as a whole, and it is also important to understand that stereotypes and expectations can have a detrimental impact on many men. We find it difficult to talk about our feelings, to open up and to admit we are not coping well with the demands of life—that is to say, the demands that are real and present, but also those we perceive to be upon us.

Men are also more likely to turn to harmful coping methods, such as growing a dependency on drugs, alcohol or other harmful escapes. These actions, of course, serve only to exacerbate and compound poor mental health, leading to a downward spiral that far too often ends in the tragic act of a young man taking his own life. I take this opportunity to call, once again, on the UK Government to devolve drug policy to the Scottish Parliament, which will allow the Scottish Government to properly tackle the root causes of many of the tragic losses of life we see in Scotland week in, week out.

According to the latest figures from Public Health Scotland, 75% of those who died by suicide in 2021 were male, with the highest rate occurring in the 45 to 54-year-old age group. The probable suicide rate was three times higher in the most deprived communities in Scotland than in our most affluent areas. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) spoke about the impact of that. We know that work pressures, low pay, relationship breakdowns and parental alienation—being separated from our children after a relationship breakdown—are key factors that drive men to think suicide is an option.

The Scottish Government are determined to see a Scotland in which suicide is prevented and where help and support are available to anyone contemplating suicide, with further resources made available to anyone struggling with self-harm or thoughts of suicide. The Scottish Government’s new “Creating Hope Together” strategy takes a whole Government and society approach to tackling the social determinants of suicide, so that we take every opportunity to identify and support people who are feeling suicidal.

These kinds of actions and that type of compassion are, regrettably, not always present in this place, and we see that in the treatment of the most vulnerable people in our society. Young men in the UK asylum system are disproportionately impacted by Britain’s frankly inhumane system as it currently operates. The vilification from some in the Government and in the mainstream media only serves to add to that. When the Home Secretary uses terminology such as “invasion” to refer to young men asylum seekers, is she doing so with compassion? No, she is not, far from it.

We know the asylum system is broken, but after 12 years of Tory Government rule the onus of responsibility is on those on the Government Benches. They have created the mess and the backlog. It is they who have failed to repair a broken asylum system, and they must recognise the consequences of that for the mental health of men.

Last year, 46 charities dealing with issues of asylum, children and mental health, including the Refugee Council, the Children’s Society and Mind, wrote to the Health Minister in charge of suicide prevention and highlighted the dozens of suicides they had discovered among teenage male asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries. Zoe Gardner, former policy advocacy manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, gave these poignant words in response to the UK Government’s current asylum policy:

“You can be a man and a refugee. You can be a man and a victim of trauma, torture and sexual violence. You can be a man with disabilities. You can be a man who has lived closeted or been abused because of their sexuality. The narrative that men somehow are not vulnerable and are not in need of protection is completely false. Men are very often the ones targeted in the first place in refugee producing countries.”

If the UK Government will not heed the advice on mental health provisions and echo the progressive vision of the Scottish Government to attempt to mitigate the high rate of suicides and poor mental health regulations, then we again call for the devolution of immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament, which is a Parliament that has proven time and again that no matter where people have come from, or their financial background, their wellbeing will always be our priority.

It is a pleasure to speak on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing the debate and bringing it to the House, as well as the Backbench Business Committee.

I am pleased to take my place here as the shadow Women and Equalities Minister and close the debate for the Labour party. I am incredibly proud to be in this role because it focuses on addressing inequalities in society, wherever we find them. However, the reality is that we will never, as a country or a society, be able to truly flourish if we do not ensure that everyone can fairly access opportunities and fulfil their potential, whatever their background may be.

I want to thank several hon. Members who have spoken in today’s debate, starting with the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). She talked about the overuse of steroids by men complying with societal ideas about what a physically appealing male should look like, and the whole issue of eating disorders.

The hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell) talked about mental health issues and the use of social media and the internet, which can aggravate such issues. I liked his acronym HOPE, and he talked about the Samaritans. I am originally from Watford and many years ago I was a member of the Samaritans, although I am no longer. I remember times when the same person would ring three or four times with the same problem, and it was clear that they needed someone to listen to them and talk to them—not to give them advice or to guide them but just to listen. It is important to recognise how much loneliness there is in our society, especially for men.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) talked about the men in her life. I had a great father and a brother, both of whom have passed away. It is not fashionable to say this, but I have a great husband as well. The issue of toxic masculinity is pertinent, and she said that it had attracted people to far right politics. She also talked about the issue of pornography, which gives a warped view about issues of sexuality.

Before I continue with the main points of my speech, I wish to thank the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) for sharing the sad news of her brother’s suicide. I am sure the whole House sends its condolences to her and her family and thanks her for speaking out so bravely today.

Today’s debate is about mental health in particular, and rightly so. Figures reveal that suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 50. Around three quarters of deaths from suicide each year are of men. Added to that, data from the Office for National Statistics show that the highest rates of suicide in men have been in mixed and white ethnic groups. Men aged 45 to 49 are at most risk of suicide, and the rate among this group has been persistently high for many years.

Historically, we know that there is often an alpha male archetype, which means many men feel forced to stoically toughen up and get through the bad times, while avoiding opening up, speaking to people or seeking help. We need to do more to address these very outdated stereotypes of masculinity. Equally, we need to do more to support men who are struggling or in crisis.

Does that mean that Labour supports the idea of having a male health strategy, or a male Minister?

I can take that back to our team for discussion.

Currently, 1.6 million people are on an NHS waiting list for specialised mental health treatment. That is about one in 35 people, or roughly the populations of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield combined. While an additional 8 million would benefit from support, they cannot even get onto a waiting list. The need for greater Government investment in mental health provision could not be more urgent.

My party would take strong action to ensure access to mental health treatment within a month for everyone who needs it. That is, of course, a distant dream for so many men and women across our country. 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. This would be part of our plan for the biggest expansion of the NHS in history, funded by scrapping the non-dom tax status.

Men’s physical health is of concern, too, because of the disparities in men’s physical health issues. Men have a shorter life expectancy: one in five die before the age of 65. This becomes even more concerning when we compare the life expectancy of men in the most and least deprived areas of the country, because there is a stark gap of 9.5 years. Men are also disproportionately affected by heart disease, and more men than women are overweight or obese, yet despite all this, men are still less inclined to seek help or advice from medical professionals. This lack of engagement can mean that men are often under-supported. Without regular health check-ups, serious issues can go untreated for longer—sometimes when it is too late. This is really concerning; we know just how important early intervention can be in the treatment of male-specific cancers and in overall cancer incidence, which is 24% higher for men than it is for women.

This reminds us how important it is that we have a proper public health strategy for everyone—one that will turn the tide on the rising health inequalities and improve health for men. We need a strategy that is focused on early intervention and ensures that people receive the care and support they need. Instead, we have a Government who have chosen to cut public health budgets substantially across the country. A Labour Government would invest in the biggest-ever expansion of the NHS, as I mentioned earlier. Growing the NHS will also grow our economy and go a long way to rooting out inequalities once and for all.

Of course, one cannot discuss men’s health without looking at boys’ performance in education, which we have touched on in this debate. In basic terms, boys perform worse than girls by the end of primary school, with 70% of girls reaching the expected standards in maths, reading and writing compared with just over 60% of boys. Boys are three times more likely than girls to be excluded from school, something that I know causes tremendous concern to many working families up and down the country.

That gap persists at GCSEs and A-levels. Young women are more likely to apply to university than young men. Those young men who apply are more likely to drop out and those who complete their courses are less likely to get a good degree. The disparity becomes even more acute among those from disadvantaged backgrounds: young women who were on free school meals are 51% more likely to go into higher education than young men. Disadvantaged white boys are the least likely of all groups to go to university, with just 8.9% continuing their studies.

Children have only one chance at an education. Reducing those disparities requires early and sustained intervention, which must be designed to ensure that all children, whatever their background, circumstances or gender have the opportunity to achieve at school and to access university education. Instead, we have seen this Conservative Government systematically shutting Sure Start centres, which provided early intervention support for so many families. There is no sustained programme of education catch-up, something that is so necessary given how many boys and girls are missing out on the support that they need. We want a proper education plan for that. That is why we say that breakfast clubs must be provided for all children as an element of catch-up, but that has not happened.

Whether we are considering issues around physical or mental health or educational attainment, we know that not all men and boys are affected in the same way. Indeed, those issues are often closely connected with other deep-rooted inequalities. The Government’s own suicide prevention strategy from 2012, for example, highlighted that gay and bisexual men are at much higher risk of self-harm and substance misuse. Similarly, a study by the University of Exeter found that men from black and minority ethnic backgrounds experienced a far greater deterioration in their mental health during covid lockdowns than their white British counterparts.

I will wind up in the next minute or so, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you will indulge me. Studies show that black men are far more likely than others to be diagnosed with a severe mental health problem. However, up until the age of 11, black boys do not have poorer mental health than others of their age, so it is quite clear that there are systematic reasons why they experience mental health problems far more than others after the age of 11.

We know that there is a stark divide between children from poorer backgrounds and their wealthier peers, with secondary school children on free school meals being 18 months behind by the time they take their GCSEs. There is no avoiding the fact that white working-class underachievement is symptomatic of a much larger social, cultural and economic inequality, and therefore we must take a holistic view.

Before I conclude my remarks, I want to remind the House that International Men’s Day, which will be marked this Saturday, is just one week ahead of White Ribbon Day, a day on which men across the country are called on to make a promise that they will never commit, excuse, or remain silent about male violence against women. The murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer shocked the whole nation. We thought that would be a turning point, but little has changed, as shown by the recent murder of Sabina Nessa in a public park by somebody she did not know. While men are also victims of violent crime, women are overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of severe domestic abuse, which has doubled over the last five years.

The hon. Lady is making an important point about male violence against women. Does she not agree that it is imperative that we end the proliferation of online porn, which normalises violence against women? Of course there are no excuses for violence against women, and men who commit those crimes should be locked up, but we must recognise that online pornography is driving that behaviour.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and agree with her.

At every level, we should all be tackling violence against men and women. We must not consider gender equality to be a zero-sum game or a trade-off. Let me be clear: we can address women’s safety as well as serious issues and concerns for men. Indeed, we must do both.

I am very pleased to be able to join this year’s debate to celebrate International Men’s Day. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate so that we can join 80 countries around the world in marking this day.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) not just for leading the debate, but for his consistent campaigning on the issues that affect men, and for his work as chair of the APPG on issues affecting men and boys, which continues to shine a spotlight on issues from mental health and wellbeing to boys’ education. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) pointed out, it is disappointing that so few Labour and Lib Dem Members are in the Chamber, because they have missed a tremendous debate.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) about the tragic suicide of her brother. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) spoke so well about the body-image issues that men face, which are rarely talked about enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) spoke about a multitude of issues that affect men, including in particular their roles and importance in family life, and pornography and how it affects young men.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford made a moving speech on a range of issues, and I will start by addressing some of the points he made about suicide. It is tragic and unacceptable that, on average, 13 male suicides occur every day, and that suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50. About 75% of all suicides are by men, so it is so important that we tackle the mental health issues that men face.

It is no surprise that after a number of years of tackling covid, which raised distress, anxiety and isolation over lockdown, as well as fears about jobs, before going straight into cost of living pressures, everyone—both men and women—has felt an impact on their mental health. However, we know that, for a variety of reasons, men are less likely to seek help. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford pointed out some of those reasons.

It is incumbent on all of us, across the House, to urge all men across our constituencies to reach out to the available support. In recent years, we have seen huge strides forward in the provision of support. We now have the Every Mind Matters campaign, which provides practical help and tips to improve our mental wellbeing. The NHS website supporting Every Mind Matters is easy to access and provides a range of tools that men can use themselves.

Importantly, we now have self-referral to talking therapies, so that men and women—but particularly men who are reluctant to seek help—no longer have to see their GP to get a referral. More than 1 million people have accessed talking therapies through self-referral. We are investing in those services by putting in an extra £2.3 billion a year to grow mental health services and meet demand. It is not enough simply to expect men to seek help themselves, however.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her kind words and feedback. A couple of years ago, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to make mental health first aid part of workplace first aid. Will she take that idea back to her colleagues across Government to see whether we could look at it again? I would like to introduce that again. Ensuring that people in the workplace know that they have someone to go to in the same way as if they had a physical issue could be transformative.

I am very happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend. He might be pleased to know that there are mental health first aiders on the floors of the Department of Health and Social Care offices. They support staff there and do a great job. I am keen to speak to him about that.

We need a whole-systems approach, as the APPG highlighted in its report, which I have read. It makes for interesting reading in terms of how we support men, particularly around their different experiences of health services and how we can improve outcomes. A number of organisations are helping to support mental health for men, such as Men’s Sheds, which was mentioned in the debate. Men’s Sheds offers new opportunities to learn skills, build friendships and reduce isolation, and is helping men to meet in different ways from traditional settings, and to build relationships where they may feel comfortable to speak out and ask for help.

We also need to look at how different approaches can work in tandem. Earlier this year, we put out a call for evidence to support the development of a new 10-year plan for mental health. I am pleased that groups such as James’ Place, Men’s Sheds and Andy’s Man Club are among the many involved. We want to reduce suicide rates, and to do that we have to support men, who account for 75% of suicides currently. We are looking to bring forward some specific work on that shortly, and I will happily meet my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley to see how we can take it forward.

We are taking significant action in terms of mental health, but a number of illnesses affect men in particular, including heart disease, cancer, smoking, and drug and alcohol addiction. While life expectancy in the UK is lower for men, women spend significantly more time than men in ill health and disability. That is why we have a women’s health strategy: because we want to tackle the basis for why women spend so much of their lives in ill health. We can improve life expectancy for men by ensuring that we tackle the illnesses that they face. My hon. Friend has challenged me on that before, because he feels so strongly that there should be a men’s health strategy, but I will happily discuss it with him after the debate to see what more we can do.

Not having a men’s strategy, or indeed a men’s Minister, does not mean that the Government or the NHS take men’s health any less seriously. We will continue to look for ways we can support men’s health. There are a number of exciting initiatives, such as the Man Van, which is an innovative outreach programme launched this year that provides free health checks for men and aims to boost early diagnosis of prostate and other urological cancers. That mobile health clinic visits workplaces and churches in London to improve healthcare access for men who are less likely either to come forward or to receive regular health checks.

The Man Van was developed by the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. I declare an interest, as I have worked for the hospital in the past and still do some shifts there. Its specialty is enabling us to target the men most at risk of developing prostate cancer and who have poorer outcomes if they are diagnosed, particularly those in manual jobs who often struggle to access healthcare. Black men, who have roughly double the risk of developing prostate cancer, and an increased risk of death once diagnosed, are also being encouraged to get checked. If the results of the pilot studies that are being rolled out show that they were successful, we will roll them out across the country.

In the short time that I have, I will touch on stereotypes, which have been raised throughout the debate. Phrases such as “man up” and outdated beliefs about what it means to be a man do not help men to get the help that they need. One issue that was not touched on much is domestic violence that affects men. The recent crime survey for England and Wales suggests that 13.8% of men aged 16 to 74 have experienced domestic abuse behaviours. That is an estimated 2.9 million male victims. While the figure is much higher for women, that is a considerable number of men who are experiencing domestic violence, and we need to ensure that we are reaching out to them and supporting them. The Government have increased funding by 60% for community-based support focused primarily on male survivors, and we will update the supporting male victims statement in August this year to outline the further work that we will do in this area.[Official Report, 25 November 2022, Vol. 723, c. 6MC.]

In terms of getting equality for men, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley will be happy with the work being done to support fathers, particularly new fathers who want to take on a full role in family life. In terms of the work around shared parental leave, men are still more likely than women to have their requests for flexible working turned down by their employer, and men still struggle to get paternity leave rights. We recognise the vital role that dads play in helping to raise their children—that is why we are establishing the family hubs and Start for Life programme—and we are committed to ensuring that men get the parental leave they are entitled to.

In conclusion, today’s debate has raised some prominent issues that are affecting men, but we have not had much time to celebrate men. We all have dads, grandads, husbands, brothers, friends and colleagues who are men and who do a tremendous job. Men sometimes get a raw deal in terms of criticism. When my mum died, my dad had to take me and my brother on when we were teenagers, at a time when there was no such thing as childcare or support for single fathers. He did an incredible job. He used to take me to the football at the weekend, whether I liked it or not, which is why I am now an Arsenal supporter. He used to have to take me to work as well, where I learned to paint and decorate, because childcare was not available in those days.

All of us in this place who are married to men are thankful for the role they play. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) said, they support us in our roles, and when we have had a terrible week or the online trolls are particularly active, we are very grateful for them just having that cup of tea with us and making us realise that there is a life outside this place.

The opportunity today to debate the issues that matter to men is important, and I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley to make sure we pick up on many of the points raised in the debate. It is also an opportunity to celebrate and thank men for all they do for us, not just on International Men’s Day but all year round.

I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for letting us hold this debate in the Chamber today; it is really appreciated. I would also like to thank all Members who have stayed on a Thursday afternoon to speak in the debate. It is a hugely important debate, and their support in this place and outside it is really appreciated; I want them all to take that home with them. I would also like to thank Mike Bell and Mark Brooks from the APPG on issues affecting men and boys. They do all the work, and I take a little bit of the glory—that is just the way it works—but I thank them for that. I also thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for letting me wrap up the debate.

We have heard lots of different reasons why we still need a Minister for Men, and I am pleased that the Minister is going to meet me to discuss all the issues. As we have heard, there is lots of help out there. As MPs, it is our job to signpost people to the places where there is help. I ask everybody on International Men’s Day, which is Saturday: if you know somebody who is struggling, send them that text or that email, and point them in the right direction for help. Do not underestimate the power of your voice—just as a person, never mind as an MP. People really do need our help, and men especially.

We have to get the number of men committing suicide down. That is a huge issue; 13 men a day is absolutely terrible. I will be coming back next year and looking at those figures, and I will be holding Government to account. I thank the Government for what they are doing, and I thank everybody for attending today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered International Men’s Day.