I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of male suicide and International Men’s Day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I thank colleagues throughout the House for supporting the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for finding the time to hold it. I also thank the many people who have been in touch with me to tell their stories or put forward their organisations’ point of view. I am grateful to all of them for taking the time to do that.
I said in my maiden speech that I would campaign hard against the blight of political correctness that is doing so much damage to our country. Ten years have passed, and I am still here fighting that battle. The number of ludicrous cases of political correctness has reduced, but the more entrenched ones are still well and truly thriving. One of the main areas where we see the pernicious effects of political correctness is the treatment of men and women. I heard about International Men’s Day and decided it was only right, given that we have a debate each year on International Women’s Day, to appeal for time to be given for a debate to commemorate the day, in the interests of gender parity.
The aims of International Men’s Day are admirable. They are:
“To promote positive male role models; not just movie stars and sports men but everyday, working class men who are living decent, honest lives…To celebrate men’s positive contributions to society, community, family, marriage, child care, and to the environment…To focus on men’s health and wellbeing; social, emotional, physical and spiritual…To highlight discrimination against men; in areas of social services, social attitudes and expectations, and law…To improve gender relations and promote gender equality…To create a safer, better world; where people can be safe and grow to reach their full potential.”
I commend my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He has outlined the importance of International Men’s Day. Does he share my disappointment that this debate is being held in the second Chamber, Westminster Hall, rather than on the Floor of the House of Commons?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for coming to the debate and making that point. I would have preferred the debate to be in the main Chamber, especially given that the International Women’s Day debate is held there, but I am grateful that we have the opportunity to raise these issues, which we have never done before, so it would be churlish of me to be too critical.
I want today to be the day when we in this House start to deal with some of the forgotten men’s issues and realise why the political correctness that underpins issues relating to the differing treatment of the sexes can be damaging to men. It might sound odd for someone leading the debate on International Men’s Day to say this, but in many respects, I would rather we did not have to be here having this debate, because when we think about it, in so many ways, considering men and women separately as if they live their lives in complete isolation from one another is ridiculous. Neither group is isolated. Both sexes have mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. Every woman has related male parties and therefore a vested interest in men’s issues.
The problem is that virtually everything we do and debate in the House seems to start from the premise that everything is biased against women and that something must be done about it. There is never an appreciation that men’s issues can be just as important and that men can be just as badly treated as women in certain areas.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) supported my request for a debate, and I know he is sorry that he unfortunately cannot be here today. Had he been here, he no doubt would have shared the fact that last year, Belfast City Council hosted its first event to mark International Men’s Day. I understand that the event was held in Belfast castle and opened by the First Minister and the Lord Mayor of Belfast at the time, Nichola Mallon, following a proposal by Alderman Ruth Patterson. It seems our Ulster friends appreciate that there are some specifically male issues that should be addressed, with both sexes involved.
I want to be very clear: I do not believe there is actually an issue between men and women. Often, problems are stirred up by those who might be described as militant feminists and the politically correct males who sometimes pander to them. Members do not just need to take my word for it. Before the Equal Opportunities Commission was merged into the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it conducted research that found women had very clear views on these matters. Its findings included the following conclusion:
“There was little support for the idea that women, as a group, are unequal in society today.”
Presumably, that went down like a lead balloon in an organisation dedicated to fighting for women’s interests and rights, so it was pretty much swept under the carpet.
One of the most depressing things to happen recently was the introduction of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities. After everything else, in 2015 we have a separate Committee to deal with women’s issues, on top of the Women’s Minister, Women’s Question Time and the many strategies in this country that only deal with women.
For the record, I could not care less if every MP in this House were female or if every member of my staff were female, as long as they were there on merit. To assume that men cannot adequately represent women is a nonsense, just as it is to say that only women can represent other women. As a man, I can say quite clearly that Margaret Thatcher represented my views very nicely indeed, but I am not sure she would be a pin-up for many of the politically correct, left-leaning women who are obsessed with having more women in Parliament today.
It seems to me that we have an “equality, but only when it suits” agenda in Parliament that often applies just to women. The drive for women to have so-called equality on all things that suit the politically correct agenda but not on the things that do not is a great concern. For example, we hear plenty about increasing the number of women on company boards and increasing female representation in Parliament, but there is a deafening silence when it comes to increasing the number of men who have custody of their children or who have careers as midwives. In fact, there generally seems to be a deafening silence on all the benefits women have compared with men.
Would my hon. Friend add to that list the deafening silence about the shortage of male teachers in primary schools, who are important male role models?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we hear very little about that. If there were a shortage of female primary school teachers, I suspect we would hear a great deal more about it.
The fight for equality on all things that suit women has ended up in a situation where we are quick to point out that women need special protections and treatment in certain areas but need greater equality in others. Let me give the example of prison uniforms. Men in prison have to wear a prison uniform; women in prison do not. How, I have asked on many occasions, can that possibly be fair? Where is the equality in that? I will come on to the treatment of men and women in our justice system later, but that is clearly an issue. What is the explanation? I am told that it is because women are different. As I have said, it is a question of equality, but only when it suits.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I may not agree with everything he has said until now, but one thing I very much agree with him on is the constant obsession with gender equality. Does he agree that some of the people who have the worst life outcomes, particularly in our areas, are working-class men, who suffer some of the worst health issues and have some of the poorest life chances? Simply replacing a middle-class, privately educated man with a middle-class, privately educated woman does very little to increase diversity and opportunity for working-class lads.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Increasingly, working-class boys are some of those who are doing the worst at school and need the most help. I certainly agree with him about political representation. I have often said that replacing Rupert from Kensington and Chelsea with Jemima from Kensington and Chelsea does not do much for diversity in the House of Commons, but that is perhaps a debate for another day.
Of course, some people believe that only men can be sexist. Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform, for example, tweeted the following a few years ago:
“Sexism is not about choosing between two genders, it’s about historic & current oppression by men. Only men can be sexist.”
That view is not uncommon, but it is, I believe, misguided. If it is not okay for a man to be sexist, it cannot be okay for a woman to be sexist. A good example of that is positive discrimination, which is portrayed as a great thing that can rebalance things for oppressed females, yet it is just discrimination. Whether we put the word “positive” in front of it or not, it is still discrimination. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing positive about positive discrimination, and it certainly has nothing to do with equality.
Just a few months ago, a publishing house declared that it would not accept any male authors for a year to redress some perceived discrimination against female authors. I never quite understood that, because as far as I can see, there are plenty of published female authors, but leaving that aside, people commended the publishers for their stance. Imagine if another publisher had said that it was not going to publish female authors—there would have been an outcry. Thankfully, when I put a complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission about that, it agreed with me that it would be unlawful. However, it is interesting to note the number of people whose minds that clearly did not cross; because it was in favour of women, they thought it was fine.
I was very grateful to see the motion on the Order Paper to do with male suicide and male mental health, which is why I and some of my colleagues came along today. I disagree with some of the points that my hon. Friend has been making about the broader equality agenda, but could we perhaps move on to the conversation about male mental health, on which there are important things to be said?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. If she had been a little more patient, I was just coming on to male suicide. I was setting the context for the debate, which, as she will see if she looks at the Order Paper, is also about International Men’s Day and is not just limited to male suicide. I am now coming on to the issue of male suicide, but I am glad to have been able to set the scene, and I am sorry that pointing out that men are sometimes badly treated in the world is so discomforting for her to have to listen to. However, that is part of the problem we have in this House.
Does my hon. Friend agree that gender politics needs to be more collaborative in style and that we should not antagonise either sex in order to achieve equality? Real equality is not achieved by causing upset or offence to either men or women.
I very much agree. I hope that this will be part of a move towards a day when men’s issues are treated in this House as being as important as female issues. If that is what my hon. Friend is saying, I am all for it, and I hope that this debate helps us move towards that.
The motion that we are debating today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) pointed out, specifically mentions male suicide. I want to deal with that subject in particular, as suicide is desperately sad and it is clear that more men than women take their own life each year. In fact, the figures show that around three quarters of all people who commit suicide are men. I would like to place on record the fact that although men are more likely than women to commit suicide, those left behind grieving will be of both sexes and often children.
Can I point out to everyone in the room, please, that no one in this country has committed suicide since 1961, when suicide was no longer a crime? People “commit” murder, burglary or arson, but they do not “commit” suicide. They take their own life, but they do not “commit” suicide—“commit” is a word that relates to a crime, and suicide is not a crime.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for picking me up again. The terminology may be important to some people, but if I am going to be chastised for using the word that, as far as I can see, is used by every member of the public whenever they discuss this issue, I do apologise. But let us not get bogged down in politically correct terminology. I would much prefer that we dealt with the issue that I am trying to raise.
As somebody who has had a family member commit suicide, I am perfectly happy with the use of that term, and I do think it is political correctness to use some other terminology to make it more acceptable to others.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that. Let us hope—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
As long as we are going to get on to a serious debate about the issue, I will give way to the hon. Lady. I know that she knows a lot about this issue, and if she wants to make a sensible point, I am very happy to give way to her.
I only ever make sensible points on the issue of suicide, on which I spend a considerable amount of my time.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that for many families who have been blighted by suicide, the word “commit” is deeply offensive and causes great distress, because it is part of a feeling of alienation and criminality that enters their family. It is an issue of great sensitivity for them. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is rolling his eyes, but that is the reality.
The hon. Lady has made her point. I would prefer that we actually dealt with trying to prevent people from taking their own life, or committing suicide, or whatever term anybody wants to use. The end result is the same and that is perhaps the thing we ought to concentrate on the most, rather than focus on what we call it, which does not necessarily help anybody who is a victim of it.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of female suicide victims declined from 10.9 per thousand in 1982 to 5.1 per thousand in 2013, whereas male suicide rates in the UK were much higher and were virtually the same in 2013 as they were in 1982—19 per thousand in 2013 and 20.6 per thousand in 1982. Those statistics sound bad enough, but it is nothing compared to the reality of suicide: according to the House of Commons Library, what that means is that in 2012, more than 4,500 men felt they had no choice but to take their own life. Given that there was an increase in suicides in 2013, the figure for that year is nearly 5,000 men.
In fact, over the last 30 years, according to ONS figures supplied by the House of Commons Library, more than 130,000 men have taken their own life. That is a staggering number: it is a staggering number of people who have needlessly died, and a staggering number of families left behind—parents, spouses, children, friends and colleagues —all of whom have been left grieving and suffering.
In our county of Yorkshire, 81% of the deaths from suicide in 2013 were men. To take my hon. Friend back to my earlier point, does he not agree that we have to do more to intervene early, particularly for young men from the poorest social backgrounds, who are the most at risk because of unemployment, low self-esteem caused by low educational outcomes, or the social conditions in which they live? Again, that is a particular group of our society to whom the services are not necessarily best placed to respond, but for whom we need to do better as a nation by intervening earlier.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right and that most people would agree with him. In fact, in the time allocated to this debate, statistically at least one man will have taken his own life, which means that yet another life will have been ended prematurely and another family will have been left devastated.
According to the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which is supported by many individual charities and which I would like to thank for its help with today’s debate, a YouGov poll this month that surveyed 2,000 men found that
“42 per cent…had considered suicide, with…41 per cent…never talking to anyone about their problems.”
“49 per cent…of those who didn’t seek help ‘didn’t want people to worry about me’. A third…felt ashamed, nearly four in 10…did not want to make a fuss and…43 per cent…didn’t want to talk about their feelings.”
According to various sources, including the Government’s suicide prevention strategy for England, the suicide rate is highest among males aged 30 to 59. It has fluctuated in recent years between 30 and 44, but it is currently those who are aged 45 to 59 who have the highest suicide rate.
We might ask why these men feel that they have to end their lives in such numbers. There is the obvious issue of mental health problems; not wanting to ask for help could mean that those go untreated in some men. I was sent a briefing by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which said:
“Three quarters of all people who end their own life are not in contact with mental health services and men who are suffering from depression are much less likely than women to look for formal help from mental health professionals.”
There are also clearly other things that are likely to affect men more than women—for example, being in debt or being a war veteran. The Samaritans point to evidence that suicidal behaviour comes about as a result of a complex interaction of a number of factors. In the case of men, financial worries play a big part—so unemployment and redundancy can be a trigger—and also the influence of a historical culture of masculinity.
In some cases, men might feel—usually mistakenly—that they are a burden on others or that people would be better off if they were dead. The fact that men still see themselves as the providers in many cases means that financial hardship is very significant, and in their mind reduces their contribution to the family unit. Someone in debt might think that their family would be better off if they were not there. Even putting aside the enormous emotional loss to those left behind, the financial gain may not be as the person intended, as taking their life could invalidate their life insurance.
A minute ago, my hon. Friend mentioned the importance of mental health care for men and of men accessing it. It is well known that men may well go to an accident and emergency department to seek care when they have mental health needs and often A & E is the only place that is available in the middle of the night, but although some hospitals have good care in the form of psychiatric liaison teams, many hospitals do not have good psychiatric liaison services. Those services are known to be very helpful. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister supports such services and that some funding is going towards them, but can we make certain that that funding ensures that there are good psychiatric liaison services in all hospitals and transparency about the level of those services, so that we can ensure that they are effective?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that we all hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that point when he makes his contribution to the debate.
Shockingly, 56.1% of men who commit suicide do so by hanging themselves. I cannot imagine the horror of finding someone who has hanged themselves. Add to that the fact that that person is a loved one and it is even more tragic. Then, there are all the questions that inevitably arise following a suicide from the person’s loved ones. Why? Why did I not know there was something wrong? Why did they not talk to me? Why did they leave me? What could I have done to prevent this from happening? The guilt and sense of loss that those left behind must feel after someone has killed themselves should be reason enough to want to do something, never mind the absolute waste of life of the individual concerned. Suicides account for more deaths than road traffic accidents, so one would expect the Government to be trying to tackle this issue.
Sometimes this place is also about sending out signals or messages, and the message that I want to go out loud and clear today to anyone contemplating suicide is: you are not alone. There is nothing whatever weak or wrong in seeking help, and there are plenty of people out there who can help you, so please talk to someone—confidentially and anonymously if you prefer, but please talk to someone. Suicide is never the right option.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists says:
“We also need to work towards building a society where people should not be afraid to seek help for fear of being stigmatised and where the media agree to responsible reporting of suicide.”
I could not agree more. It says that it is also important that information on depression and how men can get support is available in what might be traditionally considered male settings, such as football stadiums, barbers or pubs. Again, that seems like a very good idea.
Suicide, especially in the numbers that we see for men, is a huge, tragic problem, and we need to work together to achieve change. One thing that leads men to contemplate suicide is the breakdown of a relationship, especially if children are involved. It is clear that the courts are more likely to place children with the mother than with the father. This is a massive area where men face very different treatment from women. We underestimate the effect on fathers of having to battle to see their children and facing the inevitable likelihood that they will come off worse simply because of their gender.
I am certainly not saying that all cases are like that. Many, many reasonable mothers allow the father as much access to the children as possible, and we should always recognise that, but life is not always that simple in every relationship. Some women do use their children as a stick to beat the father with—perhaps because they are bitter about the failed relationship, because of financial reasons, or because they have moved on and it is easier for them if their new partner takes on the role of father to their children. Women can fail to put the father on the birth certificate, limiting his rights, or lie to him about whether he is even the father. Short of a child-swapping disaster in hospital, women know for sure that their babies are their own, but fathers can never know 100% that that is the case without a formal DNA test. Many are sure because of their trust in their partner, but plenty will be unsure because of their partner’s behaviour, or because they have been deliberately tricked.
I have received numerous messages on the subject of fathers and their children. Unfortunately, we do not have time to go through them all, but I will read out one or two that contain the points that many people have made and that link the serious issues of fathers not having access to their children to the issue of suicide. One person said:
“Dear Mr Davies,
A number of local fathers have been in touch with…our MP, as I have over the years, about the way fathers are routinely excluded from their children’s lives or treated very differently from mothers.”
This was from a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), and the person said that they were delighted that my hon. Friend had helped us to secure this debate. They continued:
“It’s been proved time and again that children benefit from parenting by both their parents after separation but it is all too easy for false allegations to be made in an attempt to exclude fathers. There are rarely any repercussions and it can be many months before broken relationships with children can be mended—if ever.
Sadly, I know a number of men who have been driven to suicide as a result of their experience. Many fathers I meet at the local meeting I chair have mental health problems associated with separation and the difficulties they have experienced. And that’s aside from other members of their families including of course grandfathers, of whom my husband is one.
I do hope something positive comes from the debate on Thursday”.
That is from Jenny Cuttriss, chair of the Families Need Fathers branch in Kettering.
Messages from other people on the subject include one saying:
“I have spent the last 4 years going through the Family Courts trying to maintain a decent relationship with my children. Over and over again my ex has been emotionally abusing my daughter and alienating me from her life… She has also maliciously claimed DV”—
“and taken out a Non-Molestation order against me to try and stop me…having contact or being involved in my daughter’s life in retaliation to me getting my ex’s mother arrested for assault as she attacked me inside a court building.”
I had been aware of the stories about men’s chances when it comes to custody of their children for some time, so last February I asked the Ministry of Justice
“in what proportion of all cases heard in family courts where both the mother and father sought custody of their children the residence order was awarded to (a) the mother, (b) the father and (c) jointly”.
The answer from the then Minister was:
“The information…does not record details of the orders…such as which…parties were awarded the order. The information requested can only be obtained…at disproportionate cost.”—[Official Report, 24 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 261W.]
However, from everything that I have heard, including from those who actually do the adjudicating in family courts, it seems that it takes something out of the ordinary for men to be awarded custody of their children, and it seems that the Ministry of Justice cannot say otherwise. The Equality Act 2010 does not seem to apply in this area.
If people think men have life easy, they need to think again when it comes to families. Women have an awful lot of control, and there is an inbuilt bias towards them when it comes to the very important job of raising children. It does not look as though that is going to change anytime soon, yet as someone wrote in a message to me,
“I really believe that if this system worked against women the way it works against men there would be hell on about it! Whenever there is any discussion of gender inequality the focus is solely on women being disadvantaged…and never about these inequities or those that you yourself raise or the many other areas where men are disadvantaged.
The fact that women usually take responsibility for childcare is often cited as an obstacle to women’s progression in their careers and…under representation in senior roles and I believe society’s perceptions and family law appear to be perpetuating this issue. Perhaps more equality in family law and wider society could prove a win-win for both sexes?”
That seemed to me a very good point.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate, but I feel that the evidence that he has just presented is anecdotal; there is no concrete evidence. He has given us just individual cases, and I am concerned that this discussion is straying down a slightly misogynistic route.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady feels like that. Again, it is part of the politically correct culture that we have in this place that the moment anybody raises anything that affects men, people are accused of being misogynists. That is part of the problem; the hon. Lady is part of the reason why these issues never get debated. It is raised to try to deter anybody from ever raising their head above the parapet. Many people in her constituency are affected by these issues. Perhaps she ought to go and consult some of her constituents about the problems they face in these areas. She might learn that it is right to raise these issues in Parliament. It is not misogynistic to raise the issues faced by some fathers in her constituency who are having trouble getting custody of or access to their children. If she does not think that that is a problem, she needs to get out more, frankly.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Order. I say to hon. Members: please can we conduct this debate in a civil manner, without it degenerating into an argument of that kind? I ask all Members, please, can we get back to the subject of the debate?
Mr Walker wanted to intervene.
I did; thank you, Mr Gapes. My hon. Friend has never been afraid to put his head above the parapet. We may not all agree with every point that he makes, but he is raising important issues about family breakdown and suicide. Does he agree that reforms to create equal parental leave are important in fostering men’s role in the family? It is vital that the Government continue to pursue such initiatives as the family test to ensure that we take every opportunity to avoid the causes of family breakdown, which is a great problem for men as well as women.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more to make sure that we have genuine equality, and not the “equality when it suits” agenda. We need to do as much as we can to help families stay together, wherever possible.
I will move on to talk about violence. In this House, we always seem to be hearing about strategies for combating violence against women and girls—in fact, there have been debates in the House on that very subject—so people might be forgiven for thinking that there is a special problem of violence against women and girls, and that it does not apply to men and boys. Some might think that far more women and girls than men and boys must be victims of violence, but the reality does not always match people’s concerns. It is a fact that in this country, men are much more likely than women to be victims of violent crime. The most recent biennial statistics from the Ministry of Justice on the representation of females and males in the criminal justice system confirmed that 1.4% of women interviewed in the crime survey reported being a victim of a violent crime, compared with 2.3% of men.
It is not just when it comes to violence generally that men do worse than women. Women accounted for around 30% of recorded homicide victims between 2006-07 and 2012-13, while men were the victims in the remaining 70% of cases. The picture emerging is that men and boys are far more likely than women and girls to be victims of violence and murder, but there is little or no mention of men and boys in our debates and strategies relating to females. I asked the Secretary of State for Education in Parliament last November
“what her policy is on educating children about violence against men and boys.”
I also asked
“what her policy is on educating boys about domestic violence against men and boys.”
The reply from the Minister for Schools was:
“Education has an important role to play in encouraging young people to build healthy relationships, and to identify those relationships which are unhealthy. Pupils may be taught about violence against men and boys in personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education.”
I will just leave that there for people to reflect on.
There has been a lot of talk about the female victims of domestic violence. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 8.5% of women were victims of domestic violence in 2013-14, but so were 4.5% of men. That is equivalent to 1.4 million female victims and about 700,000 male victims of domestic violence. That figure refers not to partner abuse, but to all abuse in a domestic setting, including among families. When we look at the figures for partner abuse, we see that 5.9% of women and 2.9% of men report being victims. It is quite clear that around one in three victims is a man.
I wanted to make a speech, but I cannot because I have constituents visiting. My hon. Friend makes an important point about domestic violence towards men, but the fact remains that most domestic violence is towards women. Does he agree that although we should tackle domestic violence against men, International Men’s Day is the perfect opportunity for men to stand up as part of the white ribbon campaign, for which I am pleased to be an ambassador, and say that we will never remain silent when other men commit violence against women? Although both issues are important, International Men’s Day offers a particular opportunity for men to take a stand against other men who commit violence against women.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All such violence is unacceptable, whether the perpetrator is male or female, and whether their victim is male or female. That is my point 100%. We should criticise them all equally.
There is evidence of under-reporting among male victims of domestic violence. In the crime survey for England and Wales, victims of partner abuse in the previous 12 months were asked who they had spoken to about the abuse that they experienced. A third of victims told someone in an official position about the abuse, but nearly twice as many women as men did. Perhaps more significantly, women were nearly three times more likely than men to tell the police. Despite what we might think from the focus on male perpetrators of domestic violence, there are also many female perpetrators. When anyone says “domestic violence”, the first thing that springs to most people’s minds—including mine—is a poor woman being attacked by a bullying man. The figures show that it is much more complex than that, however, and that stereotypical image needs to be smashed if we are to tackle the problem as a whole.
Something else that needs to change is the reaction to violence against males, certainly when it comes to female-on-male violence. Some see it as almost a laughing matter, but nobody would laugh or turn a blind eye if a female was the victim. Anecdotal evidence suggests that male victims are treated differently from female victims by the police and other agencies. Considering the sheer numbers involved, male victims are given hardly any resources in comparison with female victims. Resources should be available to both male and female victims of domestic violence.
Issues such as the lack of places of refuge and the lack of support for men need to be addressed. The ManKind initiative, which works with men suffering from domestic violence or domestic abuse, says that it will run out of funding in January. It needs people to back it now so that it can provide the emotional support and practical information that male victims need. There are moving stories on its website from men who have suffered domestic violence. Although there seem to be more female victims of domestic abuse, each male victim is also a person, not a statistic, and it is only right and fair that help should be there for victims of both sexes.
I have gone on longer than I thought I would because I have taken so many interventions. The final issue I want to raise is sentencing, and how men are treated differently from women in our criminal justice system. I had a debate here in Westminster Hall three years ago, at which I had plenty of statistical evidence to show that women were treated more leniently than men, but that did not seem to be accepted at the time. Since then, progress has been made, because that fact is now broadly accepted. For far too long, those who peddled myths were able to get away with it because people simply repeated their mantra without question. Perhaps someone would like to try to explain why women should be treated favourably in the criminal justice system, but at least it is accepted that that is the case.
Since that debate, I have amassed much more evidence on the subject. I will not go through it all now, otherwise we would be here all day, but I want to put some of the key facts on the record. About 5% of the prison population at any time in recent history has been female, and the other 95% has been male, yet so much consternation, time and effort have been expended on the very small number of women in prison. For every category of offence, men are more likely than women to be sent to prison. That is a fact. I will give an example to illustrate that: 45% of men sentenced for an offence of violence against the person will be given a custodial sentence, compared with just 23% of women. Of those with 15 or more previous convictions, 39% of men but only 29% of women are sent to immediate custody. In Crown courts, which deal with the most serious offences, probation recommends immediate custody in 24% of cases for male offenders, and just 11% of cases for female offenders.
The average sentence length for an indictable offence is 17.7 months for men and 11.6 months for women. Men serve, on average, 52% of their prison sentence; women serve 46%. The average length of time that men spend in a prison cell each day is 14.1 hours, but that figure is 11.5 hours for women. The list is endless. I have spoken about domestic violence and have an additional fact on that subject: 3,750 male sentenced prisoners were victims of domestic violence, compared with 1,323 female prisoners.
There has been a rise in publicity surrounding female paedophiles. In a few high-profile cases recently, the sentences given to women were much more lenient than those that would be given to men. Just the other week, a babysitter who had sex with an 11-year-old boy escaped jail. There is no way on this planet that a male who had sex with an 11-year-old girl would have avoided prison—a point that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children made about the case. There is no chance of that happening at all, and yet that was the sentence handed down.
The facts and figures that I have set out show that there are certainly questions to be answered about how men are treated in the justice system, compared with women. It seems that there is clear discrimination against men. If outcomes are all-important, what do people have to say about that? What will be done to deal with that balance? Well, the Under-Secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Family Justice has made an announcement. She has said that she wants fewer women in prison—not fewer people or fewer men. Yes, hon. Members heard me right: just fewer women. The Conservative manifesto read:
“We will improve the treatment of women offenders, exploring how new technology may enable more women…to serve their sentence in the community.”
Now, I am not somebody who supports prisoners, but where on earth is the equality in that? How does that fit in with the Equality Act 2010?
Does my hon. Friend therefore consider it desirable to have more women in the prison population, to achieve equality?
Yes, I would like to see more people in prison, but that is a debate for another day. I would certainly like women who commit serious offences sent to prison in the way that men who commit serious offences are. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to make that point very clear.
Where is the equality in the current sentencing regime? It is just like the example I gave of female prisoners not having to wear a uniform. Somehow, the fact that hardly any women are in prison in the first place seems to be a problem, because it just is—because they are women. If there is to be true equality, this cannot be allowed to continue. We should be gender-blind when it comes to sentencing, if that is what the equality agenda is all about. If women commit serious crimes that are enough to warrant prison sentences, they should serve them in prison. We need to stop pussyfooting around when it comes to female offenders. A judge in my local Crown court recently said to a female offender:
“I have every sympathy for your children but the biggest burden they labour under is that their mother is a drunken thug”,
before rightly sending her to prison. I could not have put it better myself.
There are so many other areas where men are being discriminated against, or are suffering more than women. Unfortunately, I cannot go through them all now. If they are not raised by other Members today, I hope we will have similar debates in the future, so that I can highlight the further problems faced by men. Some of the issues that I do not have time to get to include: male circumcision and its effects on some men; the fact that men suffer from anorexia and bulimia, too; the health effects of men not seeking help early enough to prevent their conditions from getting worse; the fact that men tend to live shorter lives than women; and the fact that boys underachieve in school.
To conclude, this debate is a fantastic opportunity to deal with the issues that affect men. This Parliament should not be hijacked by those who constantly want to perpetuate myths about men and women that are simply not accurate. Some people cannot see common sense for the blur of their rose-tinted, politically correct glasses.
I hope the message goes out around the country that politicians are not all blind. I also hope that many of the men who contacted me today to say that they have never felt that anybody has reflected the problems that they face feel reassured that they have a voice in Parliament on all issues that affect them, just as much as everybody else has. For a parliamentary democracy to work, everybody in the country has to feel that somebody is speaking up for them. Today, lots of people feel that their voice, at last, is being heard.
I am here to speak as the chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention. I have spent a considerable amount of time examining the subject and raising its profile within Parliament.
Language does matter—being accurate about suicide and its legal status is incredibly important. If we continue to use the word “commit”, we continue to isolate families who have been bereaved by suicide and make those who take their own lives appear in a different class among those who have died. We continue to criminalise their actions, rather than examine what we can do and what responsibilities we can take to prevent further suicides.
I have talked to and worked with many families and individuals who have been bereaved by suicide, and all of them describe the same response—the isolation that they feel. Usually when a family suffers a bereavement, friends and neighbours are around them offering emotional and practical support. Someone with a family member who takes their own life is often isolated. People do not know what to say or do. Often the family are under police investigation because when there is such a death, the police’s first step is to look at whether that death is, in fact, a murder.
Many families have described to me the absolute shock of being investigated as though they were responsible for the death and may have murdered someone. People do not tend to cross police tape lines where the death has taken place, so they do not go to see the family. Often the police then leave because they have satisfied themselves that it is suicide, but they do not come back and explain to the family, “You are no longer under investigation, and by the way, this is where you might actually get some help and support.” One of the most important things that families need in those first few hours is to know, “What do I do? How do I deal with this?” They need to know how to respond to something that has left them shocked and asking, “Why? Why didn’t I notice? What could I have done to stop this? What did I miss?”
I thank the hon. Lady for her very important remarks. She is now three minutes into her speech and she has not mentioned International Men’s Day. Is she going to mention male suicide and International Men’s Day?
As I explained at the beginning of my speech, I am speaking on behalf of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention. I will continue to do so.
We have to look at how we support families, including families of men who die by suicide—I concede that men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. How do we support families and communities? For those who wish to understand how we can support those families, I recommend the excellent work of Sharon Macdonald at the University of Manchester.
We also have to look at what we are doing on suicide prevention planning in the UK. The all-party group looked at the Government’s suicide prevention plan prior to its implementation and then again following the reorganisation of health in the UK. The result was quite shocking, because the new prevention plan, which was very good in many respects and set out good guidelines, did not require local authorities and health authorities to report back to the Department of Health. We had no overall picture of what was happening across the country, so the all-party group went out and surveyed to find out what was going on.
We found that 30% of local authorities did no suicide audit work at all, so they did not know what was happening. They did not know how many men or women were taking their own life locally. Also, 30% of local authorities did not have a suicide prevention action plan; they were doing nothing to prevent the suicide of men or women across their local authority area. More worryingly, 40% of local authorities did not have a multi-agency suicide prevention group.
It is very important that we recognise that suicide is not the responsibility of one Department. It is not simply the responsibility of the Department of Health. In fact, the most active department in dealing with suicide is often the police. They are involved when people make unsuccessful early attempts. It is more likely that the police will know of someone who is about to take their life or who has been at risk in the past than any other agency.
Most suicides have never been anywhere near our mental health services, and it is important that we know what is happening locally. We need to ensure that local authorities’ multi-agency suicide prevention groups are made up of all agencies, including the local authority, the health agencies, the police and the third sector organisations that are often doing critical work on the ground—I cannot say enough about the fantastic support that we all receive every day from the Samaritans in our constituencies who spend their time tirelessly working with people who are very fragile and at high risk of suicide. Groups such as CALM, which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said has given him so much help ahead of today’s debate, are doing similar work. Those third sector organisations are made up of volunteers, many of whom have been affected by suicide and wish to move services forward so that further deaths can be averted.
It is vital that coroners engage with all their partners to prevent future deaths and to ensure that we are aware of where clusters may be beginning to develop, whether they are clusters within an age group, within an occupational group or within a school or factory. Social contagion is a big risk, and it is another example of why words matter. I have seen newspaper stories saying things such as, “Well, it’s just what we do around here.” If we give permission for suicide to be an acceptable way of dealing with the problems and difficulties of life, there is a risk of social contagion, with other people thinking, “That person was like me. If they can take their own life, I can, too.” That is a huge risk that we need to address. Social contagion is a great risk in closed institutions such as prisons, schools or factories, so we need to be aware of the importance of emotional education and language when people are faced with suicide.
I dread to say it, but the one point on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that the emotional education that we give to young men in this country is very poor. No matter how modern and how diverse a society we become, we still seem to educate our children to feel that they have to man up and be strong, and that they cannot talk about emotions. Some organisations, particularly sports organisations, have done fantastic work on suicide prevention.
I also stress the importance of longitudinal research on suicide and self-harm prevention. In the past I was fortunate to work with excellent Health Ministers, the former right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, Paul Burstow, and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who were both very supportive of suicide prevention work. If we are to have longitudinal studies of suicide and self-harm, the researchers dedicated to those subjects need to know that they will have the money to continue and pursue their work so that we have a clear idea of the numbers of deaths and whether those numbers are increasing or decreasing.
Other Members want to speak, so I will make a final comment. The all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, in association with the all-party group on mental health, will be having a meeting in February, which I hope the Minister will attend. A psychiatrist from my constituency will be coming up to talk about mental health triaging so that people at risk of mental health crisis can go to any agency, including their social worker or general practitioner, and receive help, advice and support through the triaging system, so that no one leaves being told that there is an appointment in six months’ time. We need to be on top of this. People are dying unnecessarily.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing this important debate. He never fails to challenge the status quo, and he never fails to speak without fear or favour, for which I commend him, but International Men’s Day is also about promoting gender equality—that is one of its stated objectives. Striving for equality is not a competition between men and women. Women face discrimination on a daily basis—that is not a myth. He does not do his case much good by attempting to belittle that discrimination.
The number of men who are currently sitting as MPs is greater than the number of women who have ever been elected as Members of Parliament—that is a shocking fact. It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who has done more than anyone else to press for change on suicide, which affects more men than women. I thank the Samaritans and CALM for their excellent briefings, which they sent to us all. If we had had more women like her, and others, in this place over the past 100 years, perhaps more of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley would have been better debated and more fully addressed, because such issues are often picked up by women Members of Parliament.
International Men’s Day is not about pitching men against women; it is about the health of men and boys, the promotion of gender equality, positive male role models and men’s contribution to family life and their children’s lives. I have the privilege of living in a three-generation family, and women are in the minority, but we have fantastic support from the male members of our family to achieve the most that we can as women. Gender stereotypes are good for no one, and International Men’s Day should be an opportunity to address those stereotypes.
Suicides are a tragic waste of life, and it is important that we have strong policies to address suicide. Ahead of today’s debate I considered the driving force behind those suicides. The hon. Member for Bridgend touched on some of the issues that she has dealt with, and I am particularly interested in her comments about the expectations that we put on male members of our families and communities. I am also concerned about the impact of relationship breakdown and loneliness, which can be felt strongly by men, particularly as they get older. I will focus on that and on how we might start to address some of the problems that men have in trying to play a full role in all aspects of their community and in all aspects of life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley mentioned.
Too many fathers lose contact with their children after an adult relationship breaks down, and too many fathers still find it difficult to play a full role in their children’s lives even if their adult relationship is still intact. When there is domestic violence or there are concerns about a child’s welfare, it is clearly right that a parent’s role in their children’s lives might be curtailed. However, there is clear evidence that, in day-to-day life, we could be doing far more to support the role of fathers in their children’s lives and to challenge the continuing gender stereotyping that it is in some way unacceptable for men to take up a more active role in their children’s lives. That stereotype exists despite the considerable improvements that this Government, and the coalition Government before them, have made in introducing support so that we can all have a more balanced approach to life, particularly through parental leave and flexible working. The fact is that men still find it difficult to access such policies.
Parental leave is a particular case in point. In the UK, it is felt there is an attitude of frowning on men taking up parental leave, and 41% of men have said that that is one of the biggest barriers to their taking up their legitimate and legal entitlement to it. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that, because it is not just a problem faced by the UK. In the Czech Republic, where parental leave legislation is the same for men and women, men still take up a fraction of their entitlement. The Scandinavian countries are often held up as paragons of virtues when it comes to family policy, but Finland has less than 9% uptake of parental leave by fathers. This is probably a Europe-wide problem—indeed, perhaps a global phenomenon.
How can we ensure that men have access to parental leave, which can give them an important role in their children’s lives in the early days? There is undeniable evidence from countries that encourage parental leave, such as Germany, that if a father has an active role in a child’s life before the age of five, it can encourage, support and nurture a stronger lifelong relationship between them. That is important, and we need to understand it. We have the policy in place; how do we make it work for men?
I applaud the Government for the work that they have done to ensure that the opportunity to request flexible working is now open to everybody, yet dads are twice as likely to have their requests for flexible working rejected by employers. Just under one fifth of fathers applying for flexible working are turned down. However, men are also less likely to apply for flexible working in the first place, with just 17% of fathers requesting flexible working compared with 28% of mothers.
Yes, women still face all sorts of impediments to their progress in the workplace, but men face barriers too, perhaps due to inflexibility within Government structures or expectations that men should be the main breadwinner. We must address such issues to ensure not only that men can play a full role in their sons’ and daughters’ lives but that women too can make the progress they need to.
One main protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010 is gender, regardless of sex. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley that the first report by my Committee, the Women and Equalities Committee, was on transgender, an issue that affects men and women, and on the inadequacies of policies and processes in that area. We must ensure that gender is never used as the basis for discrimination. International Men’s Day does not dilute the issues that women face, including discrimination and gender-based violence. It is an opportunity to challenge all gender stereotypes, which are not good for any of us, and to support men to speak out, as women often speak out, on behalf not only of women but of men.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I was not going to speak in this debate, but I felt moved to do so by events that have occurred in York over the last few days. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who raised many issues, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who has expertise in the subject. I thank the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for securing this debate, which is important, although I do not concur with many of the comments that he made. I like to think that we debate based on evidence; anecdotal comments often do not add to debate. However, it is an important debate, so I thank him for securing it.
It is important that we recognise the needs of men and the challenges they face in our communities. Just last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of men and Age UK to highlight the problem of isolation for men in later life and to consider establishing a men’s shed—a safe place where men can gather to discuss issues—in York. A countrywide project has been successful, giving men a space to talk about the challenges they face, particularly health challenges, of which mental health is obviously one.
I rose to speak in this debate because there has been a big debate in York about International Men’s Day and whether we should recognise it. In fact, as has unfortunately reached national headlines, the university was going ahead with a programme for today but has withdrawn from engagement with the process. I say that with regret; the decision comes on the back of a petition from 200 students saying that they did not think the day should be recognised. The university is committed to equality and to progressing the equality agenda, and two male students lost their lives just before I took office, so I think it is important that the university speaks out on the issues and the services available.
What has not been reflected in this debate is the necessity of recognising separately the importance of raising women’s issues. I am not saying that men’s issues and women’s issues are mutually exclusive, just that it is important to recognise ongoing women’s issues, because there is huge inequality across our society. However, I recognise that there are some areas of inequality for men, which is why this debate is important.
Suicide rates across our country are far too high. One person taking their own life is too many, and the fact that in 2013 6,233 people felt that they could not carry on living—a 4% rise on the previous year—means that we have much work to do. As I was researching for this debate, I found, shockingly, that the male suicide rate in my own city, York, is the fourth highest in England, behind Darlington, County Durham and Calderdale. That is worrying. Those places are in the north-east and Yorkshire, so there is a geographical issue to address as well, and behind that we might want to consider some of the causes of suicide, because unless we face up to the challenges as other people are and use this place to address the causes of suicide, we will never change those shocking statistics.
Suicide in York has risen to its highest level: 22 people lost their life in 2013. Even since I have taken office, people have taken their life. Looking at the causes, we know that the last few years have been particularly challenging for many in terms of personal debt, austerity and unemployment, which can have an impact on why people feel that they can no longer go on. We know that people are struggling with mental health challenges and facing changes, whether a loss of or reduction in benefits or other factors, that result in serious life changes or financial challenges to their family.
I am interested by that suggestion. All sorts of things have been examined relatively recently, but can the hon. Lady explain why the suicide rate is less likely to decrease for men than for women?
That is why the research to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend referred is so important. There are so many causes of suicide that we need to understand. If we look at Greece and the impact of the recession there, we see that male suicide rates have increased tenfold. It is a serious issue. Some serious research has been done, but more needs to be done about the shape of our economy and the impact it has on personal life and the challenges that people face as a result.
In addition to those very difficult statistics, with which we all wrestle, one thing that I want to highlight is the services available to support people with mental health challenges. We know that those services are currently overwhelmed by demand. I look at York Mind —a fantastic organisation with great leadership. In just the last three years, demand for its services has doubled, from 650 people three years ago to 1,300 this year. We are seeing increasing demands on not-for-profit organisations, which always find it a challenge to know where their next pennies or their next resources are coming from. If we are going to take a strategic approach, we need to ensure that the infrastructure bodies are well resourced to deal with the issues, but of course it is always important to get upstream and address the causes.
In York, we have been faced with another challenge, which is the closure of Bootham Park hospital. It was our mental health hospital in York, but it was closed because of the suicide risk the old building, which was constructed in the 18th century, presented, which had not been addressed. To reduce the risk to individuals the hospital was closed, but that created a new risk because people are scattered perhaps more than 50 miles away from the services they need. Some of them have to go as far away as Harrogate to reach a place of safety; having a crisis in the back of an ambulance is not appropriate at all. It is really important that facilities are in the right place, so that people can access them at their time of need.
One of the consequences of the closure of Bootham Park hospital is that there has been an investment in the street triage team. That is why I very much concur with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend. The street triage team is there at the scene, at the earliest possible point of intervention. None the less, overall risk has increased because there are no facilities locally for somebody then to go to. The insecurity that that causes individuals is a real concern.
Lead clinicians who were working at Bootham Park hospital have highlighted the risk factors of closure, and that is why my continual plea is that we look at the infrastructure and the interrelationship between the not-for-profit organisations, the health service and the other agencies when we are addressing the issues associated with suicide, because we have a responsibility—I would say an obligation—to ensure that those organisations are working seamlessly together. If we have not got those things right, it is also our responsibility if someone is pushed to the point of taking their life.
I start this afternoon by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing this historic debate. This is the first time ever that International Men’s Day has been marked by a debate in this Parliament. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), as well as the hon. Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for bringing their individual perspectives to this debate.
Under the International Men’s Day heading, the debate gives us an opportunity to consider a range of issues that particularly affect men, but in my opinion none is more worrying than male suicide, so I will restrict my remarks today to that issue. The subject is all too often swept under the carpet. It was said at the outset of this debate that one of the problems facing us today is underachievement by white working-class boys from the north of England. Well, as a white working-class lad from the north of England, I am very proud to take part in this debate. Indeed, as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I was pleased to play a very small part in granting this debate.
I listened with interest to the comments about why the debate is being held here in Westminster Hall rather than on the Floor of the House. However, as right hon. and hon. Members will be aware from the Order Paper, two debates have been scheduled for the Floor of the House this afternoon, one on the forthcoming Paris conference on climate change and the other on the new cancer strategy. It was felt that those debates needed to take place on the Floor of the House. Personally, I would have liked to see this debate take place on the Floor of the House as well, but we are where we are. It was also felt that we should try to hold this debate on International Men’s Day itself if at all possible, which is what we have achieved today.
As I say, I will try to restrict my remarks to the subject of male suicide. It is a subject that no one really wants to talk about.
To illustrate how important this debate is, let me tell the House that the first piece of evidence from professionals that the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention took was from a suicide prevention worker in London, who was also a mental health worker, and he said, “If I call a meeting to discuss mental health problems, I can fill a room. If I call a meeting to discuss suicide, I am there on my own.” That says everything. I thank everyone who is here today to take part in this debate for generating the conversation that is so vital.
I am very grateful for that intervention, because that vignette highlights a lot of the problems. The mere fact that we are holding this debate—it may not be in the main Chamber, but it is here in Westminster Hall—and are able to discuss the subject will hopefully generate some wider debate outside Parliament. It might make it just that little bit easier for the debate to take place in wider society.
As I was saying, I approached the debate today with some trepidation, because, as has just been amply demonstrated by the hon. Lady, who is chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, many organisations and people seem to be looking at this problem—governmental bodies, other public sector bodies, charities in the independent sector and academics—and all have greater experience than I have, but I have looked at it with fresh eyes. Part of the reason why I am here today is that I am staggered by the intransigence of the problem. Clearly, there are many people looking at it, but the reality is that the number of male suicides has remained pretty stubborn over decades. This is not a party political point. It does not matter whether there was a Conservative Government under Mrs Thatcher or a Labour Government under Mr Blair; the numbers for male suicide have stayed pretty much the same. That made me think that there is something serious going on here that is wider than just the typical argument about party politics.
I pay tribute to the charity CALM—the Campaign Against Living Miserably—because it has provided some helpful briefing and figures for this afternoon’s debate. CALM says that in 2014 more than three quarters —76%—of suicides were men. That is 4,623 deaths. It is worth repeating that suicide is the biggest single killer of men under the age of 45. For deaths registered in 2013, the last year for which the Office for National Statistics has figures, my own region—the north-west of England, in which my constituency is situated—had a male suicide rate of 21.2. That is the second highest rate in the country, second only to the north-east. The experts will be aware that the rates are invariably quoted in the statistics as a rate per 100,000 of population, so that is 21 people out of every 100,000. As always with these statistics, there is a host of caveats and technical details that could be explored, but I do not think we should let the minutiae obscure the big picture, which is that while the suicide rate in the north-west among men was 21.2, the rate among females was 6.3. A rate of 21 against a rate of 6 is a big difference indeed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for talking so sensitively about this issue. I, too, am greatly concerned about male suicide, and that is why I came to this debate. He speaks very knowledgably about the rates of male suicide, but is he aware that young gay men are six times more likely to take their own life than their straight male counterparts?
I have heard that statistic twice today, the first time in the Chamber, when the shadow Leader of the House made that point. I do not know whether the statistic is correct, but I am prepared to accept what the hon. Lady and the shadow Leader of the House say. I am sure that of those more than 4,000 deaths, some were gay men and some were young gay men. That may well be one of the contributing factors.
The charity CALM has set out four areas where it thinks action should be taken. First, and quite understandably, it states that there is a need for timely and accurate information. That could be applied to many things across Government. It always amazes me how long it takes for what, on the face of it, are fairly simply statistics to be collated and reach the public domain. Secondly, and again understandably, CALM says that we need to understand the reasons why people take their own life, because there is a strong element of contagion, which the hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned. Thirdly, CALM wants all local authorities to develop and implement a suicide prevention plan, and says that those that do not should be named. Fourthly, it states that if national and local suicide prevention plans are to be effective, there must be some accountability—there is no point having a plan unless something is done if that plan is not adhered to.
It is worth noting that in its own way, CALM has tried to give the issue some publicity through social media and the #BiggerIssues campaign, which is an advertising campaign to draw attention to the fact that as a society we tend to pay an inordinate amount of attention to perhaps relatively trivial topics, such as the weather and the sort of coffee we are drinking, rather than to male suicide, which is a real problem in society. The campaign has created digital posters featuring the hashtag #BiggerIssues, which were posted across the UK. Those posters changed every two hours to reflect the fact that every two hours, a man takes his own life. The campaign was run in association with the men’s grooming brand Lynx, and I think we should pay tribute to whoever it was who took that brave decision to link a men’s grooming product with the campaign. Others perhaps looked at it and thought, “The issue is a bit too touchy for us. We’ll leave that one alone.” Whoever was involved at Lynx, we should publicly thank them for being able to associate their brand with that particular campaign.
I was surprised to find that this phenomenon is not unique to this country. Right across the world and in almost every country, there is the same stark difference in the suicide rates. Lithuania, Russia, Japan, Hungary, Finland—almost everywhere we look, the picture is the same: male suicides considerably outnumber female suicides. Apparently that is not the case in China. I am not an academic; I have not spent time looking into this, but it seems to me there may be something in the fact that in one country, China, it is the other way around that may in years to come offer a solution to the problem.
We are a Parliament with different political parties, and for our own reasons we try to make party political points. When I have previously raised this issue, people immediately say, “Of course, it’s all the Government’s fault. The fact that there are lots of men committing suicide is all your Government’s fault, because you are making cuts to public services and you are cutting the NHS”—which is not true; more money is being spent on the NHS than ever before, so that argument immediately falls. Those arguments are easy to make. It is simple to throw out that it is all the Conservatives’ fault, but as I will demonstrate, the statistics—the facts—from the Office for National Statistics simply do not bear out that argument.
In the 1980s, under the Conservatives, the number of male suicides each year was somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. It did vary a little bit—it got down as low as 4,066 in 1982 and it went up to 4,370 in 1987—but every year it was between 4,000 and 5,000. Between 1997 and 2010, under the Labour Government, the number of male suicides was somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. Again, it varied—some years it was down, and some years it was up—but every year it was somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. What is noticeable is that the gap between male and female suicide rates has been increasing steadily in almost every single year since 1981. At the start of this range of statistics, the male rate was a bit less than double the female rate—about 1.78 male suicides for every female suicide, I think.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I certainly will, but I will come back to my point, because I have not quite finished it.
This gets terribly technical. If I can explain, suicide is recorded under an international definition. To get the statistics, researchers are often required to go into coroners’ records and read individual narrative verdicts. The records therefore are slightly skewed; they are indicative, rather than totally accurate, because there is a difference between a clear suicide verdict that says that a death was a suicide and a narrative verdict that would need to mention intent. We have a problem with the accuracy of our recording. I thought it was important to clarify that.
I am grateful for that. I think I mentioned that there is a host of caveats and technical details. I spent some time looking at the statistics and working out how they had been arrived at. As the hon. Lady rightly says, there are a number of difficult issues for researchers that could skew the figures, but whatever difficulties there might be, they apply equally to males and females and would not affect the overall point that I am making here which is that at the beginning of the 1980s, the difference was about double, and today it is about treble. It has gone from a ratio of about 2:1 to about 3:1 today. I do not think this change can simply be put down to Government policy. It was happening under a Conservative Government and continued to happen for 13 years under Labour Governments.
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Public Health England, which produces a raft of figures on this subject, states:
“Suicide often comes at the end point of a complex history of risk factors and distressing events.”
With other right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon, I pay tribute to the Samaritans, which is perhaps the best known charity in this field for its work in trying to help and to prevent men and women who are feeling depressed from taking their own life. In its review of 2012, the Samaritans found that men from working-class backgrounds were at a higher risk of suicide. The Samaritans stated that suicidal behaviour results from a complex interaction of numerous factors, including bereavement, divorce, unemployment and the historical culture of masculinity. It is a huge and complex subject. Many people will be grateful that we have highlighted some of the issues involved.
I hope that people who are feeling depressed—there are often many reasons and not just one—feel that they can tell someone about their worries. One thing we can all agree on, from whichever political viewpoint we approach the subject, is that suicide—taking one’s own life—is never the right answer. I hope the debate today will help break down the stigma that prevents many men from seeking the help they need.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for securing this important debate, especially as it is on International Men’s Day. We should have a proper discussion about the issues and how they affect so many people in the UK. It is right to talk about male suicide rates and domestic abuse among boys and men. They are key issues that have a massive effect on our society. We simply cannot afford to ignore them.
I want to focus on male suicide. I have spoken many times about my personal experience of male suicide. The loss of my cousin, who tragically took his life at the age of 36, has had a profound effect on my family, giving us first-hand experience of the heartbreak that such an event can bring. The signs were there. He was trying to get help, but it just did not happen quickly enough. Sadly, his case is not unique.
In the UK, 13 men take their life each day. The male suicide rate across the world is at a 14-year high, and the use of antidepressants has increased five times since 1991. Having spoken to my right hon. Friend the Minister about these issues several times, I know how committed he is to the cause. We have made inroads towards helping people get the support they need, but I am sure all Members will agree that we need to do more.
Ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues has to be a priority for each gender, but society tells men that it is okay not to show their emotions, and we really need to change that to enable the male population at all ages to talk about their issues. We need to show that that is a strength and not a weakness. From the age of about nine or 10, boys are told to “man up”, be strong, and keep their feelings to themselves. They are told they can bottle things up, which they do, because they are scared of the banter. That is why suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50, and why 40% of men between the age of 18 and 45 have thought about suicide.
Organisations such as the Samaritans do great work to help people suffering from depression, but men need to feel they can contact them in the first place by first admitting that they have a problem. Of course, warning signs can and should be seen long before the thought of suicide arises. By the time young men consider suicide, the damage has often already been done. We need to tackle the issue in schools and colleges, at work and at home, and in sports clubs and pubs up and down the country. We need to speak directly to schools, children and parents. We need to be honest and say that it is okay for boys of any age to talk about their feelings, and we need to do it now. That is why this debate is so important today.
When society tells men not to talk about their issues, we should lead the way and tell them that it is all right to talk about them. I say this to colleagues: when you are down the pub tonight, ask a mate how he is doing—how he is really doing. When your son comes home from school and says he is fine, consider what that really means. If a friend is acting out of character, that could be an early warning sign of depression. This is serious. They might not tell you, but it will matter that you have asked. Tiny steps will make a difference. We know that we need to talk about this issue more, so I welcome this debate. The more we can talk about this and make sure that mental health is treated with the same importance as physical health, the better.
Issues such as male suicide rates and male domestic abuse are so important. I wanted to focus on male suicides, but we all have a responsibility to keep these issues high on the agenda, and we must work together to look out for our male population.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for the opportunity to consider the important issue of suicide, particularly male suicide. I represent the Scottish National party in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on winning this debate, although I must admit that I found many of his remarks unrelated to its title.
I am certain that the lives of all of us here—men and women—will have been touched by a suicide in our family, circle of friends or wider social network; mine certainly has. The reasons why people are driven to take their lives are, of course, both complex and intensely personal. However, depression, alcohol and drug misuse, unemployment, family and relationship problems including divorce, social isolation, wealth inequality, social disadvantage and low self-esteem are identified as key triggers for male suicide. Sadly, those with severe mental illness remain at the highest risk of suicide, and, among them, those who refuse or are declined medical treatment are at a higher risk still and are particularly vulnerable.
In addition to health issues, social and economic factors influence people to take their life. I have alluded to wealth inequality; we know that men in mid-life from low-income backgrounds are consistently identified as the highest-risk group. In England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the male suicide rate is approximately 3.5 times higher than the female rate; in Wales, it is approximately 4.5 times higher.
In September 2012, the UK Government published a report entitled “Suicide prevention strategy for England”, which identified the factors influencing increases in suicide rates in England. The report made it clear that periods of unemployment and severe economic problems adversely affect the mental health of the population and can be associated with higher rates of suicide. The report was followed up in 2014, when a study again found an association between those areas of England worst affected by unemployment and those with an increased prevalence of suicide. Between 2008 and 2010, there were approximately 800 more suicides among men, and 155 more among women, than might have been expected based on an analysis of historical trends.
Like me, my colleagues in the Scottish Government are deeply concerned about suicide rates, and they have put in place a suicide prevention strategy clearly setting out the actions they are taking further to reduce suicide in Scotland. The statistics on suicide in Scotland indicate a downward trend, even in male suicide rates, so the strategy is achieving outcomes that run counter to the general trend in the UK as a whole.
The Scottish Government strategy has five key themes: responding to people in distress; talking about suicide; improving NHS Scotland’s response to suicide; further developing the evidence base; and supporting a broad programme of change and improvement. In developing those themes, the Scottish Government have acknowledged that activities with a broader focus can effectively contribute to reducing overall suicide rates. That broader focus includes building personal resilience, and promoting mental and emotional wellbeing in schools and among the general population; working to reduce inequality, discrimination and stigma; promoting high-quality early years services; and working to eradicate poverty. All of that work is undertaken in the context of enhanced vigilance in respect of improving mental health, supporting people who experience mental illness and, of course, preventing suicide.
The Scottish Government’s original suicide prevention target was to reduce the suicide rate by 20% by 2013. Since 2002, when the target was originally set as part of the “Choose Life” strategy and action plan, we have seen an 18% reduction in the suicide rate. Between 2009 and 2012, Scotland saw the lowest number of suicides since the early 1990s. That reduction came at a time when many other jurisdictions were mapping increases.
Nevertheless, some trends are comparable with those in the UK as a whole. Taking probable suicide figures for 2011 and 2012 together, we find that almost three quarters of those who died in Scotland were male. That gender imbalance has been broadly consistent for much of the last 10 years. However, the major element in the 18% reduction in the suicide rate since 2000 has been the reduction in male suicides.
The Scottish Government’s suicide prevention strategy has now established a revised target, with the aim of reducing the suicide rate by a further 10% by 2020. That mirrors the global target established by the World Health Organisation. The strategy focuses on suicide prevention activities in communities and public services to enable people to live longer, healthier lives, which is one of the Scottish Government’s national outcomes. The strategy makes manifest the determined commitment of the Government of my country to continue the downward trend in the suicide rate, and to make progress towards meeting the WHO target.
International Men’s Day focuses on life issues, including the suicide rate, violence against men and boys, education and parenting. Those involved in International Men’s Day have stated:
“When 13 a men a day in the UK are dying from suicide, it is essential that everyone in positions of power, trust and influence does everything they can to help men talk about the issues that affect them.”
International Men’s Day supports the campaign for improved outcomes led by the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which also seeks to raise awareness of male suicide. CALM aims to encourage people to talk about male suicide in the hope that that will decrease the number of male deaths attributable to suicide across the UK. To the campaign’s great credit, its helpline receives more than 5,000 calls per month from individuals seeking advice and support. Some 80% of those calls are from men. The campaign has stated:
“It’s our belief that all of us at one time or another, regardless of gender, will hit a crisis and we could all do with specialist help when things go wrong.”
Those are wise words.
CALM has released a parliamentary briefing highlighting the adverse impact of the UK Government’s work capability assessments on suicide rates. It notes that each suicide costs an estimated £1.7 million, in addition, of course, to the much more obvious catastrophic emotional and social impact of a life being lost.
The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health recently found that suicide was associated with the UK Government’s work capability assessment programme. The research found that for every additional 10,000 people subjected to work capability assessments, there was an association with an additional six suicides, 2,700 cases of reported mental health problems and an additional 7,020 prescriptions for antidepressants. That adds up to an additional 590 suicides, 279,000 cases of mental health problems and 725,000 additional prescriptions for antidepressants, based on current claim levels. Those figures are for England alone. The researchers noted:
“Our study provides evidence that the policy in England of reassessing the eligibility of benefit recipients using the WCA may have unintended…consequences for population mental health”.
Some 590 suicides at £1.7 million comes to more than £1 billion. We must, of course, add to that figure the cost of treating and supporting almost 300,000 people struggling with mental health problems, and of providing almost 750,000 prescriptions for antidepressants. Again, those figures are for England alone. Significant as the financial costs are, however, they fade into insignificance when compared with the human cost of lives lost, opportunities wasted and families destroyed by suicide.
It seems clear, therefore, that alongside health and economic and social status, UK Government policy directly contributes to the prevalence of suicide and imposes enormous financial pressures on public services already struggling to cope with significant budget cuts. Work capability assessments and the Work programme are having a significant negative effect on mental health. Reports repeatedly highlight the “heart-sink” felt when people receive a request from authorities to apply for jobs they are unlikely to win or hear anything back about. They also highlight the fact that the stressful targets enforced by jobcentres contribute to a lack of self-worth. Work capability assessments exacerbate feelings of failure and are increasingly cited as significant factors in individuals’ decisions to attempt suicide. When individuals are already vulnerable, likely to be suffering from low self-esteem, and experiencing chronic stress relating to the need to provide for their family, work capability assessments contribute nothing positive.
It is clear that more men than women take their life. Nevertheless, austerity and its mental health impacts are felt just as strongly by women and by those left behind in society. I suggest that the Minister take up the challenge of tackling the socioeconomic inequalities in society, and recognise that social exclusion is a significant risk indicator of suicide. I would like the UK Government to pay attention to the needs of boys, teenagers and young men to prevent vulnerability in later years. Perhaps more straightforwardly, I would like them to scrap the work capability assessment, which is proving far too costly, in terms of the human life and finance wasted.
Suicide must not be thought of as an issue that solely affects men, just because the number of deaths is higher among them. Any campaign targeting suicide must focus on the entire population.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) for his thoughtful comments. I suggest that he, too, strayed somewhat off the topic in talking about the work capability assessment, because today we are talking about International Men’s Day as well as male suicide. I particularly want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who adopted a measured and helpful tone. The issue is sensitive, and it is helpful to address it in a calm and measured way, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) also did.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for securing the debate. He worked hard to do that, and International Men’s Day is a day when we should celebrate male role models and their contribution to society and family. It is also an opportunity for us to work towards improving gender relations. I do not agree with many things that my hon. Friend said. In particular, I do not agree with him on what he described as an obsession with increasing the number of women in Parliament. In fact, I consider that a noble cause, and I am passionate about it. Nor do I agree that equality means putting more women in prison. We may have to differ on that one.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is capable of speaking for himself, but I think he said that he wanted to be sure that more women who were convicted of serious offences went to prison.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct, and I apologise if I misunderstood the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley.
I declare an interest because, like many of those present, I have many men in my life. I have a partner, a father, a son and brothers. It is the supportive men in all our lives who enable us to do what we do, and to be the best we can be at it. I wanted to take part in the debate because I believe that I should speak for all the people whom I represent. We have 191 women in Parliament, representing men and women. It is right that we should talk about issues that affect the people we represent. Too often we polarise the gender debate to depict men as aggressors and women as victims. Many women who, like me, have a passion for gender equality and who identify as feminists feel deeply uncomfortable about the increasingly negative caricatures and gender stereotyping of men. My son said to me, “I don’t like feminists, mum.” I said, “Oh, why’s that?” “Well, they don’t like men, do they?”
It is wrong to blame today’s men for the patriarchal society of yesterday. It does not enhance equality for women to antagonise and create hostility towards men. We should all bring up our boys and girls to believe in equality for all; but certainly we should not bring up our boys to be ashamed of their sex. For me equality is not about forcing men to wear a white ribbon. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who has left the Chamber, mentioned that campaign, which is wonderful, but men do not need to be shamed about the violence of other men towards women, and to demonstrate their shame with a badge. Nor is equality about forcing an elder statesman of this House—a man from a different era—to say the word “tampon” in the Chamber. Equality is always about having the same chances in life, and that is what today should be about.
I spent last Friday evening on patrol in Telford with police. We were talking about violence against men. We had just attended a domestic violence incident and I asked about the incidence of domestic violence against men. I was told that it is rarely reported and that the police are fully aware that the figures skew reality, particularly in relation to those under 30. There are many reasons why men under 30 would never admit to their girlfriend having smacked them or given them a shove; we do not talk about it. Today is an opportunity to focus on all the issues that adversely affect the life chances of men and boys and their ability to be the best that they can be. The cause of extraordinarily high rates of male suicide is simply that men feel unable to vocalise their emotions. They bury them. Should society, or indeed Parliament, say that it is not appropriate to discuss those issues? I say not.
In my constituency, a particular area of concern is the underachievement of boys at school. By any measure of attainment, boys from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups perform less well at school. Only 28% of white boys on free school meals in Telford achieved five A to C GCSEs, whereas girls from a similar background were doing significantly better. More boys than girls experience behavioural difficulties; they have more exclusions from school and more admissions to pupil referral units. I used to be involved in a pupil referral unit, and there were very few girls there. Boys then start to self-identify with a bad boy image. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with all that goes with it—the anger, frustration and self-harming—and then their life chances are kind of set in stone. We see that more young men are engaging with the criminal justice system, are in the prison population, or are in gangs and involved in knife crime. Then we wonder why those same young men have violent relationships with the women in their life.
It is deeply simplistic to characterise men as either violent or chauvinistic. Most men are neither. I did not come to Parliament to talk only about women’s issues, and I definitely did not want to find I could not talk about issues of fundamental importance to my constituents. We talk a lot about hedgehogs, UK sea bass stocks and trees, and various other topics of constituency interest, but I want to talk about issues that are important in Telford. In Telford the male suicide rate is higher than the west midlands average and the national average. However, what does Telford and Wrekin Council talk about? It, too, has embarked on an elaborate social media campaign parading photographs of men on Facebook holding up signs saying “I support the white ribbon campaign”. The poor men can hardly refuse, for fear of being labelled anti-women. I really wanted to know what the council was doing about men and boys in Telford.
The fact that no one wants to talk about the issue is the crux of it. I am on the Select Committee on Education. We talk about getting girls to do STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths. That does not mean much in Telford, particularly for a boy from Brookside who struggles with maths and English and is getting into trouble at school, becoming angry and frustrated, being excluded and then getting into trouble with the police. So men feel they must talk about women’s issues and wear white ribbons, and women feel that they do not want to be disloyal to the sisterhood. Today I thought twice about coming along. I did not want people to take to Twitter and attack me for wanting to talk about men’s issues. Then I remembered why I came to Parliament. It was to talk about issues that matter to people in my constituency. I am glad that I am here, along with everyone else who has come along—and I am glad about the valuable contributions they have made. I feel that I owe it to the failing boys in Telford, and the young men they will turn into, to be here today to put their case.
The men in my life talk a lot. They talk about sport and work, and sometimes politics. They definitely know how to get their voices heard; but they do not always say what they are feeling or what is worrying them. They feel the need always to be strong, brave and the breadwinner—the man with the chiselled jaw in the Gillette advert, if anyone remembers that. Men are uncomfortable expressing their feelings and talking to someone about how distressed or desolate they feel. That is because society has embedded the social expectation for men to be strong at all times. Failure to do that is considered weakness, or failure as a man. We need only look at society today to see the pressures that the workplace and providing for their family place on men’s shoulders. Not feeling able to talk about the issues only makes things worse. I echo what many hon. Members have said—that the impact of suicide on children and the families left behind is indescribable: the guilt, the sense of abandonment and rejection, and the loss, which a child can never quite fathom. A family member left behind does not recover from suicide.
I want to finish on a positive note. Today is about men’s health. It is about improving gender relations, promoting gender equality and highlighting positive male role models, so I am delighted that this debate has been held. We definitely need a more collaborative gender politics. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley quite achieved that, but I am sure that was his intention. Let us make sure that it is okay to talk about all these issues. Let us remember that women have men in their life whom they care about deeply. Seeking help is hard, and it is harder still for men, as an admission of weakness. It is even harder still if society generally will not talk about these issues. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for being brave enough to call for it. I particularly thank him for urging men to seek help, and letting them know that they are not alone. If this debate has achieved that, he is to be congratulated.
As the shadow Mental Health Minister, I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate on International Men’s Day. I will respond specifically to the motion, which tackles male suicide.
I thank Members from throughout the House for their contributions to the debate, which have revealed just how significant a challenge male suicide is in all our communities. I also add my thanks to CALM for the work it has done to raise the profile of the issue and push for a debate on it. Its #BiggerIssues Thunderclap campaign today has reached millions of people on Twitter and across social media. That is an important indication of the strength of feeling on this issue. On Monday, the Mind media awards featured countless nominations for programmes and coverage that had raised the profile of this significant issue. The campaign award was won by the #FindMike campaign, which was run by Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn, recognising the contribution that they have made to the debate.
I pay tribute to the chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for the vital contribution that she and the group have made and continue to make to the ongoing debate on suicide. As a society, we should be doing everything that we possibly can to prevent it. I also thank the Samaritans and the Royal College of Psychiatrists for their helpful briefings ahead of this debate.
The rate of male suicide in this country is a national scandal. It is shocking that in today’s society the number of people taking their own life is increasing. The fact that such a disproportionate number of those suicides are by men demands our urgent attention. I shall share again some statistics that we have already heard, because they are so significant: of the total number of suicides in the UK in 2013, 78% were male and 22% were female, and suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. Every time a person is lost to suicide, it is a tragedy—for their loved ones, their friends, their community, and society as a whole.
Members from across the House have mentioned cases of suicide in their constituencies, and sometimes within their own families; each one is tragic and devastating in its own right. The impact of suicide can be wide-reaching and incredibly long-lasting. Apart from the obvious human cost, which often affects whole communities in schools, colleges or workplaces, we must consider the huge economic cost. I was particularly struck by the Department of Health impact assessment, which put the economic cost of just one suicide at a staggering £1.7 million.
This debate has given us an important opportunity to examine the factors that might lie behind the shocking statistics. A report by the charity Mind outlined some of the possible reasons why men are more likely to take their own life. It suggests that men compare themselves to a gold standard of masculinity, power and control, and are more likely to feel shame and guilt when they fall from that standard. There is a link between unemployment and suicide—unemployed people are two to three times more likely to take their own life. Just this week, the University of Liverpool published research into the number of suicides that, tragically, have happened in areas with a higher number of work capability assessments.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) try to draw attention to work capability assessments and blame suicides on them. Will she accept that it was the Labour Government who introduced work capability assessments, under which more than 60% of people were found fit for work? In work capability assessments now, only 27% of people are found fit for work, so her Government were finding more people fit for work than this Government ever have. Will she at least acknowledge that fact, rather than trying to make a rather cheap political point?
I pointed out just one reference to the work capability assessment that is particularly relevant because that research has been prominent in the press today. There are many other factors—that is just one—and I will come on to address them, but that research has been conducted academically and is particularly relevant this week. That is not a political point; it is something that is significant in many communities and that has been raised by Members of all parties, not just by the Opposition.
Some groups of young men are particularly at risk. Research conducted by the charity METRO found that more than a third of LGBT young people have attempted suicide at least once. Shockingly, it has recently come to light that suicides in our prisons have increased by more than 50% in recent years. Every four days a prisoner takes their own life, and the majority are men. Analysis by the Samaritans and a number of academic studies show that there is also a very strong link between socioeconomic class and suicide, with those living in deprived areas on the lowest incomes being most at risk.
Men are more likely to take risks with drugs and alcohol. They are also much less likely to open up to their friends and family and seek emotional support, as many Members have said. We have also heard concerns about the impact of economic crises on suicide rates, which I echo. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to debt, and we also heard about the challenges in Greece, which has seen an increase in suicides.
All those individual factors are important and demand our consideration and attention, and I hope that the Minister will respond to each of them in turn. Whatever factors contribute to a person wanting to take their own life, there is one thing of which we must never lose sight: suicide is not inevitable. If people are in crisis, good care can make a vital difference, and it can and does save lives.
We have heard about the challenges in ensuring that people with mental health problems get the support that they need, and there are particular challenges due to fragmentation in the system. Service users, professionals and experts are warning of a mental health system under unsustainable pressure. The number of people becoming so ill with mental illness that they need hospital care has increased. At the same time, the number of mental health nurses has decreased, and we are hearing of too many instances of people having to travel hundreds of miles for a bed or, in some cases, not getting any help at all.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has advised that men tend to use more lethal forms of suicide than women. It is therefore vital that the very first time someone says they have had suicidal thoughts, they get the best support possible. It is vital that that support is provided in the first 24 hours after a crisis begins. Mental health charities have long been campaigning for better crisis care. Research from the charity Mind has found that people in mental health crisis might not be able to get help immediately.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend and for York Central about the role of the police. Some important pilots of street triage teams are going on throughout the country. I had the opportunity to join one in Liverpool and saw at first hand the fantastic work being done by the police and mental health professionals to contend with issues of suicide and suicide prevention. They often identify people and take them to a safe place, but we know that only one third of people who use NHS crisis care services are assessed within four hours, which should concern all hon. Members. Research has found that when people present to services, perhaps after having been brought there by a member of the police or a street triage team, there are often not enough staff to provide the care that they need.
When someone has a mental health crisis and is most at risk of suicide, one of the places they are most likely to be taken is the local hospital’s accident and emergency department. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately): there is a serious shortage of liaison psychiatrists in acute hospitals. I have had the opportunity to join a number of such teams in A & E. They do an incredible job in very difficult circumstances and under a lot of pressure. I have heard the staff say that they are not able to deal with all the cases they would like to in an adequate time, which should concern all of us. Having experts on hand is key to ensuring that people get the support they need. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the work he is doing to increase the number and coverage of liaison psychiatrists in our hospitals.
Labour Members welcome the mental health crisis care concordat—the national agreement between local agencies to work together more closely when responding to people in mental health crisis. I note that great strides have been made in supporting the police to improve their response to people with mental health problems. However, it is not clear what tangible progress is being made on the ground in relation to suicide as a consequence of the crisis care concordat. A King’s Fund report published last week found that just 14% of people felt that they received appropriate care in a crisis. I hope the Minister will share with us his plans to evaluate what the crisis care concordat has achieved and what it might go on to achieve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend rightly raised the complex and under-researched issue of suicide contagion. I echo the concerns raised by Members from both sides of the House about the challenges caused by the lack of research into suicide. There are some great research facilities, but they are few and far between. Although their work leads the way, funding for all types of mental health research is significantly lower than funding for research into physical health conditions. Public Health England published guidance in September on how to identify and respond to suicide clusters. I hope the Minister will tell us about the work his Department is doing to understand more about and prevent suicide contagion.
Ensuring that people in mental health crisis get the support they need is an urgent priority. However, to stem the tide of male suicide, we must do much more to prevent men from reaching the crisis point in the first place. A number of hon. Members have talked about the important fact that three quarters of people who take their own life are not in contact with mental health services. Men who suffer from depression are much less likely than women to look for formal help from mental health professionals. They are also less likely than women even to talk to their family and friends about how they are feeling. We need a cultural shift so that men feel able to discuss their mental health, seek help and get the support they need.
Just as important as ensuring that men feel able to talk openly about their mental health is ensuring that when they come forward, there are services available that they feel comfortable accessing. We need to do more to ensure that men can access information about mental health problems. We must make support available in what might be considered traditionally male settings, such as where men meet, eat and watch sport. That point has already been made this afternoon. I have seen at first hand the work done by Everton in the Community, an organisation connected to Everton football club that looks at mental health in particular. It has mental health champions and does work on the football playing field and just after matches, and it has a significant impact. It is a great project and there are others, but they are not the norm, so we need to do more work.
There is a real need for joined-up working between different sectors, including health, social care, education, employment, social welfare and the Ministry of Justice, to reach out to men who are depressed and at risk of suicide. Underpinning all of that is the need for a concerted and co-ordinated approach from the Government to prevent suicide. The Government’s suicide prevention strategy was published in 2012, yet there is still a high rate of suicide in our country. The strategy has not been as successful as any of us would like. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend said that she is concerned that the strategy lacks teeth and that there are no timeframes or tangible reporting mechanisms by which to measure its success. Does the Minister agree that it is time for an urgent review of the suicide prevention strategy? We also need timely access to data about suicide. It is not right that there is a two-year delay in receiving such figures. What plans does the Minister have to improve the availability and transparency of information about suicide across the country?
In the light of the rising suicide rates, it is clear that we need a revolution in suicide prevention to address the fact that many more men than women take their own lives. For too long, mental illness has been the subject of stigma and prejudice, which means that people—particularly men—often feel that they cannot talk openly about their mental health problems. A few brave public figures, such as Stephen Fry, Graham Norton and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), have spoken up about their own mental illness, but for too many people mental health remains hard to speak about openly. Only last week, in my constituency surgery a man in his 50s told me that he is not able to relate to either his siblings or his parents about the mental health condition he has been affected by throughout his adult life.
It is incumbent on all of us to make the rhetoric about parity of esteem a reality. Challenging stigma is key to making equality for mental health a reality. We need a cultural shift in our schools, colleges, universities and workplaces to enable men to discuss their mental health and feel able to seek help. We need to overcome the stereotypes of masculinity placed on men’s shoulders and give them the support they need. Each suicide is a terrible tragedy and a waste of precious life. Members from both sides of the House have talked about the important work that must be done to tackle the challenge and about the many practical steps that must be taken. It is clear from their contributions that together we can prevent suicide and save the lives of many men. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Do I have until half-past 4?
It is nice to get a reasonable amount of time without being shouted at for spending a bit of time on my feet. I am pleased to be in that position today.
And so is my hon. Friend.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and picking the topic. I thank CALM and the other charities that backed the debate, as well as all the colleagues who have spoken. I will come to everyone’s speech in due course, but a couple of colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately)—have been in here for the whole time and have not made a speech. It is sometimes unusual for colleagues to sit and listen because they are interested in the debate, without feeling the need to contribute. We all appreciate their presence. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) for her comments, which I will come on to. I am only mildly annoyed that she said some of the things I wanted to say, but I can say them again. She either read my mind or had a look at my speech in advance.
I will spend the bulk of my remarks dealing with the suicide element of the debate, but I want to start with International Men’s Day because I recognise its significance and because it is why we are here. I have previously referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) as “the Member for grit and oyster”, and he proved that to us once again today. This place is used to rough speeches. If any hon. Member wants to get anything done, say anything mildly controversial or challenge people, there is the chance that they will not only challenge but put some people’s noses out of joint in doing so. My hon. Friend is particularly good at both those things. We all have to take the rough with the smooth—we have all sat in the House of Commons and heard things from both sides that we do not like, but that is all part of it. That is what this place is about and we do not get things done by always going along with the status quo. Today, I heard from my hon. Friend things that I appreciated and things that that I thought were profoundly wrong.
I echo the feelings of those who said today that the purpose of International Men’s Day is to highlight the fact that gender equality is not a zero-sum game. It is not one thing to be gained at the disadvantage of another. The Department of Health’s approach to illnesses and conditions that might specifically affect men or women is that both deserve equal attention and neither is supported at the expense of the other. That is important. There is a strand of that argument on both sides that occasionally expresses itself in challenging ways. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made brave reference to the row at the University of York to say that it is right and important to think about International Men’s Day, and for a university to censor it and prevent something from happening frankly looks rather silly. There is a lot of stuff in the United States at the moment about the prevention of free speech that is getting into that area. Academic institutions need to be particularly careful about ensuring that they do not shut down debate just because they do not like it. The hon. Lady was quite right to say what she did.
I think our debate today has emphasised that this is not a zero-sum game. There are particular issues on which men are specifically challenged. It is important that they are raised as issues in their own right and that it is not suggested that they have arisen because men have been disadvantaged by women. The underachievement of boys, particularly white, working-class boys, is a real issue that any of us would be concerned about. It does not need to be considered in the context of whether girls are doing better. It is just a fact for those boys, and what can we do about it? My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley was right about that.
The difficulties of family problems, separation and other such matters are particularly hard because the courts have as their primary objective the interests of the child. It is not about the interests of one party or the other; the paramount duty of the court is to have the interests of the child as the basis of what it does. How that is interpreted can be tough in contested situations. The pain felt by men who suffer separation is real. That is not to suggest that pain is not suffered by women in similar circumstances, but the facts are as they are and not to raise them and not to regard them as important would be to miss something. My hon. Friend was also right on that.
As for the issues my hon. Friend raised, some of his challenges to put things on the record were right and some of them, I feel, are wrong, but I am grateful to him for being prepared, as he always is, to confront issues that some others might shy away from. That is what this place is all about.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) made a quite excellent speech, again demonstrating to people outside this place that some colleagues here get so immersed in a subject that they really know their business and are able to speak authoritatively on it from years of experience and practice. The hon. Lady gave us an object lesson in that. She was right about language. When she said that the phrase we should use now is not “to commit suicide” but rather “to take one’s own life”, that was not designed to chastise my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley or anyone else. I had a conversation on this subject this week with Jonny Benjamin, who I am pleased to say is here and following the debate closely, because I had also used the former phrase. I did so because it is a common phrase, but it is right to challenge its use, because, exactly as the hon. Lady said, it suggests that to take one’s own life is similar to committing a crime. That was not my intention when I used the phrase and I understood entirely when Jonny suggested that the right wording is “taking one’s own life”. As the hon. Lady said, the feeling of loss experienced by affected families is considerable; that the language used could add to that a sense that their loved one did something criminal had not occurred to me, but on reflection I certainly understood it. Her remark was not meant to chastise anyone. I have corrected my way of looking at the matter as a result of what I was told. That is just sensible sensitivity.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the importance of coroners. In case Members do not know, because I did not know until I took on this job, I can tell them that coroners write to me if they feel that there is something in a case that has a wider governmental impact that relates to my Department. It is an important part of the process that coroners indicate when they feel that they have uncovered something in a particular case that has a wider implication and the Government can do something about. I appreciate the work of coroners and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them and thank them for their thorough work in investigating deaths. It is much appreciated by Government.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) spoke about attitudes and the importance of gender equality not being zero-sum game, which I appreciate. I also recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley quite rightly challenged gender stereotypes in his contribution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned parental leave, which is dealt with by the Department for Education, so we will get an answer to her on that. It is an issue, and it is strange, although perhaps not surprising, that it is handled similarly around Europe and around the world and that men do not take the opportunities that are given to them, but I suspect that that attitude may change over time. I will ensure that the Department for Education gives her an answer.
My right hon. Friend also made reference to living in a multi-generational household. I too live in such a household, but there are only two males in mine. All the rest are women. There is me and Mr Darcy, my darling daughter’s pug. We are the only two blokes in our house, and I depend on him for male company when I get home. Multi-generational houses can be a lot of fun, and I appreciate living in one very much.
I have mentioned the hon. Member for York Central challenging the University of York, but she also made reference to the issues at Bootham Park hospital, in which we are both well versed. I appreciate her work on this and that of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). It is a particular situation that has arisen owing to the closure of that hospital because of the risks that she mentioned. It exemplifies the fact that work has to be done as swiftly as possible to replace the facilities that have been lost, and she is entirely right to say that the trust must have a good eye on where people are being treated now and how we can get back to local facilities as soon as possible. She knows that my door is open if she wants to see me when the moment is right, and we are pressing the local authorities to bring forward their plans.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall)—may God continue to bless his constituency and all its wonderful people—spoke of the need to challenge stereotypes. He also made reference to something that I want to highlight because it is absolutely central to the problem—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree also mentioned it. This is what has been so wrong: the acceptance. My hon. Friend gave every impression of being outraged that we have sort of accepted that there is a figure for suicide in this country and a gap between men and women; we have sort of got used to it. He is right, and that will be at the heart of my remarks about how we deal with the matter. He has looked hard at the statistics to examine the gap between men and women and found that it is not only consistent, but widening. I thank him for his work.
I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) a few months ago to meet a group that she brought together to deal with a variety of mental health issues. She can take my kind regards back to them, because I found the meeting to be very instructive. In her contribution, she spoke of her difficult personal experience and made reference, as several colleagues did, to the issue of men’s feelings about their place in society, their feeling of inadequacy should they admit to any sense of failure, their worry about not fitting in, banter and everything else. That brought to my mind the relatively recent tragedy of Gary Speed, the Welsh international manager, and the impact it had on the sporting community that someone seemingly in full command of his life and everything else could have such things going on to lead him to do what he did. Along with other celebrities and colleagues in the House talking about such things, it is those occasions that wake people up and make us say, “This is a bigger problem than we realised.” That is probably one of the reasons why we are all present today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree referred to the good that can come from sports clubs, associations and so on. In my constituency I am lucky enough to be a member of a number of organisations—for example, I am president of Biggleswade athletic club and I regularly go to see matches at the football clubs. They are places where people can go, gather together and form associations. Bearing in mind the difficulties we have been discussing, including feelings of loneliness and isolation—for men in particular—the more people can be scooped up by and remain part of groups and organisations the better. They are a vital link. Perhaps women do such things differently from and better than men, but perhaps sports clubs and other such places can do something more for men. In that connection, I commend the work being done at Everton.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North commented on asking people how they are and getting the reply, “Fine.” Are they really fine? Most of us leave it at that, because we do not want to get involved in the conversation, but it is important to take such opportunities.
May I make another point? It is a bit personal, but not too harrowing as it turned out. It is an important point. Last year my old school magazine reached me and in the obituaries column was the name of one of my classmates, someone I had also been at university with. I was completely horrified. We had been in touch reasonably regularly over the years, but perhaps not for a year or so. I thought, “My friend has died and I don’t know anything about it.”
In actual fact, fortunately, it turned out to be a mistake. My immediate reaction had been to hit the last number I had for my friend to find out what had happened, and I had discovered that the magazine was wrong. It had shocked me, however, and I remember saying to him, “Do you know what this teaches me? We have a number of friends we haven’t been in touch with for a while—we don’t always know where they are—and we will end up seeing each other’s families at each other’s funerals.”
At my sort of advanced age, if we have not been in touch with friends for a bit—I have a lot of school friends I remember well, even if I have not spoken to them for a while—we might simply miss something. Again, I think blokes do such things worse than women. If it were not for my wife keeping up with friends using Facebook and so on, my social life would be much worse. That is something for men to think about. If we have not been in touch with friends for a bit, we should do it this weekend.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) made reference to Scotland’s suicide strategy, and I was pleased to hear about it. The strategy goes back a long time, to 2002, so it is a long-term strategy to combat the brutal fact that the suicide rate is higher in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Any lessons to be learned from a falling rate are important. It is right to focus on what might work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), too, talked about the underachievement of boys at school and the particular issues in her constituency. She mentioned Twitter—she need not be worried about being attacked on it, because she has nothing to worry about—and I will speak about social media later. The importance of her remarks, however, was in talking about the issues.
Although the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) did not make a speech as such, she intervened with particular pertinence, as she always does on such occasions. It is good to see her in her place and taking a strong interest in the debate throughout.
I have a little more to say, given the time and the opportunity. I hope to be pertinent. I want to put on the record some of my own thoughts on the subject—although the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree has anticipated some of my views. I want to see the ambition of our society and of the Government changed in relation to the issue of suicide. Fundamentally, I want our position to be that we challenge the inevitability of suicide. As far as our statistics are concerned, our rates are mid-range for societies such as ours, but that is not good enough.
Do we need to know more? How do our strategies compare with those of others? Have we identified the right drivers, and are our local and national strategies flexible and dynamic enough to respond? Why, in a world where gender equality is encouraged as the norm, must we speak specifically about men because this affects men more than women?
Since I have been in office, I have been much moved by those I have met in relation to suicide. I have met those who help in prevention and counselling, those who work clinically, those who campaign and, most of all, those who have been touched by the tragedy of suicide in some way. I am fortunate. I have not personally been affected through the loss of a close friend or a family member, but I have known others more tangentially who have. I have met people whose children have taken their own lives, and others who have come close to it themselves.
The other day I met Jonny Benjamin, as I said, whose story of having been persuaded against suicide by a stranger on a bridge led to his extraordinary efforts years later to find, successfully, the man who saved him. He is taking a close interest in the debate today. He spends much of his time taking his story, and the issues surrounding it, out there to help others. Other people around the country are also doing such things—I commend their work, and I deeply appreciate what Jonny is doing. The shock and emptiness left by suicide is excruciating to behold, hard to listen to and desperate to feel.
We have a new challenge. What must we do to have the best suicide prevention strategy in the world? To be mid-range is no longer good enough for any of us. With that in mind, I assure the House that mental health is a key priority of the Government, and I set our work in that context. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree raised that issue. We want to do all we can to build on our momentum and to ensure that people get access to the services they need when they need them. We have done a certain amount towards fulfilling that commitment, and the hon. Lady was generous enough to praise one or two of the things that have been done.
Jonny Benjamin and others have done a great deal of work on making people more aware. His #FindMike campaign has captured many hearts and minds. We have legislated, for the first time, for parity of esteem between mental and physical health, through the Health and Social Care Act 2012. We were the first Government to include access and waiting times for mental health. Last year we gave the NHS more money than ever before for mental health services, with an increase to £11.7 billion, and we have invested more than £120 million to introduce waiting times standards for the first time.
I am conscious that when I say such things, people say, “Well, not in our area.” There is an issue with how the national money appears in local clinical commissioning groups, but we are on to it—there will be better monitoring this year, and we have made it clear that CCGs must use a proportionate amount of an increase that they receive for mental health services. We are watching out for that, because it is a fair criticism.
We have also helped to extend the accessibility of successful talking therapies, in which field we are a world leader. We invested more than £400 million in recent years in the improving access to psychological therapies programme, to ensure access to talking therapies for those who need them. That has led to real improvements in the lives of people with anxiety and depression.
We have also invested more than £33 million in crisis care. We launched the crisis care concordat in 2014, and every local area now has in place a crisis care action plan to support people experiencing a mental health crisis to receive the right help and support when they need it. I welcome the Care Quality Commission report of some months ago, which we commissioned. Although it was a bit tough in places, it provided a sort of baseline for where we do well and where we can do better. I recognise that accident and emergency did not come out well, and we need to strengthen the relationships there. I noticed that police and ambulance services did well when responding to people in crisis, but best of all were the independent and voluntary agencies involved with such people.
There are lessons to be learned, such as the need to build on all that work through street triage and so on. I shall mention that later, but it has been one of the most interesting outcomes. The crisis care concordat is not found universally, and some local areas that I have visited might want a different approach, but there is no doubt that the concordat and what the Government have sought to achieve through it have made a real difference. It is certainly being monitored locally and nationally—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree is right about that—and I take a keen interest in it. I expect to see the CQC reports improve as times go on, because we want to look at the areas where concerns were found.
One of the ways in which we can better look after people with mental health issues is to recognise that they often have physical issues as well. Sometimes that has been poorly regarded in the past, and it can add to feelings of depression, isolation and not being considered and so play into the issues that we are discussing. It is important to address premature mortality in people with mental illness, and we have committed NHS England to doing so through the NHS mandate,. One way in which we can do that is to look at the person behind the illness and provide treatment and care for the whole person, so that we also address the physical health and social care needs of people with mental illness.
Let me say a brief word about children, because this starts early. I am particularly keen to ensure that we get the right support in place for young people. We have committed to invest an additional £1.25 billion over the life of the Parliament to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. We know that, for many people, mental illness can manifest itself early in life, and that the first experience of psychosis is often during adolescence. We are using that additional investment to improve awareness of mental health issues in our children and young people and to improve the information and support they receive at school on mental health and wellbeing.
There cannot be enough warning about the dangers of peer pressure and social media and the ways in which they can induce depression and harm among young people at a sensitive age. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford referred to Twitter, and we see that what young people face on Facebook and other social media can be immensely damaging. New technology is a boon, but it has risks and dangers and it is important to talk about that.
May I commend the report issued just this week by the British Youth Council’s youth select committee on young people’s mental health? It made this recommendation:
“Cyberbullying and sites which promote self-harm can have a significant impact on the mental health of young people. Hoping that children will simply stop using social networks is not a solution. We recommend that the Government should facilitate a roundtable for charities, technology companies, young people, and the Government to work together to find creative solutions needed to help young people stay safe online”.
The Government will issue a full response from both my Department and the Department for Education, but I commend the Youth Council and that select committee for the hard work they have put in, which will certainly be taken seriously.
About a month or so ago I got a letter from a young lady not in my constituency—she had written to the Prime Minister. She said:
“I am writing to you to express my ideas on new legislation…The topic I have chosen is extremely personal to me. I have lost a friend to suicide, and I feel as though if he had had a better understanding of his own illness, he would not have felt the need to take his own life. Not only this, I also feel that if the people surrounding him at his time of suffering were better educated on the topic, it would have helped him to feel less alone and unaccepted in today’s society.”
It was a good, brave letter and I hope to see the young lady at an event we are doing to combat stigma. She made the point that the problem starts early, and I am pleased that the Government now have a Minister in the Department for Education, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), who is devoted to mental health issues in schools. I appreciate his work. We are working together on that, which demonstrates the Government’s determination to work across Departments on these issues.
Finally—I appreciate the House’s indulgence—I turn to talk about suicide and men.
One issue that we have not touched on much in the debate is homelessness. Men are more likely to be homeless and sleep rough: I think that 87% of rough sleepers are men. A constituent of mine, Hugo Sugg, has talked about how sleeping rough drove him to thoughts of suicide. He now wants to campaign for a better attitude towards youth homelessness and how we encourage people to look at those who are suffering from homelessness, to give them a chance to turn their lives around, working with some of the fantastic charities in this space. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the charities and organisations that campaign on homelessness for the job they do in saving men from suicide?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those connected with housing increasingly recognise the relationship between housing, mental health issues and suicide. When I was with my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North, I met the lady responsible for the YMCA there and its housing outreach, and she made some pertinent comments. Housing and homelessness are closely connected with the problem we are discussing, and I commend the constituent that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester mentioned.
We know that men are often reluctant to talk about mental health problems. Many colleagues have referred to men’s attitudes, so I do not think that I need to labour that point. They are reluctant to seek help when they need it. In part, we know that is because some men feel that it may be a form of weakness. We need to assure men that that is not the case, as many colleagues have said. We, along with the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, are seeking to reduce the stigma around mental illness through the Time to Change campaign.
Time to Change aims to empower people to challenge stigma and speak openly about their own mental health experiences—particularly men—and to change public attitudes towards those with mental health problems. The campaign has improved the attitudes of more than 2 million people. However, we know that men can be a particularly hard-to-reach group, and we are looking at further ways to improve reach in that area.
We know, tragically, what the outcome of unacknowledged mental ill health can be for a person. When someone bottles it up—that phrase was used in this Chamber today—their condition can worsen and may, in the worst cases, increase the risk of suicide. As I mentioned earlier, suicide rates in England remain low compared with in other European countries and other UK administrations, but I am concerned, as we all are, to see that rates have been rising in recent years. We anticipated that after the global financial crisis in 2008, and it has been seen in other countries around the world, as the hon. Member for York Central said. We know about that, but it is important that the inevitability of that does not go unchallenged. We can appreciate that such times bring extra pressures, but we need to ask what we can do when we know they are coming.
We know that the recent rise in suicide rates has been driven by an increase in male suicides, which is what led my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley to call for the debate in the first place. The threefold difference between male and female suicide rates has increased further, and we know that is a common experience in other countries around the world. It is right, therefore, that preventing suicide is dominated by efforts to prevent male suicide, but we recognise that this issue affects everyone. Whether men or women, boys or girls, when it happens it is an immense tragedy.
The greater risk of suicide among men is a complex issue. Many of the clinical and social risk factors for suicide are more common in men. Cultural expectations that men will be decisive and strong can make them more vulnerable to psychological factors associated with suicide, such as impulsiveness and humiliation. It is critical that, in addressing those issues, we provide information and support in a way that suits men’s needs and behaviours, and that we provide services that are appropriate for men, which may include moving away from traditional health settings.
What are we doing about it, and what will we do about it? We published the cross-Government suicide prevention strategy for England in 2012, and I am committed to implementing it by working across Government and with our partner organisations in the NHS and other sectors such as transport and the community, voluntary and charitable sectors. I will also be speaking to our partner organisations soon to discuss how we can review and strengthen the national suicide strategy. I want to make it clear that I see that as a dynamic and flexible instrument, not as something that we will do and then I will see how it works and make some decisions in years to come. We are looking at it now. It needs to be reviewed and refreshed now. It is an ongoing process, and I am committed to it.
The objectives of the strategy are to reduce suicide and to support the people bereaved or affected by it. It is right that men are identified in the strategy as a high-risk group for whom our suicide prevention activities should be and are prioritised. The strategy also recognises that schools, social care and the youth justice system have an important contribution to make in suicide prevention by promoting mental wellbeing and identifying underlying issues such as bullying, poor self-image and lack of self-esteem.
As well as having the strategy, we continue to provide financial support for the National Suicide Prevention Alliance, which brings together our key partners across Government and the community, voluntary and charitable sectors with expertise in suicide prevention. I am particularly pleased to say that many of the organisations that campaigned for the debate are members of the NSPA. It has been working with all those organisations to develop its strategy for delivering improvements in suicide prevention, which I welcome. My Department of Health officials are helping with that work. Those organisations make tremendous individual contributions to suicide prevention. The Campaign Against Living Miserably, which was prominent in calling for this debate, works tirelessly to target men specifically, and to support them, so that they feel able to talk about mental health issues. The Department of Health provided financial support to CALM in its early days, and I am proud to see how it has grown in size and profile.
I have had a variety of meetings on the issue since I took office; I have mentioned some already. I went to see the Samaritans bereavement centre in Peckham for World Suicide Prevention Day, and to mark the launch of a new initiative between Cruse Bereavement Care and the Samaritans. I met the British Transport police and saw the extraordinary work they do with Network Rail. I saw some of the triage work going on in Birmingham, including placing a mental health professional in the police control room 24 hours a day to help provide necessary information. I held a meeting on suicide prevention on 29 June, with researchers, the Samaritans, and representatives from areas such as Merseyside, the east of England and the south-west.
We have started to look at something called zero suicide. I have an interest in the concept and ambition of zero suicide. It was pioneered in Detroit by a college acquaintance of mine from many years ago, Ed Coffey, and I am very interested in his work. We can follow part of it, although some things are different in the States and will not be pertinent here. The whole concept of zero suicide—recognising that as an ambition, and challenging the inevitability of suicide—is really important and has very much grabbed my attention. Public Health England also recently published the refreshed “Help is at Hand” document, which provides compassionate support and information to people bereaved by suicide.
I will conclude by saying a little about research and data, as it will cover a number of issues raised by colleagues. One of the key drivers for improving our approach to suicide prevention is investing in research and data. I want us to lead the world in suicide prevention research, and to be at the forefront of service delivery, using the best knowledge and information to provide the best care. We have invested over £1.5 million in suicide and self-harm prevention research since bringing in the national suicide prevention strategy, to inform and target our strategy for reducing suicide rates. I will have a look at whether that is enough, and at what more needs to be done.
The hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned longitudinal studies. We are committed to carrying on the work on that. We have provided the Multicentre Study of Self-harm in England with £300,000 this year. I will very much bear in mind the opportunities that there might be for us to do more.
The zero suicide ambition I mentioned is being piloted in three areas: Merseyside, the south-west and the east of England. Early learning from the pilots has identified some innovative practice, which I am sure will help other areas to develop innovative plans for reducing suicide in their communities. There will be more research that we can work through to find whether it could have applications elsewhere.
Will that work extend to our prisons, which are a particular area of concern?
I know the Ministry of Justice is looking closely at the increase in prison and detention suicides. Again, it is not huge, statistically, but any increase is a matter for concern.
The work capability assessment has been mentioned. It started in 2008, which is about the time that the rise in suicides began. The authors of the recent study that has been mentioned have said that they were cautious about making a link or claiming cause and effect, but I have already asked the Department of Health to have a look at that study, because I feel it is important that my Department looks at the matters involved.
This has been a really good and important debate. First, it has put the issues connected to International Men’s Day on the agenda and allowed us to talk about male issues, in a way that is not a zero-sum game. We have been able to make reference to some difficult issues that are not discussed enough, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley for that. We have spent the bulk of our time discussing suicide, and Members on both sides of the House have been able to work together and demonstrate a common interest in things that affect us all. The sense I get from everyone is that none of us is prepared to accept the status quo and simply see the statistics accepted—my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North made that point.
These will not be easy issues to tackle. More men commit suicide than women, not because someone is making them do so—it is not anyone’s fault—but that is a fact. What more can we do? What can we learn from overseas and from the work being done in different areas of this country? I am absolutely confident that this House will talk about this issue again. I hope that when we do, we will have learned still more. People and organisations outside the House do such excellent work on this; with the benefit of that work, perhaps our ambition to make this the country with the best suicide prevention strategy in the world can, in time, become a reality.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for chairing this debate, along with the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). We very much appreciate that.
I echo the Minister’s remarks: we have had a very good debate. We had the expertise of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who chairs the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, and represents a constituency that has been more tragically affected by suicide than most. It has been great to have my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) here, as she is Chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee. I certainly support her view that we need greater genuine gender equality.
I am grateful for the presence of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who, as a good constituency MP, rightly drew attention to how the issue affects York. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) is a member of the Backbench Business Committee and so helped to grant this debate, and I am grateful to him for that. I was very struck by his point about how stubborn the levels of suicide have been for many years, and how difficult it is to tackle the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) talked powerfully about the need to end the stigma around some of these issues.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who went on to make a very good speech after her early criticisms of me; I will forgive those. She spoke about her son, who sounds like a hero to me—I very much hope to meet him sometime soon—and her genuine belief in true gender equality. I echo the Minister’s remarks to her on not worrying about Twitter; I have 11,000 Twitter followers and all of them hate me.
We were very grateful for the perspective from the Scottish National party, given by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan). He spoke about what the Scottish Executive are doing and how seriously they treat the issue, before going slightly off piste on the work capability assessment; I am sure we will forgive him for that. The shadow Minister spoke about how much more there is to do on this issue. Everyone here would echo that. We all appreciate the Minister’s commitment to this difficult issue, and how hard he works to try to tackle it. He comprehensively covered everything he personally and the Department are doing to tackle it.
The debate was enhanced by the passionate and important contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), for Christchurch (Mr Chope), for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and for Worcester (Mr Walker). I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about homelessness. I spent some time volunteering with a wonderful charity in Leeds called St George’s Crypt, which does great work on that. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) has stayed here for the duration of the debate, which does her an awful lot of credit. I should also mention my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who have also sat and listened to the debate with great care. We are grateful for that.
Before we conclude, I will say that I do not agree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Bridgend about language and the word “committed”. One problem we have in our society is political correctness. Lots of people in this country are petrified of saying anything in case someone takes offence. I do not believe that any word or phrase is offensive; the context in which it is used and the intention behind it are what makes it offensive. When people start taking offence where none was ever intended, we get into terrible problems, because people will not speak out lest someone complain that they were offended. If people feel offence where none was intended, that is more their problem, as far as I am concerned, than the problem of the person who made the remark. I cannot agree with the Minister and the hon. Lady on that point.
This has been an important debate. We have raised issues that very rarely get discussed in the House of Commons. Lots of people throughout the country are delighted that some of those issues have finally been raised, as they have been campaigning on them for years and years, and not really getting the recognition they deserve. We have done the country and the House a great service by debating these things, and for that I am incredibly grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate. It has shown why that Committee is so important to the House; long may that continue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of male suicide and International Men’s Day.