I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Men’s Day.
It is a privilege to lead this debate. I thank the Members of all parties who have shown their support for it by being here today, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has led debates about International Men’s Day in the last two years.
International Men’s Day, which is on 19 November, is now marked by 70 countries around the world and has been part of the annual events calendar in the UK since 2010. Its objectives, which apply equally to all men and boys, include the promotion of role models, a focus on male health and wellbeing, the improvement of gender relations and gender quality, and the creation of a safer world for us all. In the UK, International Men’s Day takes a gender-inclusive approach and therefore believes in ensuring that issues affecting women and girls are resolved, too. The themes in the UK this year are: making a difference for men and boys, and how we can give men and boys better life chances.
I stress that International Men’s Day is international. Although I am sure we will speak a lot about matters in the UK, we should not forget the challenges affecting men and boys around the world, which include boys having to be soldiers and the targeting of men, which we have seen in the conflicts in the middle east. That is not at all to forget what happens to women and girls. We must remember what is going on around the world, but I will concentrate on the situation in the UK. There is so much to talk about. All I can really do is skirt across a number of issues, but I know that hon. Members will go into other areas in more depth, and I welcome their remarks.
I will start with role models. I would like to recognise the huge number of men in the UK who work positively every day for their families and their communities, and who actively promote equality not just in their words but in their actions. People often ask, “Where are the male role models who can inspire other men and boys?” The answer is that they are in every community, but they often need to be encouraged to share their experiences—their difficulties as well as their successes. By their very nature, good role models are often reticent to speak about themselves and often do not even recognise themselves as role models. They think they are just doing their best, often in difficult circumstances. I think of a close friend who, as a leader of an organisation that works with hundreds of young people in north Staffordshire, is a great role model. He would be the last person to recognise himself as a role model, but he is, including to me.
How can we support such people? I suggest that promoting people publicly as role models is not necessarily the best way, and it is certainly not the only way. Everyone has their failings, and some of the media like nothing better than to raise someone up only to knock them down when they turn out to have feet of clay, as we all do. However, supporting the work of genuine but often unassuming role models who have a positive influence on men and boys and on women and girls can be really effective.
It is not difficult to identify them. Ask most local councillors, community workers, police officers and police community support officers, and they will know people who are great role models on the ground. We should see how they can be supported in their work, and perhaps supported to expand it. I have seen great and lasting work in my constituency and elsewhere by people in the scouting and guiding movements, boxing clubs and Duke of Edinburgh’s award groups, as well as by open youth groups run by committed professionals and volunteers.
The Government’s answer to problems is often new initiatives involving new organisations, which are given substantial sums of money but fold when that money runs out. In my opinion it is much better, where possible, to help existing people or organisations that have a proven track record over many years, but they are often the last to be considered for support.
I turn to health and wellbeing. Men are more likely than women to die prematurely; one in five men dies before the age of 65. Mortality under the age of 75 from cardiovascular diseases is twice as high among men as women, and it is three times as high among men for diseases that are considered preventable. Mortality before the age of 75 from cancer is almost twice as high among men as women, and it is 17% higher in cases of preventable cancer. There is so much more work to do to improve men’s health.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the issues is improving male awareness about health? If the television breaks down, we men get the TV repair person in; if the lawnmower is not working, we take it to the gardening shop; and if the car breaks down, we take it to the garage, but we seem to be reluctant to go to our GP when we are suffering from a mental or physical health issue. We need to ensure that everybody—but particularly men, who have been reluctant to deal with personal health issues—goes to their GP or to the relevant health professional when they have such issues.
I totally agree; the hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was about to say. As he says, there is clear evidence that men are less likely than women to seek help when they are sick. That is certainly true of me. I have sometimes been reluctant to go to the doctor in case it turned out that I had something serious, as if the very act of seeking help would make it more serious than it was. I do not think it is just me. I did not want to confront the possibility of having a serious illness.
Good public health work has been done to ease people’s fears of seeking medical help if they think something is wrong—I think the NHS recognises that—but there is a greater need for health education, starting at school, to promote healthy lifestyles and to encourage people to consult their doctor early if they believe something is not quite right. I have recent personal experience; a close friend, who was not yet 50, had his cancer caught too late because, due to the nature of his job, he understandably attributed the symptoms to work-related stress when they were in fact much more serious.
Men should not worry that they will waste valuable NHS resources by going to their GP because they have unusual discomfort in their stomach, a persistent cough or problems passing water. Any NHS professional would prefer to allay their patient’s fears by showing that the problem is not serious—or, if it is serious, to catch it early and hence greatly improve the prospects of cure.
We have a serious problem with mental health among men and boys. Some 76% of all suicides in the UK last year were among men. That is 4,287 lives lost to suicide—more than two and a half times the number of deaths on the UK’s roads. The suicide rate has fallen in the last 35 years, and I welcome that, but the fall has been greater among women than men; it has fallen by 50% for women, which is wonderful, but only 14% for men. Suicide is the leading cause of death of men between 20 and 49.
The Samaritans commissioned research on the issues surrounding male suicide, which I will go into in some detail because they are so important. It found that men from the lowest social class who live in the most deprived areas are up to 10 times more likely to end their lives by suicide than those in the highest social class from the most affluent areas. This is undoubtedly a matter of inequality. Men in mid-life are most at risk, which surprised me. Men compare themselves against a masculine gold standard, to which having a job and providing for the family are essential, especially for working-class men. Men—I speak here from personal experience—are far less positive than women about getting formal emotional support for their problems, and when they do it is at the point of crisis. There is also a well-known link between unemployment and suicide; unemployed people are two to three times more likely than those in work to die by suicide, which is why combating unemployment is an absolute moral mission.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. I am sure that he agrees that more needs to be done about the mental health of not just older men but young men. In my constituency, suicides have risen dramatically. The youngest person to commit suicide was 12, and one was 15. More needs to be done to help young people, especially those from deprived areas, who have social difficulties.
I absolutely agree. I will read all six of the Samaritans’ recommendations, because they are so important. The first is to recognise and take on gender and socioeconomic inequalities in suicide risk—to follow the evidence, not the preconceptions. The second is to ensure that suicide prevention policy and practice takes account of men’s beliefs and concerns, and the context of what it is to be a man. The third is to recognise that loneliness is, for men in mid-life, a significant cause of their high risk of suicide, and to enable them to strengthen their social relationships—frankly, women are usually better at doing that than men. The fourth is to ensure explicit links between alcohol reduction and suicide prevention strategies, because often the two are taken apart when they should be much more closely linked. The fifth is to support GPs to recognise the signs of distress in men and ensure that those from deprived backgrounds receive a range of support, not just medication—it seems that men from poorer backgrounds are often given much more medication than counselling and other support. Finally, and very importantly, the sixth recommendation is to provide leadership and accountability at local level, and I congratulate councils who are taking this seriously up and down the country.
I would like to hear from my right hon. Friend the Minister on how he believes we can all work together to tackle suicide in all people, and particularly the tragically high rate of male suicide. I have not gone into great detail on some of the excellent initiatives, whether sports initiatives or peer communicators, which perhaps others or the Minister will refer to, but it would be good to hear more about that.
I turn to the access rights of fathers and children. One of the saddest things I have to confront, on an almost weekly basis, in my surgeries, as I am sure all colleagues have, is the fallout from partnerships and marriages that have gone wrong. The problem is almost inevitably one of two: either a father is neglecting his responsibilities to contribute to the maintenance of his children, or father and children are denied access to each other. The causes are complex, especially in cases of the latter, and I am no expert. However, I have no doubt that, in some I have seen, there has been a deliberate attempt to use all means possible to prevent the father from seeing a child or children, just as I have seen cases in which fathers have used all means possible to avoid their responsibilities to contribute to child maintenance.
My hon. Friend is touching on an important issue. Is he aware of the growing number of examples of parental alienation, in which one parent deliberately turns children against the other parent in order to stop access, even when people are contributing to their children’s upbringing?
Sadly, yes. I have seen that on several occasions, and I remember one in particular in a surgery a few years ago that was just devastating; a father had lost access to all four of his children. It was very sad indeed. As I say, we need to be balanced in the debate, because there are many cases of fathers who have totally neglected their responsibilities. Both issues have to be addressed.
We must be more determined to stop people ignoring or playing around with agreements or court rulings. Such actions deny parents and children the financial support they need or the access to each other that is so critical to the development of both parents and children. I know this is a difficult area. When families have to resort to law, there is already great sadness, but when they do so, the law needs to uphold the rights and demand the responsibilities of all involved. I understand that a Green Paper on family justice will be published in the coming months and I hope that that will tackle these issues.
I turn briefly to education, on which I am sure others will speak. There is so much more for boys and men to achieve in education. In 2017, the average attainment 8 score for boys in state-funded schools was 43.4, compared with 48.7 for girls—the equivalent of about half a grade lower per subject. Only 39% of boys achieved the highest grades in both English and Maths—grades 9 to 5 in the new system—compared with 45% of girls. When it comes to higher education, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report that identified higher drop-out rates and lower degree performance for males. However, there were other indicators where males were doing better, so the picture in higher education is not clear cut.
There are no straightforward answers to the discrepancies, as I am sure the Minister, who probably has more experience in this area than anyone in the Chamber, will appreciate. The best answer is to seek to improve attainment for all children—all students, whether male or female—but we cannot ignore the discrepancy. I would like to hear the Minister’s analysis and his proposals to address it. Technical education and investment in that area is incredibly important. It is lacking at the moment, and we need to do more in that area. There is no doubt that technical education is often more attractive to boys than some of the education that they are given and expected to complete. I know that the Government are looking at that area, but we need to take it much more seriously.
We also need to encourage more men into the teaching profession, just as we need to encourage more women into engineering. In England, 26.2% of teachers are male: 15.2% in primary and 37.6% in secondary. I spoke earlier about role models, and teaching is just about the best profession in which to be a role model. What is being done to ensure that the fine profession of teaching is introduced as a great career option to all students?
There are so many other areas we could touch on, such as rough sleepers, of whom 88% were men in 2016, and domestic abuse, which is particularly horrible for women, but can affect men as well, which is sometimes forgotten.
We have just concluded the poignant remembrance season, which brings me to a cause for great thankfulness. On Sunday, in Stafford I saw the hundreds of names of men and boys on the war memorial as I stood waiting to lay a wreath. That is not happening to our men and boys at the moment. Later, I joined the Penkridge Anglo-German Remembrance Day Association for its service at the main German military cemetery in my constituency, in a beautiful wooded vale on Cannock Chase. More than 5,000 German men—basically boys as well—lie in peace there. Finally, I went to Colwich parish church, where the names of all the men—and, again, boys, as some of them were boys—from that village and Great and Little Haywood who died in the wars of the 20th century were read out by the lychgate; sometimes two from the same family.
I and my generation, and my children’s generation, have not had to experience the horrors of a world war. That is a huge advantage. We pay tribute to the great professionals—men and women—in our armed services, who keep us safe at great personal risk. Most of us, unlike our fathers and grandfathers, have not had to spend years of our lives fighting. That gives us an opportunity and responsibility to contribute positively to our families and communities, to work for peace, to look out for the interests and welfare of others and help to build a better world. I have pointed out many areas in which we can all work together to improve the life chances, health and wellbeing of men and boys, but we can also be thankful for how much life has improved for most of us in the past 100 years and ensure that those improvements are within the reach of all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this important debate, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on introducing it and all Members who supported the subject being heard. It is the first time during which I have been an MP that we have had a debate on International Men’s Day. I was not in Parliament for the previous two occasions, so I am delighted to be able to take part. I hope this debate will become a firm annual fixture in the Commons, perhaps even taking place in the main Chamber in future years. These issues are important and deserve to be properly explored.
Gender inequality is endemic right across society. The stereotypes, assumptions and rigid constraints on behaviour affect both men and women, girls and boys, but our focus is often on how women and girls lose out from gender inequality. It is right that we explore those issues, but as we have already heard and will explore in the debate, it is absolutely the case that men and boys are also negatively affected by gender inequality. That is why gender equality is good for everyone. Sometimes in the media these issues are portrayed as men pitted against women, as if there is some battle of the sexes going on. In fact a world that is more gender equal would be good for everyone, and it is one that we should be able to join forces to create.
Healthcare, particularly mental health for men and boys, is a huge issue. Such problems can start very early on. In the opening speech, we heard statistics about how men are more likely to commit suicide, and indeed that is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45. That prompts us as a society to take a step back and consider what services we provide for men who find themselves in trouble. There is also an element of stigma, which we are starting to break down. In recent years there has been a welcome move towards talking more openly about mental health, and I know that hon. Members from across the House have spoken movingly in the Chamber about their own battles with mental health problems. That is to be welcomed, but no one would suggest that we are there yet when it comes to breaking down that stigma.
Importantly, we must also ensure that the services are there. For too long, mental health has been the Cinderella of the health service. It should be given parity with physical health problems, but mental health provision for individuals who need that support does not yet exist in our communities. Given that it is more difficult for men to seek help in the first place, if those support services are not there when they do, that is a double whammy.
In my constituency I am aware of an interesting project that has been set up specifically to help men with mental health difficulties. It is called Brothers in Arms, and when I spoke to its founders I was interested to hear their concern that not enough specialist services cater specifically for men and recognise some of the difficulties that men might have in coming forward. Such organisations—I know there are many others, particularly south of the border—and many strong campaigners and advocates are raising these issues and putting them on the agenda, but we must ensure that that is supported and progress accelerated.
The hon. Lady raises a good point about men’s mental health projects. Does she agree that that disparity is even greater for men in ethnic minority communities? Does she welcome projects such as the Reach project in my constituency, which tries to address those issues with the ethnic minority population?
Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a good point, and we must ensure that we reach out to groups who are less likely to come forward. It is important that services recognise all the different reasons why that might be and the intersectionality of the different challenges that people face. I am sure that we all have stories from our own constituencies of services that are run by excellent individuals, some of whom might be paid, but many of whom volunteer. That is to be supported, but resource is also vital.
When considering why it is difficult for men to come forward, we need to start early and consider the stereotypes that are placed on boys from the earliest months and years of their lives. We say things like, “Boys will be boys,” or “Boys don’t cry,” and people get told to “man up”, as if showing emotion is a sign of weakness. The hon. Member for Stafford spoke about a masculine gold standard and the pressure to be the breadwinner. Obviously, anybody who loses their job will be thinking from a practical perspective about how they will pay the bills, but if layered on top of that is the view that because of their gender it is specifically their job to get the money to pay those bills, that adds a layer of additional pressure. It is 2017 and we should be able to share that responsibility. Different couples will have different ways of working out who might work, or whether both will be working, but we are not in the 1950s and we do not need to cling to the old stereotypes that state that it is always the job of the man in a heterosexual couple to go out and be the breadwinner. Such stereotypes lead to far too many men suffering in silence and are really damaging for boys and young men.
Over the summer there was a fascinating television programme on the BBC that some hon. Members might have seen. It was called, “No More Boys and Girls”, and it went into a school and spoke to seven-year-olds. It explored gender issues and how, even at that early age, they were already being embedded. In addition to the stuff about girls lacking confidence and underestimating their abilities, one thing that struck me was a test to understand where boys and girls stood on different issues. They asked them how many words they could use to describe different emotions, and the boys had far fewer words than the girls—there was a really marked difference between the boys and girls—with one exception: the boys had plenty of words to describe the emotion of anger. Consider what that says about seven-year-olds. It shows how such differences are starting early.
We must put in place mental health services, but we must also consider how we are parenting and the messages that young children receive which, I would argue, are even more gendered now than they were when I was growing up in the 1980s. Today it is much more segmented: pink for the girls and dark sludge colours for the boys. As the mother of a young boy, I go to buy clothes and toys, and it is clear what is supposed to be for girls and what is for boys. It is as if liking rainbows and butterflies excludes liking buses and dinosaurs. My nieces love dinosaurs, and my little boy loves butterflies. Why should we say to children, “This is only for one gender or another”? It starts with that stuff, which some people say does not matter, but it means that girls and boys are told what their role is very early on. When they read books they see that more of the characters who go to work and have a job are boys and men, and that is one reason why boys and young men grow up thinking that it is their job to be the breadwinner, and the pressure is piled on.
We should be as worried about the gender gap in education, in schools, as we are about it in the workplace. They are different gender gaps. In education, we should be just as worried about the fact that boys are reading less than girls—not only fewer books, but reading less thoroughly—as we should be about the fact that girls tend to drop out of science or physical education in their teenage years.
The flipside of having roles such as breadwinner and so on is how we value men’s role as fathers in our society, because that incredibly important role has often been dismissed and undermined. Look at some of the stereotypes in popular culture, such as the Homer Simpson stereotype of dads being a bit hapless and not up to the job. Men are just as capable as women at being parents. There is a myth that somehow women are naturally better at parenting but—breastfeeding aside—there is nothing that women do as parents that men cannot do. It is not about women being naturally better at it; it is who spends more time doing it. Practice makes—well, perhaps not quite perfect as I do not think perfect parenting exists, but it is about experimenting, practice and learning, and we should recognise the role that men play.
Why is it so important that men are involved as fathers? We know that it is good for children because they do better with social and language skills, and their mental health is better if their fathers are actively involved. Amazingly, the intensive involvement of a father is a better predictor of whether a child will have high academic achievement than their income—it is that important to a child’s development. It is also good for men, who are happier, healthier, more productive at work and live longer if they are involved fathers and close to their children.
Finally, we must break down the cultural barriers. When I was a Minister I was delighted to introduce shared parental leave—that is my proudest achievement from my time in government, as it helps parents to choose how to spend time looking after their children. That was a great first step, but it needs to be built on. A review is due next year, and we must consider how shared parental leave can be extended to all parents, such as the self-employed, and at how we can have more dedicated time for fathers. We must also look again at pay, to make it easier for dads to take up that leave. I have been delighted to contribute to this debate, and I am interested to hear what other Members have to say.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing it, and am delighted that International Men’s Day is getting more recognition. It is important that we take a moment at least once a year—hopefully, perhaps, more often than that—to focus on and think about the challenges that men face today. The theme of this year’s day is celebrating men and boys, and the aspect of it that I want to focus on is the role of fathers. I believe it is essential for the country, today and in the future, that we do all we can to help dads be better dads, and to support them in their role. If we do that, not only will it help those men who are dads, and their children; the whole of society will benefit.
One of the reasons why I am particularly interested in the subject is that I had the honour, in the early 1990s, to be the first father working for Barclays bank to take paternity leave and request, and achieve, a change to my working pattern to help me balance my life—to balance my work responsibilities with those of being a new dad. Today that is not remarkable, and many big companies like Barclays make such provision; but it was quite unusual more than 20 years ago. There has certainly been progress in that area, but more needs to be done to enable dads to balance the many pressures and challenges that they face today, and get a work-life balance. Change has happened in this area, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) described, but we need to go further in changing workplace culture to support and respect the role that fathers play.
Britain has an appalling record on family breakdown generally, and that has an impact on childhood life chances. Children whose dads play an active role in their lives have better attitudes at school and enjoy school more. They have higher educational expectations, and they make better progress at school. I am sure that the Schools Minister, who is present to respond to the debate, would particularly like to comment on that issue: I believe that the more we can do to help dads play a positive, active role in their children’s lives, the better those children’s educational outcomes will be.
Will the hon. Gentleman also stress that those of us from single-parent families parented by men sometimes get on in life quite well?
I am happy to acknowledge that. We must acknowledge that families today come in all shapes and sizes, and that single parents work incredibly hard and, in many cases, are heroes in view of the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears that they put into raising their children. However, that should not mean we do not say that more often than not the best outcome for children generally is when they have a father and mother playing an active role in their life and upbringing.
The extent of fatherlessness in the UK is, I believe, a little-known statistic. According to the Office for National Statistics there are 2.7 million dependent children who have no father figure at home; that is roughly one in five children. When fathers are absent from children’s lives, levels of deprivation and poor economic and social outcomes are measurably worse, which has an impact not only on the children but, more widely, on society. One shocking statistic is that 76% of all male prisoners come from households without a father figure in the home. Boys with little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders as boys with highly involved fathers. Those statistics should cause us concern and prompt us to take action.
We are, at last, increasingly understanding the impact of fathers in families. We do not really have a family breakdown crisis in this country; we have a crisis of fatherhood. I am hugely passionate about the work of the all-party group on fatherhood—I am one of its vice-chairmen—and about ensuring that we talk about families. We should do that much more in our political conversations. In doing so, we should not forget the vital role that fathers play. Dads today are often misunderstood and are seen within an out-of-date stereotype. The biggest stereotype of them all is that dads simply do not care, or do not want to be active dads.
Recent research by the University of Plymouth suggests that fathers face a negative bias, and suspicion from managers, when seeking a better work-life balance or applying for part-time working. That has been branded the fatherhood forfeit. Last year I did some work with the Centre for Social Justice on a small piece of research. We interviewed 50 working fathers about the challenges that they faced in balancing work and family life. What struck me was the strong emotional response from every single one of the fathers we interviewed. We found that all 50 interviewees were trying hard to be dads and in many cases they were making significant amendments to their working lives to accommodate time with their children. The stereotype of dads who do not care is out of date.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised concern about the stereotypes, which have always been around. In my constituency several years ago, Scotland’s national male cancer charity, Cahonas Scotland, did a piece of research called “Men, Masculinities and Male Cancer Awareness”, highlighting what happens when men are asked about services and their experience, and getting a breakdown of the reality of their everyday lives, especially with respect to parenthood.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes a good point.
As I have said, we want to be an equal society—we want equality to be at the heart of society, including in the workplace. If we are to achieve that we must seriously consider a positive approach to fathers. We need to get to the stage where employers actively seek to have father-friendly workplaces. We can achieve that, and if we do it will not only be dads who benefit but children, mothers, families and the whole of society.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. It is a privilege to speak in the debate. My wife would say that every day is men’s day; I would argue that it is a woman’s world, and they just let us live in it.
Joking aside, I am honoured to be a part of this International Men’s Day debate, because it is simply promoting and raising awareness of health and other issues. A friend recently called into the constituency office, and I was surprised to see this usually clean-shaven gentleman looking slightly less so. I was not going to probe into the reasons, until one of the girls in the office asked, “Gary, did you lose your razor?” We all laughed, and he explained that he was taking part in Movember, which he is involved in every year. As I look around the Chamber I can see three people with beards; I am not sure whether that is for Movember. If so, then well done; and if not perhaps they might consider shaving them off and raising money for the charities concerned. I have had a moustache since I was 18 years old. It was not all that good at that age. My mother told me to get the cat to lick it, but we had no cat so I could not do that. It eventually grew anyway, and it is good to be able to participate—a moustache is a way of provoking people to remark, and to begin the discussion.
Awareness is important and men—especially those in the older age bracket—are reticent about problems and symptoms. We need to break the cycle and train our young men to know that there is nothing wrong with talking about health or issues that may be slightly awkward. The International Men’s Day website has a very eye-catching first paragraph:
“We know that Men’s health is worse than women’s in almost every part of the world. Recent World Health Organization (WHO) data shows that, globally, male life expectancy at birth in 2015 was 69 years; for females, it was 74 years. Women on a worldwide basis live 5 years longer than men. We know that over 95% of work place fatalities are men and that 99% of combat deaths are men.”
It is past time for us to stop being so reticent about discussing things and to begin to realise that, to quote the old phone advert, “it’s good to talk”.
The sad fact is that six people commit suicide every week in Northern Ireland. I mention that specifically, because it is important that we focus on the suicides and the reasons for them. Despite more than £7 million spent on suicide prevention in the Province every year, the deaths of 318 people in 2015 were registered as suicides, the highest annual figure since records began in 1970 and a 19% increase on the number recorded in the previous year. That is something we are really concerned about back home in Northern Ireland. In Ballynahinch in my Strangford constituency the local churches came together to raise suicide awareness and to bring people together, particularly young people, because we had a very high level of suicides in the town. Some of that good work has reduced the number, and has made people perhaps more conscious that, when they are depressed or under pressure, someone is there for them. It works, and the churches in Ballynahinch deserve credit for that.
Of the suicide deaths registered in 2015, 77% were male and 23% female, and 132 of the deaths involved young people, aged between 15 and 34, while five were aged 75 or older. We should not think that those who get to the age of 70 do not feel loneliness and depression as well. I understand there is a debate in this Chamber at half-past four tomorrow on loneliness, when there might be a chance to reiterate that. The issue was starkest in the capital, with 93 people taking their own lives in the Belfast Health Trust area, almost one third of the 2015 total.
The stats are shocking, and awareness-raising events such as International Men’s Day are important because it is essential that we use such days to point people to the fact that there are places to go for help and people available to talk about anything from health to feelings. It is important for us men, who perhaps do not always express ourselves in the way that we could. It is also important that people do not characterise this day as a day when men are encouraged to go to their man cave, drink a beer and play a video game—quite the opposite. It is a day when we want to encourage men to get together and talk. They can talk about football if that is what the conversation is, or just talk about their feelings. We have an advert in Northern Ireland, which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) will be aware of, showing a bubbly person who is the life and soul of the party, but once he goes home and closes the door he is a different person. We should not always think of the person who is the life and soul of the occasion as a person who does not have their problems.
We must ensure that all young men feel a part of this. That is why I am so pleased that today is about celebrating the diversity of men and boys, and letting young men see how much older men have come through and are still standing. Wisdom is gained through years of experience and learning from others. We are never too old to learn. It is passed down from generation to generation, and the event should be a way of connecting people and moving past generational or cultural boundaries to where men are men and can share and help each other along.
“No man is an island” is a saying we often use, but it is true, and more people need to take it on board. The sight of my unshaven friend on that morning reinforced the fact that all of us can and should play a part in starting those conversations and taking them to a place that puts awkwardness aside and ends in sharing life experiences and problems for the benefit of our entire community. I welcome International Men’s Day on Sunday as a conversation starter, and also a friendship starter, across the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members on participating in it. Like the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), I too hope that next year we will see the debate restored to its rightful place in the main Chamber, where there is more time to cover some of these important issues.
It is fair to say that I am often pilloried for arguing that men and women should be treated equally. I do not see that there is anything particularly controversial in that, but it never ceases to amaze me how often I am accused of being a misogynist, sexist, or some other term of abuse, merely for saying that men and women should be treated equally before the law. That is a principle I was brought up with as a child and maintain today. What seems to have happened is that in many cases, militant feminists have tried to close down any talk about men and women being treated equally. To try to close down the debate, they hurl abuse at the people who raise these issues, in the hope that people will not listen any more to what they say, that they will stop saying those things and that other people will be deterred from standing up and saying those things.
The people who do that to me clearly to not know me, because I am certainly not going to be bullied or intimidated in that way. I am delighted that other people are finding the courage to raise issues that affect men too. I do not think that anything I have ever said should be seen as controversial in a normal world, but somehow saying that men and women should be treated equally seems to be controversial.
We have had some successes. A few years ago, I said that men were being treated more harshly in the criminal justice system than women were. It is worth reiterating that at the time, the exact opposite was being said in this Chamber. In a Westminster Hall debate that I held once, it was asserted that it was the other way round, and even Ministers claimed that. I am delighted to say that that is one battle that has been won, and now people accept that men are treated more harshly in the criminal justice system than women. Even the research carried out in the course of the Lammy review concluded:
“Males were independently associated with approximately 83% higher odds of being sentenced to imprisonment, compared to females.”
We can have victories for common sense; we just need some more. Men are increasingly getting a bad press, and it needs to be challenged. It seems bizarre to me that those who apparently fight discrimination, injustices and stereotypes are often quite happy to perpetuate all those things against men.
In thinking about International Men’s Day, let us remind ourselves that there are men who are victims of unequal pay, discrimination and harassment. We would not think so when we see all the headlines about equal pay gaps, which only mention women. They do not mention male part-time workers who are paid less than their female counterparts. For various reasons, in my view, the overall pay gap is not a result of widespread discrimination, but if they say it is, surely they should be equally outraged about the pay gap in part-time pay, where men are the losers. Surely the logic is that those men must be the victims of discrimination too, although that is unlikely to happen, because it seems that in the eyes of some people only men can be sexist.
There are also certainly men who are victims of domestic violence. Men are far more likely to be victims of violence generally. Men are victims of sexual assaults and rapes. Men are victims of stalking and controlling behaviour. Men are victims of so-called honour-based violence too; yet we would not necessarily think it if we were to pick up a paper, see the news, or hear about strategies for only tackling violence against women and girls. Every single victim of a crime is important, and preventing those crimes against anyone, male or female, should be a priority. The focus solely on women and girls is serious. To give one example of how dangerous it can be, a serious case review led to Bradford Council and the police apologising for letting down a 14-year-old boy who was groomed by dozens of men. Phil Mitchell of the BLAST Project in Bradford said:
“I think the fact he was a boy was an issue. If the police had got a call that a girl was planning to sleep with an older man then I think officers would have responded with more urgency.”
People, not least the leader of the Women’s Equality party, have said that I am a proponent of the idea that we achieve equality by treating everyone the same. If that is supposed to be a criticism, I am stumped, and I will certainly plead guilty to it.
I will not, because other people want to speak and I know that time is at a premium. I am coming to a close.
Why should male and female murderers not be treated the same? What possible justification could there be for treating them differently just because of their sex? Those who think the sexes should be treated differently in the eyes of the law are the ones who are truly sexist. They are the ones with the problem. Men and women are different, but that is perfectly compatible with their rightly being treated the same in the eyes of the law. Some people have said that every day is men’s day, but if anyone looks at the facts, that is certainly not the case. I would rather, as I have said before, that there was no need for an International Women’s Day or an International Men’s Day, and that men and women happily co-existed without tension or people stirring up issues with their own agendas. I hope that this year International Men’s Day provides an opportunity to focus on the negative stereotypical portrayal of men and the unjustifiable attacks on those who do not support the politically correct, militant feminist approach to things. I hope men and women can agree that that is not right, and join forces to ensure that the minority trying to do such damage do not succeed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I approached today’s debate with mixed feelings. When I was walking to Westminster Hall, on the way to the debate, there was a group of young schoolkids, and I observed a young girl looking at the statues that are all the way along St Stephen’s Hall. That reaffirms the point that sometimes in this House every day is men’s day. None the less, I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and want to use my speech, however brief, to talk about men’s health, both physical and mental, the important work done by Men’s Sheds, and locker-room banter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on initiating the debate.
Last week, alongside Councillor Michelle Ferns, I had the pleasure of visiting Shettleston Men’s Shed in my constituency. It is run by William Smillie, who clearly has a passion for the project and has invested considerable effort and time in getting it off the ground, in conjunction with Shettleston Housing Association. The Men’s Shed supports approximately 60 guys, who come together twice a week to play darts and pool and do woodwork, among other activities.
During my visit on Friday, I met Billy Thomson, who was attending the Men’s Shed for the first time. Movingly, Billy told me about his struggles with poor mental health, and the support afforded to him by Parkview health centre, which signposted him to Shettleston Men’s Shed. I was struck by Billy’s candour when he said that, just three weeks ago, he was in a very dark place and was considering whether he even wanted to be alive any more. Fast forward three weeks and Billy is sitting in a Men’s Shed, talking openly about his mental health. That is very powerful.
However, there is a legitimate point to be made about the funding for such groups, because it is often sorely lacking. I do not want to be a politician who simply pays lip service without banging the drum for more funding, particularly to support the running costs of an excellent project that is undoubtedly saving money for the national health service. I think that that should be put on the record.
I want briefly to address what has been dubbed locker-room banter, which has been a topic of conversation in recent days as light has finally been shone on this building with regard to the abhorrent way in which some men view, talk about and act towards women. We know all too well the comments made by President Trump in 2005, when, in talking about women, he said:
“Grab them by the pussy.”
Later, when trying to defend the indefensible, he suggested that that had been just “locker-room banter”—a soft phrase that seeks to play down the seriousness of a conversation that would rightly turn the stomach of most men. As legislators and leaders in our communities, we all have a responsibility to challenge the culture of locker-room banter that still exists, not least within this building, as events in recent days and weeks have shown.
In the time remaining to me, I want to talk about mental health and suicide. I am particularly grateful to Craig Smith from the Scottish Association for Mental Health for providing me with an excellent briefing and some statistics, which make pretty distressing reading. Much has been said in this debate about suicide, and I want to offer a few thoughts from a Scottish context. In 2016, 728 suicides were registered in Scotland, compared with 672 in 2015. That is the first increase in deaths by suicide for six years, which is absolutely shocking and should cause real alarm to those of us who are Scottish politicians and, indeed, to the Scottish Government.
When it comes to general health and wellbeing, we know that, in one year, more than twice as many females as males consulted GPs for depression and anxiety. That is why I was pleased to learn that SAMH, in partnership with the Scottish Professional Football League and Hibernian football club, has recently launched a new programme, The Changing Room, to promote men’s mental health and wellbeing. The aim is to increase the social connectedness of men in their middle years and to deliver a programme of activity that will reduce loneliness and ultimately improve their mental health and wellbeing. That is a good thing and should be commended in the House of Commons.
I want to conclude with a personal story, Mr Austin, so I hope that you will indulge me for a moment. A couple of weeks after being elected to the House in June, I got a phone call from my mother to tell me that my older brother had been admitted to the psychiatric unit at Wishaw General Hospital. My brother is five years older than me and considerably better looking. He and I have always had quite a jovial relationship; I must confess that, perhaps because of the age gap, we have never really had the kind of relationship that provokes deep emotional conversations. I left Westminster and flew home to Scotland, and as I was driving to Wishaw General Hospital, I was pondering how to approach Ross, how to talk about the situation. I thought to myself, “Should I just retreat to the comfort zone of the jovial, humorous approach of telling him to man up and just get on with it, or should I step out of my comfort zone and actually have a conversation with him about our feelings and thoughts?” I am glad to say that I did the brave thing and we had that conversation. It was very brief, but it was probably the most significant conversation that we brothers have ever had in our lives; and in retrospect it shows that, for men, it is important that we sometimes step out of our comfort zone if we are truly to step up.
For fear of getting emotional, I want now to conclude by saying that, after my visit to Shettleston Men’s Shed and what happened in the summer, I was drawn to a piece of scripture in the Old Testament that says:
“As iron sharpens iron,
So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
Those of us in this House would do well to read and reflect on that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) in his similarly excellent speech, I want to talk about the importance of promoting active fatherhood to help to improve children’s life chances, particularly among the least advantaged.
Supporting young men to be active, engaged fathers is, I believe, a matter of social justice, in which the Government should be engaged. Evidence clearly shows that it helps to reduce inequality. Children from low-income households with an active father are 25% more likely to escape the poverty that they grow up in. Time prohibits me from explaining further to colleagues, as I would like to have done, the evidence on this issue, but it can be seen in the research from the Fatherhood Institute entitled, “Fathers’ impact on their children’s learning and achievement”, which is on its website—fatherhoodinstitute.org. It can also be seen in the work of Dr Gary Clapton, who says, interestingly, that active fatherhood is linked to girls’ better educational engagement as well as boys’.
All the indicators are that children who grow up with active fathers in their lives have better life chances, so what can the Government do to address this issue? At the most extreme end of the spectrum, as we have heard, 76% of all male prisoners come from households without a father figure, and boys who have little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders. There are many practical ways to address the issue, and I am delighted that the Ministry of Justice is committed to doing so
Following the recent release of the Farmer report, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), has committed the Department to helping men in prison to maintain an active relationship with their children. Governors are now encouraged, where they can, to house prisoners closer to their families and to have available family rooms, where children can be helped with homework. In some prisons, prisoners can record bedtime stories that their children can listen to at home. In general, arrangements are being made to facilitate a strengthening of father-children relationships, so that, when prisoners exit prison, there is a family life that they can, hopefully, return to and that has even been strengthened.
That is just one way of addressing the issue; the Centre for Social Justice has many other suggestions. Again, time prohibits me from going through them all, but to promote more active fatherhood, the CSJ suggests that best practice on this in local authorities across the country should be co-ordinated; there should perhaps be a champion to do that. It suggests that we have a national campaign to mirror the Scottish Year of the Dad, which was last year. I understand that the previous Minister, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), agreed to look into that during a Westminster Hall debate this year. It linked attitudinal changes in relation to fatherhood with practical interventions at local level.
The CSJ says that we need to change outreach among public services such as children’s centres, maternity wards, health visitors and early years providers to ensure that they really do promote engagement with fathers and measure that. As has been mentioned, we could look again at shared parental leave to see how fathers could be encouraged to take that up more. New fathers say that they want better social and emotional support; only 25% feel that there is enough. I also encourage the Minister, as well as looking at the CSJ’s recommendations, to read the “Manifesto to strengthen families,” which I know he has a copy of. It is now supported by around 60 Back-Bench Conservative MPs and sets out a number of policy suggestions to Government, to directly improve the situation of fathers. For example, maternity services should maximise the chances of including fathers at an early stage, and fathers should be invited to antenatal appointments and fatherhood preparation classes to help them to support their partners. There is one south London hospital where a small fatherhood charity holds weekly preparation classes for fathers to be. That is very important because we know that those early years in a child’s life, from the age of one to three, is a period of great strain on family relationships and, unfortunately, of great break-up.
Hospitals should collect information about fathers’ experiences and about the importance of the NHS friends and families test, focusing their services on supporting the whole family. Similarly we should ensure that the Government finally bring into force schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2009, which requires all fathers’ names to be included on birth certificates, with appropriate exemptions. As well as improving the payment of child maintenance, that would enable local authorities to identify almost all fathers in their local area and ensure support could be offered to them at an early stage. Sceptics might say, “Well, we already register most fathers,” but it is often those who are most in need of help who disappear.
As the CSJ says, parenting classes should not just be a “middle-class preserve,” which sadly they are at present. In closing, the CSJ also says,
“The consequences of a father falling out of a child’s life are hugely significant, and any Government that is serious about tackling social mobility and improving the life chances of our children needs to take fatherhood seriously.”
Before I call Mr Clark, let me say that I will call the Opposition spokespeople at about 10.35 am. If Mr Day and Ms Sherriff speak for about seven minutes, we should be able to get to the Minister at about 10.50 am, so, Mr Clark, we will be moving on at about 10.35 am.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I will do my best to keep it very brief. Thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing this debate.
International Men’s Day raises some important issues, as we have heard from other hon. Members. I will try not to go over them again. I am a father of two little boys, so I declare an interest. I attended both their births and the prenatal classes, so I have done my best to start off well.
Equality should mean tackling discrimination issues for both genders, yet there is still too little recognition of the important contribution that men and boys make to our society and that they often face more social pressures than women do. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, that is not necessarily fair. This can lead to extreme levels of stress and anxiety, and in the worst cases a feeling of failure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford explained, four in five suicides are by men—I am staggered. It is the biggest killer of men under the age of 35. It does not just happen in deprived areas. The downturn in the oil and gas industry in my own constituency in Aberdeenshire has created huge pressures on families and the main breadwinner. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said, that may be a stereotype, but I am afraid that is the consequence.
Raising awareness about men’s wellbeing also means talking about their own physical health and recognising that men are more likely to die of cancer or heart disease. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has said, the figures on that are available to us all. As we have heard, 95% of workplace fatalities are men. In my Gordon constituency, where we have had traditionally male-dominated employment—primarily oil and gas, agriculture and fishing—they have gone an awful long way in trying to reduce that. Particularly the fishing industry, which had a bad track record, is trying to improve that. Oil and gas now has a tremendously good track record. More women, of course, are going in to oil and gas, and there may be some correlation with improving safety.
In Scotland, men’s life expectancy is five years less than women’s. In all the statistics, that is true all over the world. Having said that, the aim of International Men’s Day is not to promote one gender over the other. It is not about who faces more discrimination, but calling for a more balanced approach to gender equality.
Hon. Members have spoken about personal cases in their own constituencies. I was recently contacted by the sister of an acting police officer—a man. She wrote to me telling me about his plight. His marriage had broken up. He was struggling to pay maintenance and keep a roof over his head. The most tragic issue for him was not seeing his children. While reading the email I realised that I actually knew him and I had absolutely no idea how much he was struggling with life—similarly to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who spoke about his own personal circumstances.
We must promote positive male role models and hardworking men to the benefit of all. Promoting that role model is important to males and females. I was delighted to see at the Remembrance Day in Inverurie how many youth organisations have men—and women—still running them, and to see that youth organisations are now pretty well gender neutral.
I am definitely coming to an end, Mr Austin.
Quickly, to shoot ahead, International Men’s Day improves gender relations, but it also creates a safer and better society, where each individual regardless of their gender is able to reach their full potential.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing this debate on International Men’s Day, which will take place on Sunday 19 November. I am grateful to him for his detailed presentation and for reminding us that it is an international event. It is a pleasure to recognise that it is now promoted in over 80 countries.
There are many issues which disproportionately impact upon men. However, in addressing these, it is important that we do not detract from the work done to address institutional bias against women. The main themes from today have been male vulnerability and wellbeing, and there are clearly many facets to this situation, and poverty and deprivation are two of the key components, as is fatherless families. Fatherhood has been well covered by the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning the Scotch Year of the Dad. I would like to take this opportunity to praise publicly my own father, Ron, who has been an absolutely great role model in my life. It is a reminder to everybody that children are children at all ages. As I arrived here today for this debate I got a message from him updating me about the cat, which he is looking after, and the car, which he is getting sorted at the garage. I thought it was a message from the Whip. The Whip is sitting behind me, but I did not get any message from the Whip, so I think I have free rein to say what I like.
Perhaps the crux of the problem for me is that men are much more likely to be roofless than women are. The Scottish Government found that in 2014, 81% of those sleeping rough were male. This is partly due to the fact that men are much less likely to seek help for issues such as mental health or substance abuse. I remember a housing slogan from the 1990s—I cannot remember which charity had it, but we had it on car stickers at the time—which said, “Build a home; build a life.” That was true then and it is true now. Scotland has some of the strongest legislation in the world on rights for the homeless. All homeless people have the right to temporary accommodation immediately, and if unintentionally homeless, to settled accommodation, with a commitment to invest more than £3 billion over the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament and to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes, and the most important component of that for me is that 35,000 of those are to be for social rent. That builds on the work of the previous Parliament, where they exceeded the target of delivering 30,000 affordable homes.
Then we come to perhaps the most frightening part of this debate: the issue of suicide and early death. There are around 12 male suicides a day in the UK, representing 76% of all suicides. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted this issue very clearly, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who amplified the situation in Scotland, which has seen an increase for the first time in the last six years—truly frightening and shocking.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) advised that the life expectancy for men is five years lower in Scotland than for women. I always tell people that my constituency is a great place to live—and it is. In my area the life expectancy is only three years lower for men. That is still a problem we need to address and tackle, but it is compounded further by inequality. It is not an even three years across all social classes.
The majority of children in care are boys. In 2015, 53% of the looked-after children in Scotland were male. How can the educational attainment and outcomes for these youngsters be summed up? It is just not good. Only 6% of them go on to university and nearly half suffer from mental health issues. Staggeringly—this statistic is appalling—a young person who has been in care is 20 times more likely to die before the age of 25 than someone who has not been in care.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East spoke of mental health and the impact of projects such as Men’s Sheds. He also spoke of his own personal experience, and it highlights that many are in that situation.
Half the adult prison population are people who lived in care growing up. Last summer—a year and a bit ago—I visited Shotts Prison. It was a very interesting experience. It is an interesting place to visit, but not somewhere I would like to live. It is not often that I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but today I do. Some 95% of the prison population are male. It was shocking to learn that they are more likely to be sent to prison and to receive longer sentences than women for the same crimes.
The increased attention being paid to mental health issues in NHS Scotland, and now in England, will hopefully help to reduce this problem. The Harry’s Masculinity Report, produced by University College London, found that the main factor in mental positivity for men was job satisfaction. Having a direct impact on the success of a business was also important, with autonomy cited as a main reason for increased job satisfaction. Self-esteem is critical. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) spoke of stigma, which I also want to comment on. I asked 1st Step, a local charity from my constituency, about its experience. I have mentioned it before, and it deals with issues that particularly affect men developing addictions to alcohol or drugs. The charity deals with addicts in recovery and two thirds of its clients are male. It finds that drug addiction is associated with unemployment, while alcoholism is more often associated with stress at work, and both are associated with self-esteem issues. The major issues for males in addiction are shame and guilt, with men frequently in denial about their problems and feeling useless or suffering from depression. Fortunately, in my area 1st Step is there to offer activities supported and managed by those in recovery, providing additional opportunities to develop skills and enhance self-esteem, and it really has made a difference to many of my constituents.
Equality, including equality for those of any gender, is thankfully a core value in our society and I welcome this debate as an opportunity to highlight those issues today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this debate and on his very thoughtful and constructive speech. He gave me some food for thought regarding initiatives that I may want to explore further in my own constituency. I would also like to take this brief opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for talking about his own personal family situation. It takes a huge amount of bravery to do that and it was incredibly powerful, so I genuinely thank him.
I note that this is the third consecutive year that a debate has been held for International Men’s Day. For the previous two years, as is the case this year, the male suicide rate has been an important point of discussion. I think that we can all agree that it is particularly poignant at this time, given the tragic death of our Welsh Assembly colleague just a few days ago. It concerns me though that we do not appear to be much further forward in tackling the causes of male suicide, and that this could merely turn into an annual discussion instead of a platform from which we can seek to make change.
Although we know that the suicide rates in Great Britain fell slightly in 2016, that slight decrease is not enough and more action needs to be taken. Some 76% of the suicides in Great Britain last year were male, and just 24% were female. It is reported that approximately 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental health condition, either diagnosed or undiagnosed, and that suicide is still the biggest single killer of men under 50. A number of hon. Members made points about issues in social classes, and that is something to be explored further. All local authorities are expected to have a multi-agency suicide prevention plan in place by the end of this year, but I worry that, in these times of austerity and cuts to local authority funding, that will be no more than a tick-box exercise with no new money available to implement any of Public Health England’s guidance on reducing risk in men.
The hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Glasgow East paid tribute to the many different charities that strive to tackle suicide prevention. Those include Andy’s Man Club, State of Mind Sport, Campaign Against Living Miserably, Mind, Samaritans, Time to Change and It Takes Balls to Talk, to name just a few. Those charities, and many more like them, do phenomenal work across the country. I remember listening, as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on rugby league, to State of Mind rugby as ex-rugby players who had been involved in serious accidents or injuries talked about going into schools to encourage young boys in particular to open up about their mental health and to try to remove the stigmas. Many of these charities attempt to challenge traditional stereotypes to encourage men to be much more open about their feelings, but there is still societal pressure on men to be strong, independent, competitive, tough and masculine. Studies have found that those traits have been linked with mental health issues in men.
International Men’s Day UK says that the focus remains on how we can make a difference to men and boys. We can challenge male stereotypes from a young age to ensure that boys are more comfortable in their own skin and are not constantly trying to prove themselves; that there is less language along the lines of “man up” and “boys don’t cry”; that boys are told it is okay not to join in conversations with their peers that seek to undermine women and create division and mistrust among the sexes; that boys can talk to each other about their feelings and it does not matter if someone is gay, straight, bisexual or transgender because there is not a one-size-fits-all catch-all and our differences are what make us interesting, even in these days.
We can encourage boys to talk about their health problems and not to suffer in silence. We heard from the hon. Member for Stafford that men are far less likely to seek medical treatment for both mental and physical health problems. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women’s health, I would like to see an equivalent group set up to discuss men’s health and to help to remove taboos around diseases such as testicular and prostate cancers. The latter took my grandfather. In last year’s debate, I mentioned a point that is still very relevant now: it is recognised that a reticence remains among some men to visit a doctor and catch problems early. We also have to consider diversity in advertising campaigns. When we see campaigns on things such as strokes and heart attacks, it is always a middle-aged, white, straight man involved in them, and we absolutely need to broaden our outlook.
We can support work to reduce social isolation among men, who are far less likely to socialise than women. Loneliness among men is an increasing issue, often causing depression and feelings of worthlessness. In a bid to combat male social isolation a growing number of Men’s Sheds projects are opening across the UK. These projects offer workshops, known as “sheds”, where men can go to work, share ideas and projects or simply talk. Activities vary enormously but include wood working, gardening, model making, art, metal work and engineering projects. I am very proud to support one that has recently opened in Denby Dale ward in my own constituency, and was delighted to see at first hand the difference it is making to the lives of those using the facilities.
Age UK’s recent research found that almost a third of older men in England who have long-term health problems are lonely, and that number is set to rise by 65% by 2030. To help combat that, Age UK continues to work on a number of projects, including Kitchen Kings, which helps older men learn how to cook and serves the dual purpose of a skills-based class and a lunch club, and Eat Well Live Well, which is a local project that aims to improve the health and diet of older people, as well as tackle social isolation.
Education is often key to improved life chances, so it is concerning that boys are still consistently behind girls in educational attainment. According to a study by Save the Children, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind by the time they start school, with deprivation being a huge factor. Girls have consistently outperformed boys at GCSE for many years and UCAS also reports that men are falling behind women in our universities, with 36.8% of young women entering higher education compared with 27.2% of men.
Some people will inevitably try to frame this debate around, “Who has it worst, men or women?” That is, without a doubt, juvenile. In a grown-up world where most people genuinely want progress toward equality, we must recognise that to set this up as a battle of the sexes can only detract from the opportunity that International Men’s Day offers to address the issues that solely affect men. I am a proud feminist but that does not mean that I am ignorant or unsympathetic to issues of inequality between genders where women fare better than men. I believe strongly that where inequality exists it is our duty as parliamentarians to seek to change that and to create a more just and equal society.
The issues that I have raised today are only a few of those that should be debated as we approach International Men’s Day this Sunday, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on the steps he proposes to take to combat these inequalities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on leading the debate and on a typically thoughtful opening speech.
The Government are committed to tackling gender inequality in all its forms. Building a more equal society in which men and women do not find their choices and behaviour limited by their gender will benefit everyone, no matter what that gender is. The issues raised today go far beyond this debate—they go right across government—and even in 2017 the UK has not yet reached full gender equality. We all need to work together—Government, Parliament, business and society—to address some of the specific and deep-rooted problems.
An essential part of that is tackling harmful social norms based on gender: the unwritten rules that prescribe how men and women are expected to behave. Men and women can too often feel held back by what society expects of them, with people prevented from taking opportunities and fulfilling their potential. Men stand to benefit just as much as women from addressing harmful gender norms, whether that means fathers who want to spend more time with their children without feeling as though that will hold them back at work; men and boys suffering from mental health problems who are afraid to seek help because of the stigma attached; or male victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault who are worried they will not be taken seriously. All those issues were raised by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford started by talking about the importance of male role models and asking how we could do more to support them, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark). Historically, men have not been short of role models. For decades, the majority of politicians, business leaders and prominent artists were all male, but we have lacked role models who celebrate the diversity of ways to be a man. I am pleased that increasingly, young boys who may be LGBT, BAME or from working-class backgrounds can see people who look like them in public life, and that more men are speaking out about traditionally taboo issues, such as mental health or sexual harassment. The Women’s Business Council recently partnered with Management Today to create the first power list of men as change agents, recognising 30 vital male role models.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford went on to talk about tackling health inequalities—an issue that was also raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, as well as other Members. Male life expectancy continues to be lower than female life expectancy. However, life expectancy is higher than it has ever been both for men and women and is generally increasing in most areas, and the gender gap is closing. However, we are aware that men are less likely to seek help, especially with their mental health, and we are working to address that stigma. The Government fund the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign, which has improved the attitudes of more than 4 million people to mental health. I welcome its recent In Your Corner campaign, which is aimed at encouraging men to talk about mental health.
Hon. Members have rightly spoken about the high number of men and boys who suffer from mental health problems. The Government are committed to achieving parity of esteem for mental health, and I am proud that we have invested more than ever in mental health, with spending now estimated to reach about £11.6 billion. We have introduced the first waiting time standards for mental health to ensure that more people receive timely treatment.
The Government have also announced additional investment of £400 million to improve mental health crisis resolution services in the community, but the Government cannot do this alone. To end the stigma around mental health, we all need to do our part to create an environment in which men can talk about mental health struggles and feel confident that they have the support they need. I therefore welcome the work that organisations such as CALM—the Campaign Against Living Miserably—Time to Change and Men’s Health are doing to open up conversations about mental health.
Hon. Members raised the issue of suicide in our society; it is the leading cause of death in men under 50. Deaths by suicide are highest in middle-aged men— aged 40 to 55—and in 2015 there were 1,207 deaths by suicide in men aged 40 to 55. We updated the cross-Government suicide prevention strategy earlier this year to strengthen delivery of its key areas for action, including the better targeting of high-risk groups such as middle-aged men. I am encouraged that the suicide rate decreased in 2015 after years of steadily increasing. Provisional statistics show that the number of deaths by suicide in 2016 may have decreased significantly—by about 5%—but every death by suicide is a tragedy that has a devastating effect on families and communities. That is why we are spending £25 million on suicide prevention over the next three years and are committed to reducing suicides by 10% by 2020-21. We are also ensuring that every local authority has a suicide prevention plan in place by the end of the year. We are working with local authorities to support them in quality-assuring their plans.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred to loneliness as a key contributor to suicide. We recognise that social isolation and loneliness can affect someone’s wellbeing and lead to depression. We support many excellent organisations that provide community interventions for men in settings that are comfortable and accessible to them, including organisations such as the Men’s Sheds movement, which the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) referred to in a very moving and informative speech, and State of Mind, which reaches out to men through sport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford pointed to the different attainment rates of girls and boys at GCSE. As he knows, the Government are determined to deliver an education system that works for everyone and ensures that all pupils, regardless of background, ethnicity or gender, have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. We are therefore unapologetic about setting high expectations for what pupils can achieve. Our curriculum and qualifications reforms will ensure that pupils receive a rigorous academic education that prepares them for further study and, ultimately, success in employment. My hon. Friend is also right to point to the importance of technical education, which is why we are introducing high-quality T-levels and are committed to a further £500 million in funding for post-16 technical education.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) spoke about fathers being denied access to their children. We recognise the devastating impact that parental conflict can have on families. Recent evidence shows that children exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict can experience a decline in their mental health and suffer poorer long-term outcomes. The Department for Work and Pensions will launch a new programme on reducing parental conflict to help local areas to improve their support for families. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) was right to point to the importance of involving fathers in family life.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire raised the issue of media perceptions, citing Homer Simpson. She is right; the media can undoubtedly shape our perceptions. We have all seen adverts showing hapless men who are incapable of doing the dishes, who need a woman to step in and take over. Although these adverts are light-hearted, they can reinforce damaging stereotypes that affect how we view men’s and women’s roles and abilities in the real world. She is also right to take pride in her role in the Government’s decision to introduce shared parental leave.
International Men’s Day offers us a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how far we still have to go to achieve equality in the workplace and in wider society. As we have heard, we still need to do more on a range of issues to improve outcomes for men and boys. Tackling harmful social norms will benefit both men and women, and both boys and girls. By working to improve gender equality, this Government are seeking to build a more equal society for the benefit of all our citizens.
I am grateful to the Minister and to all my colleagues who have spoken today, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for suggesting that we have this debate. It is vital that these debates are not just words; that we see action come from them. I very much look forward to having a debate this time next year and seeing that real progress has been made. Perhaps we can all look at our constituencies and see what we can do locally, as well as encouraging national leaders to take many of these issues forward nationally, and I hope that this time next year we have a debate in which we can point to real progress in a number of areas.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered International Men’s Day.