International Men’s Day — [Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:13 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 4:13 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I hope that I can start my speech on a slightly more positive note than that on which Dawn Butler ended hers, although I understand how she meant it.

I thank my hon. Friend Philip Davies for securing this debate and for his continued commitment to shining a light not only on the pressing issues that men and boys face, but on the issue of equality. Having observed him in the Select Committee on Justice, the Women and Equalities Committee and the Chamber, I know that it is striving for equality that motivates him. He may occasionally attract attention by spreading that message—with which I am sure we all agree—in ways in which other Members may not express themselves, but none the less he does it in a way that shines a light on it. If I may say so, he is also an extremely efficient speaker; I counted at least seven huge topics that he raised in his speech. I hope he will forgive me if I do not address each and every one, but of course I will write to him on issues that I do not cover.

I thank hon. Friends and Members from all parties for their contributions to this important debate. I am pleased that it is now in its fourth year, which marks its firm importance in this House. I was struck by the aims that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley set out for International Men’s Day, including the admirable aim of promoting male role models, a theme that Marion Fellows spoke very movingly about. She shared with us the incredibly important legacy of her husband, and her son’s thoughts on it.

Celebrating men is another aim of the day. My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy gave us an international perspective based on all his work around the world helping the most deprived communities and trying to spread equality and fairness. I am particularly grateful that he was able to contribute to the debate.

Promoting gender equality is also an important part of International Men’s Day. I sense from all the speeches made today that we are united in that aim. We know that rigid gender stereotypes can and do inhibit people’s choices and aspirations. When that happens, capable young boys and men can be held back from reaching their potential and, more widely, from becoming the positive role models that they can be.

Patricia Gibson mentioned the important role that male teachers can and must play in education, particularly primary school education. I am sure that everyone here feels, as I do, that the lack of male teachers is a sad fact about our primary school system. We are desperately trying to improve the situation, because we know the hugely positive effect that male teachers can have on boys and young men.

We all believe that it is crucial that we work together to champion gender equality in business, in politics and in our communities, because creating a more equal society in which everyone can participate and thrive benefits us all. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley asked that men be treated equally to women. I am tempted to say with a wry smile that I wonder whether men would like to constitute fewer than a third of roles at board level, as women do at the moment. That is why we have the Hampton-Alexander review—not because we are trying to push men out of boards, but because we are trying to ensure that women are recognised in the workplace and achieve their potential on merit at the highest levels of business.

Quite rightly, hon. Members’ speeches focused on probably the most pressing issue that men and boys face in the 21st century in our country: mental health. Very sadly, as we have heard, rates of suicide are much higher among men than among women and suicide is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 50. Colleagues have already set out some thoughts on why that may be so. I am sure we agree that we need to do more to ensure that men can feel comfortable talking about their mental health needs. That is not just a point for us to discuss in this place; it is a societal change that needs to happen.

The Government want to push forward and achieve parity of esteem for mental health. We are doing that in a number of ways, including investing more than ever before in mental health—spending is estimated to have increased to just under £12 billion—as well as introducing the first waiting times standards for mental health, to ensure that more people get timely access to the treatment that they need. The five-year forward view for mental health will ensure an additional investment of £1 billion by 2020-21. An extra 1 million people will have access to mental health services. There is additional investment to improve mental health crisis resolution services in the community, to improve perinatal mental health and to ensure that there are liaison mental health services in general hospitals to support people in mental health crisis.

Many excellent organisations have been referred to, including CALM, Time to Change, Men’s Sheds and so on. Those organisations are all helping men and boys in our constituencies to make contact with each other, reach out and, I hope, deal with some of their problems.

Colleagues have also raised domestic abuse. I make it very clear that everyone deserves to feel safe at home. Home for all of us should be a place of safety, kindness and love. We know that domestic abuse can happen regardless of gender, wealth, background, geographical location and so on. That is precisely why the Government are bringing forward a draft domestic abuse Bill this Session to tackle the terrible scourge of domestic abuse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will be pleased to know that the Bill is of course gender-neutral, because I fully recognise, as do the Government, that men can be victims of domestic abuse. However, I must place that in context: the reality is that a disproportionate number of victims are women. According to estimates from SafeLives, in 2016-17, 95% of victims were female. I do not say that to create controversy; I say it as a fact—and that is why so many services are focused on helping female victims. The most serious cases show us that the vast majority of victims are female, but I do not for a moment take away from the point that men and boys can be victims as well.

My hon. Friend mentioned the interesting statistics on offenders. He is extremely consistent and persistent in his campaign in this regard and wrote to the Ministry of Justice about the statistics for offenders in prison. His statistics are correct—1,626 female prisoners and 4,146 male prisoners have been victims of domestic abuse. I am obliged to put that in context. There are 3,287 female offenders and 68,827 male offenders in prison, which means that the percentage of domestic abuse victims in the prison population is 49% for women and 6% for men.

In terms of prisoners who are perpetrators of domestic abuse, 18% of female prisoners are identified as ever having been a perpetrator of domestic abuse or violence; 34% of male prisoners have been so identified. A great deal of our work on the Bill and the package of non-legislative measures that we are bringing forward will be to focus on the impact that domestic abuse has on children, as well as on people who end up in prison. We want to see whether there are things that we can do to help ensure that the cycle of violence is broken so that the prison population is not peopled with victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse.

The hon. Member for Brent Central raised the important issue of homelessness and rough sleeping. Men are more likely to end up sleeping rough for a variety of reasons, including higher rates of interaction with the criminal justice system and higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse. We are determined to tackle all forms of homelessness, including making sure that people in temporary accommodation are getting support to keep a roof over their heads.

We are investing more than £1 billion by 2020 to support those efforts and have been implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which requires councils to provide early support to people at risk of being left without anywhere to go. Our rough sleeping strategy is an ambitious package, which will help people who sleep rough now and helps to put in place the structures that will end rough sleeping once and for all. We want to make sure that we get to the root of the unique problems in every local authority and tackle the very complex range of reasons why people sleep rough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley mentioned access rights to children and the family courts. The legislative framework that governs family law cases is gender neutral and is focused on the welfare of children, not on the rights of parents. By law, the court must presume the involvement of a parent in the life of a child will further that child’s welfare, unless there is evidence to the contrary. There would need to be very good reasons for a court to decide that a parent should not spend time with their children or that there should be no parental involvement at all.

The court has a wide discretion to determine what is necessary to meet a child’s welfare needs. That may reflect the court’s consideration of social work analysis and recommendations from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, the wishes and feelings of the child concerned, how capable each parent is of meeting that child’s welfare needs, and any harm or further harm the child is at risk of suffering. The evidence from research is that the family courts are in favour of contact and make significant efforts to try to facilitate an ongoing relationship between a child and its non-resident parent.

I am conscious of time, so I will fly through the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is 17.9%. The reason why we publish those figures is not to somehow discriminate against men—it is to close the gap. My hon. Friend raised in particular the issue of the gender pay gap for men who work part time. That reflects the fact that women, including those in well-paid jobs, are more likely to work part time, while men are less likely to work part time, and when they do, they tend to do so in lower paid roles. It is a fascinating area of research and there will be much more to discuss in coming years.

On hate incidents and the police, there is no requirement on police forces to record hate incidents, as perhaps has been reported. It is up to police and crime commissioners and chief constables to decide how they deal with hate incidents and to set local policing priorities. There is a pilot scheme in Nottinghamshire at the moment, where the chief constable has decided that misogyny hate crime incidents will be recorded. Although it is not a crime in and of itself, the force want to get a sense of the rate of such incidents and the chief constable has decided to do that. There is no requirement from the Home Office, but obviously such data is very interesting and we are watching it with great interest.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the very complex issues of female genital mutilation and male circumcision, and I very much understand why he raised that. Female genital mutilation is illegal and the range of ways in which a little girl can be mutilated is, frankly, horrific. I take the point he raised about male circumcision. I will consider that and will write to him, because I would not wish to address such an important matter on the fly.

My hon. Friend concluded his speech by wishing that we could all live together equally in happiness. I finish by saying that I think we can all agree on that.