International Men's Day — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 21 November 2023.

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Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 9:30, 21 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered International Men’s Day.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, especially after all the work that you, Mr Davies, and my hon. Friend Ben Bradley have already done on this subject. We are here to celebrate International Men’s Day, which took place on Sunday 19 November. It is a day to celebrate all the good that men have done, but also a day to shine a light on the things that adversely affect men so much.

The theme this year was suicide. Thirteen men a day take their life. Thirteen men who woke up yesterday morning are no longer with us—and today, another 13, and tomorrow, again, another 13. Every day, every week, every year. Just let that sink in. Thirteen men, every day, think the only out is to take their life. In 2023, that cannot be right, can it?

What is the answer? Sadly, there is no silver bullet, but there are steps we can take—steps we must take—and suicide is not the only issue affecting men, so I am going to take us through a few of them but then through some solutions too.

Let me start by taking us through a boy’s life. Let us call him Tommy. Tommy never asked to be born—none of us did—but Tommy is here. Tommy needs care and attention from day one, not just from mum at home, but also from dad. Human interaction is crucial to a child’s development. Playing peekaboo is, as my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom said, so much more important than we would think.

Sadly, Tommy’s mum and dad argue a little too much. Money, housing, health, work—there are so many things that make relationships hard. We know that life is not easy; that is why marriage vows have, for centuries, included the words, which we all know, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Tommy’s parents separate. Sadly, too many times, it turns into a battle. In come the solicitors. To win their case, too many use blame as a tool, a child as a weapon. The legal system makes it so hard for children. Lawyers want to win at all costs, parents say things that should not be said, and the truth is often embellished on all sides. An acrimonious split is achieved. Tommy now does not see dad, and Tommy’s mum now has it all to do. Not work, rest and play; just work, then work at home, and then little sleep for Tommy’s mum.

What of Tommy’s dad? Dad is ousted from the home, unable to see his son. Many fathers are prevented unfairly. There is child maintenance to be paid; the Child Maintenance Service presents another challenge. Tommy’s dad often turns inwards and often to the fridge, looking for relief. It could be beer, the wrong food, both— or worse.

Little Tommy gets a PlayStation and a smartphone. The world wide web influencers now come into play in Tommy’s life. They want to sell a brand and themselves; they have no care for what little Tommy sees. Tommy’s schoolwork suffers. There are no male teachers at his school—there are very few male teachers now—no role models to follow other than the wrong ones. There is a decreasing number of positive male role models on TV. Tommy plays up at school. Nobody expects anything of him—written off at such an early age. Knowing this, Tommy plays up even more. One day, he finds himself excluded from school. Tommy becomes easy prey. A local gang shows him respect for now, shows interest for now. Antisocial behaviour follows: disrespect for police, drugs, a knife, a spell inside. Mum is in despair. Where did it go wrong?

Tommy’s father is now probably overweight. He is drinking too much, has anxiety, no sense of value and feels that he has nothing to live for. Sadly, Tommy’s dad becomes another statistic; one of the 13 a day who die by suicide. Tommy finds a girl amid this car crash of a life. They want to make a go of it together. They have a beautiful little boy—Tommy junior—and, sadly, the cycle begins again. That is quite depressing, but we all know that it is true.

It really does not need to be like that. As I said, there is no silver bullet, but there might be something close. Let me go through this and show how it cuts across all Departments of the Government. Tommy’s first 1,001 days are so important. We need to push the family hubs out across the country as soon as possible—Department: Work and Pensions.

Keeping families together saves so much pain and heartache, and saves the state so much money. Some 66% of mums want to stop at home and look after their child. We need to offer them the same support that we offer mums who want to return to work. Mums have a genuine choice; we need dads to have the same choice. We need to build many more homes where people need them. That way, we will have more choice, which will automatically raise the standard. We also need a fairer tax system for families—Departments: DWP, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Treasury.

To stop the hate and separation, we need a new model when it comes to family law: fairness for fathers, as well as for mothers, and a system that treats fathers as equally in practice as it does in theory. What works in civil litigation does not work here. Little Tommy needs mum and dad, so that has to be the starting point of any separation—Department: Justice.

Influencers need to understand their audience, and the damage that they can do. We have to get them to quit being a problem. The Online Safety Act 2023 will help, but we cannot legislate for people being decent, just as we cannot legislate to force people to be kind. We need to name and shame the culprits.

We need leisure centres and youth clubs. Tommy missed out again yesterday in Edlington; there is no leisure centre for Tommy, so he spends 14,000 hours on his games console, like the average boy does up to the age of 21—Departments: Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and DLUHC.

There are four million children living with only one parent. In 88% of those families, the parent with care of the children is mum. If we assume an even distribution in family size, we can estimate that around 3.52 million children live with their mothers; that is 1.76 million boys without a dad at home. We need to introduce and maintain a flagging system in schools that flags fatherless boys as they start secondary school. All boys need mentorship and to be met with a positive attitude. Fatherless boys need that especially—Department: Education.

When it comes to stopping gangs, the police’s Operation Duxford is working, but we need to do more. We need a zero-tolerance attitude and a broken-window strategy, so that our young people know how to behave. The gangs must be dealt with from the bottom up. Capturing the ring leader is not the answer; he is often replaced within an hour, once caught, so we need to stop his workers on the street—Department: Home Office.

On a quick side note, tags are a deterrent to others, as well as to the one who is tagged. One young man told me that, when he had to wear one, all of the individuals who might have dragged him back into crime actually kept away. They did not want to be with him, because they could be traced. Through being tagged, that young man has been able to leave criminality behind and is now back on the straight and narrow.

I will get back to the Departments. Separated dads are often unable to spend time with their children. They are in despair, and we need to do more to help them. Men may often turn to the wrong lifestyle choices when things are not right. We have an NHS system that does not fit around the patterns that men often work. We need men to discuss their issues, become part of a community, feel valued and have access to their kids—Department: Health and Social Care.

I have listed many Departments, but there are issues for men who work that are covered by so many more. I have heard of loneliness in occupations. With regards to suicide, lonely farmers are a concern. Spending long days in tractors on their own is no good. Isolation is hard to cope with—Department: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The soldier who leaves the forces and cannot find his way in civilian life on civvy street is another concern—Department: Defence.

The list goes on, and many Departments are doing much to help. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Ministers both past and present, have been amazing. They have been listening. Just this weekend, they announced help with issues that so many men face: prostate cancer screening, access to health services online and a taskforce to understand how men access physical services. All of that is good to hear. These steps will undoubtedly save many lives, and it goes further.

The announcement of a men’s health ambassador is great news too—a huge stride forward. We have a Minister for women, and she is doing great work, but if we want to help all the men and boys such as Tommy with their poor life prospects, we must do more. If we want to stop men such as Tommy’s dad taking their own life, and to give Tommy’s mum a life that is not just sheer hard work for seemingly very little return, we need a Minister for men and boys—a Minister who will connect all the dots and join all the Departments together, who will take men’s health and wellbeing seriously, and who will ask the following questions whenever any policy is announced: how does it affect men? How does it affect their families? How does it help society as a whole? As Warren Farrell states:

“When one sex loses, both sexes lose.”

That is very true.

Photo of Karl McCartney Karl McCartney Conservative, Lincoln

I commend my hon. Friend for presenting a very well-researched speech and for telling us the story of Tommy. Does my hon. Friend believe that it would be a major step forward to have a Minister for men?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

Yes, I do. That is what we are building up to, and we desperately need it.

I thank the Minister for everything she has done, but she should use her influence to inform our Prime Minister about the debate and give him this message: no matter how many men there are around his Cabinet table, or how many men there are in the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies, men still need help. She should tell him not to forget little Tommy. Trust me, he is desperate. Whether he is five, 15 or 25, he is desperate.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

My hon. Friend has made a passionate case for why young boys need very strong male role models. I would argue that young girls and women need those strong role models too. I entirely support his call for a Minister for men, but would he take this opportunity to congratulate A Band of Brothers, a group in my constituency that provides male mentorship? It has seen incredible, inspiring, transformational success in the lives of the young men it has come alongside. That essential ingredient, role modelling, by a more experienced and mature man, has truly made the difference.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I could not agree more. Girls need role models too, which is so important. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, and as a Member of Parliament who takes this issue so seriously, I ask my hon. Friend to pass on my thanks to the charity for all the work it is doing.

I am the biggest believer in personal responsibility. Not everything can or should be down to the Government, so I ask the nation to talk up men. I ask the nation to look for the good in them. I ask the nation to ask them if they are okay. When they say they are fine, ask them again. Many men are not fine; they need our help and support. Look out for the little Tommy in your community. See if you can be of help to him through his mum or his school. Trust me, if we do not do so, the 13 suicides a day will not stop at 13. The figure will rise, the prisons will only get more full, and too many more women and girls may be hurt along the way.

In conclusion, when the subject of a Minister for boys and men is mentioned, stop sniggering and start supporting. We need to quit being part of the problem and start being part of the solution, because when one sex wins, both sexes win.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:45, 21 November 2023

It is not often I get called first; I appreciate the opportunity. It threw me, but I have read my notes and know what I am going to say. I congratulate Nick Fletcher on setting the scene so well. He touched on some of the things I wish to speak about: suicide rates, prostate cancer and loneliness. I live on a farm on the Ards peninsula, so appreciate and understand how isolation and loneliness can play a big part in farming communities, simply because of what the job entails. Very often there is the farmer and his dog or his animals; interaction with other people does not happen.

In setting the scene, the hon. Gentleman used the illustration of young Tommy. I know that young Tommy does not exist, but there are young Tommies out there across the community who do. He illustrated that very well with that example and I commend him. It is great to be able to speak in this debate. November is an important month because we can raise awareness of men’s health and wellbeing, particularly mental health and testicular and prostate cancer.

The occasion also gives an opportunity to lead by example, as World Children’s Day is celebrated on 20 November. Having the two sit so close together is a fantastic way to encourage good moral values and responsibility. It is good to talk about these issues in a constructive and positive way. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, as she understands the subject well, and I hope she will give a positive reply to our questions. I also look forward to hearing from the two shadow Ministers. I know their contributions will enhance and enliven the debate, as will others. I am conscious not to leave anybody out.

I want to comment on important statistics related to men’s health. Figures from AWARE NI state that suicide is the leading killer of men under 50 in Northern Ireland. That is a sad reality that nobody wants to think about. Not long ago we had a spate of suicides in my immediate town of Newtownards. They tended to be young men in their early twenties, which is discouraging and worrying. I remember when one young fellow committed suicide, a number of his circle of friends did likewise.

There is the key issue, which is not the Minister’s responsibility, but adds to the debate. I am sure the examples and evidence I give from Northern Ireland will be replicated across the United Kingdom. One in three men in the UK have had suicidal thoughts due to stress. It is no secret that many men view depression as a sign of weakness, choosing to ignore the symptoms. I hope that would not be the case, but recognise that it is. Perhaps the Minister could give us some thoughts on how we can better reach out to those men, to ensure that the stigma they worry about does not drag them down.

Many see the stigma attached to opening up and asking for help. The phrase “man up” is not meant in a derogatory fashion, but as a prompt to strengthen oneself. The fact is that it talks people down, and I think it is wrong to say that when it is taken too literally. Men then suppress their anxieties and try to deal with them inwardly, even when they are not able to. I see no shame in asking for help and I encourage men everywhere to do that. International Men’s Day is the time to reinforce that point.

I referred to life in the rural communities, simply because we are a country of small farms. Some of them are run as one-person businesses, and at others the wife looks after the house and also helps on the farm. Lots of the interaction is very isolated. Funnily enough, yesterday morning someone came to my office—I will not mention her by name—to talk about the problems she is experiencing as a result of rural isolation. The issue applies to both men and women, but I wanted to dwell on it in this debate about International Men’s Day.

I have known a few people over the years who, if we met them today in any company, we would think that they were the life and soul of the party. But the thing is that, when they leave that party and that group of social friends, when they get home and close the door, they are a different person. We should not always think that the person who is jovial, funny, talkative and laughing all the time has no problems, because it is possible that they do.

Samaritans has found that men who live in rural areas are less likely to seek mental health support, and due to the nature of their community they are more likely to feel isolated. At half-past 11 there will be a Samaritans event on suicide prevention in, I think, Speaker’s House. If Members are available, I suggest that they try to get along to that. As someone who represents a partly rural community and who lives in a rural area, I know that this is an incredibly important issue, and I encourage anyone who is feeling confined or isolated not to be ashamed of seeking help.

The same point can be made for veterans too. I wish to underline the issue for veterans separately, because I deal with veterans in my offices every day. The veterans charity Beyond the Battlefield is based in my constituency and its incredible work reminds me of what has been done for former service personnel suffering from PTSD and poor mental health due to the nature of their service. I work with many charities, but I want to mention two in particular in my constituency. I have been involved with Beyond the Battlefield since its inception. It provides accommodation and has applied for another grant through the Ministry of Defence’s veterans scheme. If successful, it will be able to provide more beds to people.

The second charity is SSAFA—the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association. Every one of us of a certain generation, and perhaps more, will know about SSAFA. I hold a coffee morning for it every year, and this year I think we left with £5,800. That is for coffee, tea and sticky buns, so it really is quite an achievement. People are very generous, and it is quite clear that they give more than what they would usually give for a bun and a cup of coffee.

Photo of Karl McCartney Karl McCartney Conservative, Lincoln

One of the reasons I am standing here is that the hon. Member for Northern Ireland, as many of us think of him, has made some very valid points, including about Samaritans, which has a direct link to my constituency of Lincoln. I do hope to see some Members at Mr Speaker’s event later this morning. We are commending International Men’s Day, and the hon. Gentleman has made some very good points regarding suicide and other issues, but I wanted to stand up so that he did not feel alone. We all know that he intervenes on many of us when we make speeches, and I wanted to return the favour.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Yes, we all share many things in common, and we are here to contribute to the debate in a positive fashion. This House can shine and reach out in a way that is necessary in the society we live in.

I am very conscious of time and that others also want to speak, so I will not go on much longer. Queen’s University Belfast has a prostate cancer centre of excellence, and I mention that because it recognises that prostate cancer is a killer. The hon. Member for Don Valley referred to that in his introduction, because he recognises, like I do, that there is not a full understanding of what it means to men. If someone has a wee problem, they might not do anything about it and say, “Well, sure, I’ll get better by the end of the week,” or, “I’ll get better in a fortnight’s time.” But they do not. I commend Queen’s University, and I look forward to visiting that centre of excellence shortly.

On International Men’s Day, the Government have joined Prostate Cancer UK to unveil a £42 million screening trial to find ways of detecting earlier the UK’s most common cancer in men. When we see that somebody does something good, I commend saying something good about it. There are many times when certain things will happen that we are perhaps concerned about, and we will not register them. The Government have made £42 million available for that purpose—well done. They have recognised the issue. The Minister might comment on that when she speaks later.

That will allow hundreds of thousands of men across the country to participate and remind other men that they are not alone. It is really good that the Government have put their hand in their pocket—on behalf of us all—and made this happen. Thousands of lives could be saved. May I seek clarity from the Minister and ask whether the money will be extended to the devolved nations as well, and whether this issue is devolved? We cannot leave the men of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales behind.

To conclude, let us use this day to duly celebrate the men in our community and the contributions they make. Hon. Members here will know that when it comes to men’s issues, I am here in this House to speak for them, and I do it every time. Today the debate is about International Men’s Day, so I want to make a plea for them. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley for raising this issue today, and for reminding us that we should always encourage and support emotional stability for everyone out there who is suffering.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 9:56, 21 November 2023

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in this debate on International Men’s Day. It is a particular pleasure to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for securing this debate, and for making such an important contribution.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the way in which gender stereotypes are harmful to men and boys. Issues include family breakdown, excluded boys being drawn into antisocial behaviour, drugs and crime, and men’s attitudes towards seeking help not just for mental health but health per se, as well as a legal system that too many men feel militates against them, particularly when it comes to family law. I would argue that gender stereotypes, in all their forms, are harmful to human beings, and my hon. Friend made a very cogent case for the way in which they are harmful to men and boys.

I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend’s policy suggestions. I would suggest that if men and women had equal voices at the policymaking tables, we could ensure that the lives of both men and women could be seen in all the polices that come forward in this Parliament. If we encourage male Ministers to do as much as they can, and particularly to look at their female counterparts and the work they do on how gender affects policy, that could go some way towards addressing some of the issues that he is talking about.

It is not good for men if the health system is designed for men, because men have daughters, partners and mothers. We want all our public services to work for men and for women. If we currently have a system where that is not the case, we need to encourage all Ministers—whatever the Prime Minister might decide on a Minister for men—to think about the gender differences that are at play. It is not only the Minister for Women who thinks about Government policies and how they affect women. Many of my female colleagues who are Ministers do a huge amount to think about how their policies will affect women. Perhaps their male counterparts need to be doing similarly.

In Parliament, we make polices and law for people—few are gender specific. But we know—as my hon. Friend has just said—that men and women experience the world very differently. That is why I really welcome this debate on International Men’s Day. As right hon. and hon. Members might know, I often lead the debate on International Women’s Day. That is an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of women, but also to raise a lot of the issues. This debate is just as important, because it reminds us that we live in a gendered world, and we have to deal with that as politicians. We do not make the best policies unless we recognise that there is a difference.

I am sure you will not be surprised to know, Mr Davies, that I would love a world where gender is no longer an issue that drives the sort of differences that my hon. Friend just talked about, but we deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. He is absolutely right that we need to consider gender when we develop policies. Chromosomal difference, although significant, is not really what he was talking about when he set out the parameters of this debate; those differences are added to by societal norms. We could have an enormous debate about nature versus nurture; I would say that nurture plays a huge part in many of the issues that my hon. Friend clearly articulated.

International Men’s Day is not only about the issues that I will come to in a moment; it is about celebrating the men in our lives and the amazing contribution men make. Men shape our lives, whether we are women or men. My father told me to go to the best university I could, and that my imagination was the only limit to my achievements—crumbs, that is a fantastic role model to have. It is about my brothers, my husband and my sons being there; such are the people who shape our lives. There are far more men in my life than women, although I give a special call-out to my daughter and mother, because they are very special too. Men are there to shape our lives, and I do not think there is anybody in this Chamber who would argue differently.

All the evidence shows—my hon. Friend made this point—that men’s and women’s lives are different. We should be concerned about the pressures that men face, including the pressure to conform to notions of masculinity, which I would argue are very out of date. I hope my sons do not feel that pressure, but I am sure they do. I do not want their childhood to be filled with phrases such as, “Don’t start acting like a girl.” I hope that is in the past, but perhaps it is not. To be branded as the breadwinner in adult life puts huge pressure on men. In reality, one in three women earn more than their partners or husbands, yet society still sees men as the breadwinner. We treat each other differently because of our gender, and the evidence shows that, as a result, we live different lives.

In the UK, we find gender a difficult concept. That came out in the trans debate recently. It also came out in 2013, when many people found it quite difficult that the Government said it was wrong for the state not to allow people of the same gender to marry. I was the Minister at the time, and we changed the law to enable that to happen and for it to be a happy occasion.

That we continue to have a gender pay gap clearly shows that society treats men and women differently, and too many boys are still being told to “man up” during their childhood. We treat men and women differently. I do not think that is right, and the world would be a better place if we outlawed those sorts of gender stereotypes.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

My right hon. Friend is making a very good speech. She mentioned the gender pay gap, and I keep hearing this all the time. Will she confirm—she has an awful lot of experience of that issue—that it is illegal for anybody to pay a man more than a woman to do the same job?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I think my hon. Friend is probably thinking about something different. The gender pay gap is about looking at groups of people who earn differently for doing the same thing in their workplace. It is not about pay levels—pay rates for the individual. If my hon. Friend looks at the data available now, he will see that the gender pay gap has actually disappeared for groups of men and women in their 20s and 30s, and quite remarkably it reappears vigorously over the age of 40. When companies look at what they pay groups of people who are over the age of 40, they will see that women are paid less. I wonder why that is. The average age of giving birth is now around 30—it is a lot older than when I had my first child. It is women who are finding it very difficult to come back into the jobs market and get jobs that are actually comparable with their qualifications. There is also an issue around productivity there.

This debate, however, is not about women. It is about men and we should focus on International Men’s Day. In this day and age, I think that most men want to see fairness at work and, if they have a female spouse, for them to paid fairly. I do not think that this is necessarily about men wanting to gang up on women. It is societal structures and norms that are causing the problems. We, as politicians, have a great deal to do to reset those societal norms and to ensure that the structures do not create a perpetuation of gender stereotypes, which, as my hon. Friend set out, are so harmful, particularly to men and boys.

I think that Brits are far less comfortable than our continental friends in agreeing that inequality between the genders is serious. There has been some research done to suggest that, in continental Europe, one in three sees gender inequality as a serious concern, whereas in the UK that figure is one in four. Perhaps, as a society, we need to challenge ourselves a bit more on these things.

As both my hon. Friend and Jim Shannon have said, the way in which our public services are structured, in terms of perpetuating some of these gender stereotypes and inequalities for men, is best seen in our health service when it comes to men’s health. It is quite concerning that men are expected to live almost three years less than women, which is extraordinary. It is even more extraordinary that I do not really see a policy to directly address that. There are some policies there and, of course, the Minister has huge expertise as a Health Minister, so she will turn to matters such as the prostate cancer work being done.

Cancer rates are 20% higher among men, and men are more likely to go to hospital with heart disease, more likely to smoke, more likely to die from alcohol conditions, more likely to use illegal drugs, and more likely to die in a workplace accident. The Government do have policies, but are they really focused on the disproportionate way in which those issues affect men? I think they probably do on heart disease, and obviously they do on prostate cancer—although, again, there are issues for trans people, particularly trans women, in accessing those healthcare systems.

In terms of men’s mental health, there is an increasing gap between men and women. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, suicide rates among men are a concern. In fact, they are not just a concern; we have seen that women’s suicide rates have halved and men’s suicide rates have fallen just a fraction. Again, I challenge the Minister to ensure that we have a gendered approach to healthcare in our country.

Let us not pretend that there are no differences between men and women—there are. I would like to see a world where men and women are recognised for their separate needs and one where we celebrate our differences, but our aim should be to remove that difference when it is destructive, to enable us all to live in peace and prosperity together. That is the way in which we are going to have the best world possible.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 10:09, 21 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate and thank Nick Fletcher on how he approached this topic and for his powerful speech. Men do face critical challenges because they are men—and young boys too—whether it is about mental health, violence or family breakdown. Too often this debate is seen as if there has to be an equal ledger of suffering before we will acknowledge those challenges. We do everybody a disservice if we ignore those concerns in favour of culture war arguments about whether James Bond could be a woman or whether Andrew Tate is what every man would be if they could get away with it, or if we simply snigger. I agree with Jim Shannon in so many ways, and I am so pleased to see him here today and able to contribute.

I want to take up the hon. Member for Don Valley’s challenge and talk up a particular group of men for which the term is too often loaded with negative connotations: dads. It is such an important role, but so often the butt of a joke: deadbeat dads; absentee fathers; daddy daycare; dad bods; dad jokes; sugar daddies; baby daddies; “Who is your daddy?” Our images of fatherhood are rarely ones we would wish people to replicate. Think of those famous fathers: Darth Vader; Homer Simpson; Phil Dunphy in “Modern Family”; Kevin in “Motherland”; Don Draper; Uncle Phil in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; Jim Royle; “Citizen Khan”; Logan Roy; Tony Soprano; Frank Gallagher—thank God for Bandit in “Bluey”. If they are not trying to take their kids over to the dark side or bullying them into a life of crime, the message is overwhelmingly that the mental load of parenting is something mothers deal with, while dads are hapless, indifferent, sidelined or, at best, cash machines.

However, a wealth of evidence tells us that dads spending time with their children leads to better outcomes. If children spend more time with their fathers at the age of nine months, by the age of three they show more positive emotions. Increasing a father’s role in a kid’s life leads to higher educational attainment and lower behavioural difficulties for both boys and girls in primary school. Indeed, the educational effect is even more profound when it comes to maths—something I know the Prime Minister is concerned about—regardless of gender, ethnicity, age in the school year, or household income. But a recent study in Scotland showed the challenge: a quarter of working dads said that they were “almost never” satisfied with the amount of quality time they got to spend with their kids—a pressure that is particularly profound for fathers of very young children.

We spend so much time in this place telling women how to be good mums. On International Men’s Day, it is time we redress the balance. The secret is that it is the same for both parents: it is about being present for kids, day in, day out, every day and all day. That is really hard in a country that does not talk about it—especially when it comes to dads—let alone value it enough to make it financially possible and socially acceptable for all.

I want to thank all those leading the change and leading the charge for fathers: Elliott Rae and the amazing MusicFootballFatherhood; Street Fathers, led by Colin James, which is helping young men make the transition from boyhood to manhood in my constituency; the Men’s Sheds project, which helps dads and men to connect and talk; the Fatherhood Institute, MANUP? and CALM for the work they are doing to tackle male mental health challenges and the dad stereotypes that the hon. Member for Don Valley set out.

Our men and boys and what they need from their dads are at the heart of so much in our society. They need dads of the involved kind—not the controlling kind, the violent kind, or the absent at work kind. The kind who does not turn around 20 years later to say, “I was away so much when my kids were growing up. I don’t know them at all.” Not the ones who say, “Ask your mum,” rather than asking themselves how they could do something and role-modelling it for their kids.

For that to become the norm, we need a Government and a country that does not think that is woke, but wise. But the last time Parliament debated how to support fathers was in 2019. The word “patriarchy” is on the record more times than “paternity”; it is a word we do not refer to unless we are talking about the Father of the House. Yes, we have a women’s mental health strategy, and that is very welcome, but as the hon. Member for Don Valley pointed out, we do not have a men’s mental health strategy. The Government’s own childcare strategy only talks about how it would benefit mums. The hon. Member for Don Valley is right: we should be asking how it benefits both parents. This year, the Government published a written ministerial statement pledging to make it easier for fathers to take flexible leave and parental leave, but that did not make it into the King’s Speech—unlike pedicabs.

Today is chance for us to collectively to reclaim “dad”; to challenge the idea that men are too stupid, too weak, too absent, too deadbeat; to help the dads working three jobs on poverty pay, never getting to see their kids grow up; and to help them be the dads that our kids, our country, and their mental health need them to be.

I have a very simple start for the Minister: how can we actually make parental leave work for dads? We know that one in 10 women experiences post-partum disorders and depression, but actually one in 10 dads experiences post-partum anxiety, which starts when the baby is born and does not stop. A 2008 study found that lower levels of cognitive development in children were associated with having a depressed dad. We should want to tackle men’s mental health problems in their own right, but also recognise that by doing so and being explicit about it, we will also help many more people around them.

So many dads are not spending the time they want with their kids because they just cannot afford to do so. More than three times more women than men claim parental leave pay. On average, new fathers take just two weeks—the statutory minimum entitlement—which is a pitiful amount of time to be able to bond with their child. That amount of leave increases only among the very wealthy. Only men with a household income of £200k or more take an average of 10 weeks.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

It is interesting that the hon. Lady has brought up the amount of time that men take off for parental leave. There is also data that would suggest that even when more paid parental leave is available, it is not taken up because of a fear that both men and women feel: if we take time off around pregnancy, we are in some way letting people down. The hon. Lady, as somebody who has had children, may recognise that. Men feel the same way. It is more than simply having that offer of money; we also need an attitudinal change towards people taking the time off in the first place.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady, whose remarks prefigure mine. Money does matter. When 43% of men say that financial hardship prevents them from taking additional leave, it matters what they get paid, in the same way that when women do not get proper statutory maternity cover, it affects our decisions. However, we also know that 17% of men cite pressure from their employer. Women’s careers get written off; men’s relationships with their children get written off. Nobody is winning in our current environment.

We need to increase the amount of time men are entitled to, but we also need to change the way we do this. We need to stop it being about men versus women and share the cost. I hope Dame Maria Miller will agree that it is about time we stopped making this issue something that just the mum’s employer has to deal with. If we want shared parental leave, we should share the cost of providing parental leave between both the mum’s employer and the dad’s employer so that everybody has a vested interest in helping to support that family, ensuring that the employers who benefit from it also contribute to it. Let us be honest: the dad’s employer benefits when the mum takes on the load.

Let us end the mum penalty that means women feel their careers pay the price. Let us challenge the idea that men taking care of their children and stepping up to share that responsibility is something shameful that they should do in such a way that nobody notices they are gone.

The hon. Member for Don Valley is also right to say that it is not just about financial cost. Elliott Rae has a fantastic campaign about “parenting out loud”. Women know that when they do that, they get judged; men need to do it to show a different way forward. What does he mean by parenting out loud? Rather than hiding parental responsibilities, men in leadership positions should talk about those responsibilities and role model how to combine them with the work they do, whether that is leaving work to go to a school parents evening or working from home to help to cover doctors’ appointments.

That is why when Ministers attack working from home or flexible working, it is not just mums whose opportunities they are closing down, but dads—as well as the next generation—who miss out on the impact of the extra hours they could spend with their children without having to commute. The good news is that we have empirical research on that. During the pandemic, men doubled the amount of childcare they were doing. The Fatherhood Institute recognised that it would take double that time—an extra eight hours—to get the same benefit of the father-child relationship. Parents can either spend two hours on a train getting to and from work or two hours helping our child to learn to read. I know which I think would be better for economy, better for their mental health and better for our society.

Whenever we take our vision of fatherhood from those value it least, men miss out. We would not frame our debate about financial exclusion based on the antics of Bernie Madoff, so why do we let those men who boast that they have never changed a nappy or that they were in the pub when their kid was born decide how dads rear their children? We should stop lauding men who do anything as if it is a surprise and they should be congratulated. They are the men who want a medal for taking their child to swimming. Instead, we should start asking how men can be the dads they want to be—present and equal in looking after their children, 24 hours a day, day in and day out—because that is what it takes to raise a child who will thrive. When we do that, the evidence is that it is good for men’s families, men’s relationships and our economy. On this International Men’s Day, we should finally let dads be dads.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 10:20, 21 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for securing this incredibly vital debate and for the way that he set out little Tommy’s life, all the issues that can spiral out of control, and the cycle that can go on and on if we do not do something about it.

I will take the time to thank the two men who are closest to me in my life at the moment. First, I could not stand here today were it not for the help that my husband gives to raise our daughter while I am 300 miles away for half of every week. If he was not being the kind of dad that Stella Creasy just described, I would not be able to do this job; indeed, if other men did not behave similarly, other women would not be able to come forward and enter this place.

Also, I thank my dad. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer less than a month after I came to this place, so I want to put out this message to all men—please, please, please take advantage of the screening programme that is coming, because the only symptom that my dad had was a bad back. He had tests and went to chiropractors for a couple of months, before finally going for an MRI scan. It turned out that the cancer had spread and he was in really bad shape. There but for the grace of God go we. He has now gone into complete remission and is doing very well, thank you very much, but that is more through luck than anything else. I pay tribute to the fabulous care that he received from the Royal Cornwall Hospital, but on another day he may not have been so lucky. Please will all the men who are listening to or watching this debate take advantage of all the tests that they are offered.

As many people know, I chair both the all-party parliamentary group on women’s health and the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, so a lot of my work in this place is about ensuring that women are listened to, certainly during maternity care and when they experience the other health issues that women face. I absolutely welcome all the work that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, has done in this space.

Through representing the beautiful constituency of Truro and Falmouth and living among all the men and women there, I see men from all kinds of industries and family structures working absolutely tooth and nail for their loved ones. It is vital that we work to level the playing field, and highlight that work, with the same vigour for men as we do for women.

Going back to the point made by Jim Shannon about loneliness in rural communities, loneliness is absolutely front and centre in Cornwall. We sadly hear all too often that somebody has ended their life because of it—not only farmers, but fishermen as well. Fishermen often spend days at sea by themselves. Even if it is just for a couple of days, they are pressurised because their career, their job and their livelihood are so weather-dependent. There is nothing they can do if the weather is not on their side—they literally cannot bring in a wage—and that pressure often means that fishermen turn to alcohol.

One of the things that I wrote to the Chancellor about ahead of the autumn statement was the importance of the village pub. This is going to sound quite strange, but if a man is going to turn to alcohol because of the pressure he is facing, I would much rather that he was in his village pub, with a crowd of people that he knows well and that know him well, than going to the supermarket night after night, picking up a bottle of something and sitting alone at home to drink.

There are lots of reasons why I want to support village pubs, but that one is so important, even if it is something that we just do not talk about. I hope that if anybody is listening to this debate today, they will consider why, for many reasons, it is important to keep village pubs open and look kindly on that campaign. They can be an actual lifesaver.

Through chairing the APPG on baby loss, I know that the focus is often on our talented healthcare professionals, and the Government home in on the mother giving birth. It is easy to forget the broader picture and the role of the entire family unit, especially when we lose a baby and the whole family grieves. It will not come as a surprise to colleagues to be told that the tragic loss of a baby for parents anywhere in our country has a long-lasting and horrific impact on fathers. When it comes to baby loss, our partners are our rock; they are the only person who know exactly what we are going through.

Sadly, a couple who suffer such a loss are 50% more likely to end their relationship within six months than other couples are. Keeping partnerships strong, open and resilient requires, in my opinion and—sadly—experience, a support network outside the relationship, which must come from friends and family. And it often has to provide long-term support to both parents, to preserve the mental health of dad as well as mum. People often forget to ask about how dad is doing after he has lost a baby. People are concerned because mum has given birth and her body is recovering. She is obviously in pieces and does not know where to go. People often look to dad to support her, but he is grieving for his child as well, and we must never forget to ask how dad is doing.

I have championed that principle in my constituency. I am proud to say that our new women and children’s hospital at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro will have facilities on site that will benefit fathers. Examples include simple things such as ensuring spaces are available for parents to say goodbye to their lost babies away from wards where successful births are taking place around them. We need to ensure adequate space for dads on our maternity wards, and Cornwall will be at the cutting edge of that. Support will be provided to parents at the start of the pregnancy. When babies are ready, we will have the best caring facilities to reduce baby loss. Aftercare will be there for young families having children, and support will be available to parents if it all goes wrong.

I take this opportunity to signpost some of the support that is already out there for dads suffering after baby loss. I have worked closely with the charity Tommy’s. For the past few years, it has had an absolutely brilliant—in my opinion, the best—website. It outlines groups and methods that can help men through this particularly tragic form of grief. It has a direct nine-to-five hotline to a midwife. They will talk through concerns and disruptive thought patterns with any dad wanting clarity or answers to their trauma and can recommend that parents reach out to their GP for support through this stage of their life.

The risk of developing PTSD, depression or anxiety increases hugely following the loss of a child, and it is vital that we as Members ensure that both parents get the support they need to fully recover. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, if a man is a veteran or has had a tough upbringing, such a loss can compound all their experiences; it could be the thing that tips them over the edge.

We also need a proper understanding of workplace rights, as men may need to take time out of work to fully come to terms with such a traumatic loss. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has details of counsellors trained in supporting men through baby loss. Maternity Action has information about miscarriages, stillbirths and neonatal deaths, and explains how to take time off to deal with experiences of them.

In our experience, it is often that a man sees a pregnancy as a pregnancy until the baby is a baby. I do not think that is a failing; pregnancy is just something that happens to women’s bodies, so we often have a different way of looking at it. It is important that all the questions that men have when something goes wrong, or even when there is a potential that something could go wrong, are answered by someone without putting extra pressure on the relationship.

The Baby Mailing Preference Service is brilliant. It can reduce the number of baby-related mail that a man or woman encounters. There is plenty of support out there, but we have a long way to go before these sources fully enter the mainstream and people do not have to go looking for them when the worst happens. I would like mothers, fathers and other birth parents offered bereavement counselling at all NHS trusts as part of the national bereavement care pathway. Under my predecessors, the APPG on baby loss was vital in getting the national bereavement care pathway up and running. We know that it still is not working as it should in all trusts, but we can improve it. Counselling is the thing that we absolutely need to provide.

When it happened to us, my husband got on his boat, turned his key and went straight back to work, and I do not think that was the healthiest way for him to process what had happened. Everyone acts completely differently. We must ensure that the counselling that a man or woman needs is there, and that includes relationship counselling. If there is a sibling, it is even more important that mum and dad can process their grief—whether together or separately—and that they stay together for the long term.

It is important that we find examples of good practice and ensure that they are replicated all over the country. If there are fathers out there who have had good experiences or have suggestions about mental health in this space or the support they received after losing their baby, I would love them to come forward to the APPG so that we can work with them and our partners—Sands, Tommy’s and the Lullaby Trust—to ensure that, on this International Men’s Day, dads are not forgotten, and that we raise the issue and stimulate further action to improve support for fathers.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs) 10:29, 21 November 2023

I am delighted to participate in this debate to mark International Men’s Day 2023. I thank Nick Fletcher not just for securing the debate, but for the sensitive way that he drew out some very important issues that too often get buried under other matters that we discuss in this place. It is important that we continue to talk about gender equality, equal pay and the pension gender gap, but that does not mean that we cannot be cognisant of and exercised about the very important public health and social challenges that face men and boys. There is no doubt that those challenges and issues exist.

The theme of International Men’s Day 2023 is “Zero Male Suicide”, and that is where I want to focus my attention. The need to help men and boys cope with and understand mental health issues is beyond urgent. As we have heard, the overall suicide rate is 13.9 per 100,000 people—a similar figure to previous years—but male suicide rates are still three times as high as female rates, and in Scotland, 556 men died by suicide last year. Behind every statistic lies a family torn apart and a life that ought not to have been lost.

Suicide is the No. 1 killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. It kills more men under 45 than car accidents, cancer, drug or alcohol addiction, or any other issue that can end lives. The fact that men take their lives by their own hands in such numbers is truly heartbreaking. We can wring our hands, but there must be something more we can do to reduce those awful statistics. Key to that is seeking to understand why so many men resort to suicide, which is a terrible last act of despair.

One explanation that many point to is the fact that males have traditionally not been expected to admit when they are finding life difficult. A number of Members have talked about the awful expressions that are often used, including “toughing it out” and “manning up”, which Jim Shannon first mentioned. As a result, men and boys often find it hard to admit when they are struggling and need support, and that can only undermine their mental health and increase their sense of isolation. Problems mount up, but they feel it is weak if they admit it, ask for help or simply need a chat to share their concerns and process their feelings. Instead, they are much more likely to internalise their feelings, which often detrimentally impacts their relationships with their family members and friends—their children, their wives and their extended social relationships.

How we as a society adjust our expectations of men is important. It is okay for someone to admit that they are struggling; it is not a sign of weakness. As boys grow up and develop in their homes, families, schools, workplaces and universities, we need them to learn that they will sometimes need support and that there is no stigma attached to talking to someone if they are suffering. In fact, it is perfectly normal, and actually it could be seen as a sign of strength. If we cannot get men and boys to open up and share their worries, concerns and problems with those closest to them, or a support organisation if that is easier for them, we are unlikely to make a meaningful dent in those awful statistics. Each number is a family torn apart—a life lost that could have been saved.

Although we know that suicide is the biggest cause of death in males under the age of 45, we also know that when it happens, the loved ones left behind are often bewildered. They often did not see it coming. For the rest of their lives, they are left with questions—“What did I miss?”, “Could I have done something to prevent this?”, “Why did they not talk to me?” That is why suicide does not just take lives but tears families apart and leaves wounds that truly never heal.

I pay tribute to the wonderful UK Men’s Sheds Association. In my constituency, I have seen at first hand the fantastic work undertaken by the Three Towns Men’s Shed, which serves Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston, and the Garnock Valley Men’s Shed, which serves the towns of Kilbirnie, Beith and Dalry. In these sheds, men get together to offer each other friendship, camaraderie and a sympathetic ear. They share practical skills, experiences and problems, and provide a shoulder for each other when times are tough. Men helping each other in their communities is what a men’s shed does at its best, and it is not overstating the case to say that men’s sheds have the potential to transform and save the lives of the men who join them.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Lady is right to underline the issue of men’s sheds. I can think of four men’s sheds in my constituency: in Saintfield—I see them on the third Saturday of every month—Portaferry, Newtownards and Ballybeen. Those four men’s sheds have saved lives, which is what she is referring to.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am delighted with the men’s sheds in my constituency, because the three towns in the Garnock valley are post-industrial areas with great socioeconomic challenges. Sadly, we know that people who are socially and economically disadvantaged are also those at higher risk of suicide and at higher risk of developing mental illness. Middle-aged men living in the most deprived areas face an even higher risk of suicide, with rates of up to 36.6 per 100,000, compared with 13.5 per 100,000 in the least deprived areas.

The changing nature of the labour market over the last 60 years has particularly affected working-class men. With the decline of traditional male industries, they have lost not only their jobs, but a source of masculine pride and identity. We also know that men in midlife tend to remain overwhelmingly dependent on a female partner for emotional support, but today, men are less likely to have one lifelong partner and more likely to live alone, without the social or emotional skills to fall back on. Undoubtedly, loneliness is a significant factor in many male suicides; it puts men’s suicide risk at a higher level. Men’s sheds can truly mitigate that and help men to strengthen their social relationships.

I will briefly mention the impact of allotments. In my constituency, we have the Elm Park allotment in Ardrossan and the Kilbirnie allotment on Sersley Drive, which allow men to get out into the open air and forge friendships. Otherwise, they may be sitting at home, watching the telly and becoming catatonic with loneliness. At the allotments, they develop relationships with other volunteers in a very healthy outdoor environment. In my view, things that build the social fabric of our community, and which help men get together, save lives.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I think the hon. Lady answered my point. Does she feel, as I do, that the way in which society is driving more and more people to be isolated at home with screens, rather than to be out in a community and speaking to other humans, is not healthy? It may end up exacerbating the problem.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Farming, Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

Indeed it does, and men are particularly prone to isolation. Women are much more likely to make friendships and chat to people—men not so much.

The value of men’s sheds and allotments cannot be underestimated. On their own, they are not a silver bullet—nothing is—but we are looking to use every tool in our armoury to tackle the terrible phenomenon of male suicide. The Scottish Government provide a lot of support for men’s sheds but, as always, I would like to see more. There is never enough, especially given the transformational power that men’s sheds and allotments have.

The idea of a Minister for men has been mooted today. Given what we know about the suicide statistics and men’s health, I do not think that the idea should be dismissed. It should be actively explored.

It is very important that we have acknowledged and marked International Men’s Day. I know some people do not think that such a day matters, which is part of the problem. We need to acknowledge that our fathers, brothers, sons and husbands can struggle and feel unable to admit it. I agree with the hon. Member for Don Valley that it is in all our interests—it is in the interests of girls, mums, wives and sisters—that men and boys feel supported and fulfilled, so that they can have a true stake in the future and, in turn, become better role models for their sons. International Men’s Day gives us the chance to set time aside specifically to show that the male suicide and public health problems that we see need not happen. A much-needed light must be shone on the importance of men and boys asking for support. As we know to our cost, too often the lives of men and boys depend on it.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Minister (Women's Health and Mental Health) 10:39, 21 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I know that you have done a lot of work in this area, having secured the first International Men’s Day debate in 2015.

I congratulate Nick Fletcher on securing the debate, and I thank him for championing this important issue and for his work with the APPG on issues affecting men and boys. He spoke powerfully about how suicide impacts on men and took us on the journey of Tommy’s life to talk about how he had been affected.

I am pleased to close this important debate for the Opposition and to have the opportunity to speak on International Men’s Day and mark the occasion in Parliament. I begin by thanking several hon. Members who have spoken. Jim Shannon talked about Northern Ireland and highlighted the slow diagnosis of prostate cancer. He also talked about loneliness in rural areas.

I thank Dame Maria Miller, who said that she wants all services to work for women and men. Both the hon. Member for Strangford and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke talked about how the use of language and perceptions sometimes have an impact on how men and women are treated, giving the example of the words “man up”.

My hon. Friend Stella Creasy talked about images of fatherhood that are used in ways that we would not like to replicate, about how the mental load of parenting is often something that mothers do, and about equal parental leave.

Cherilyn Mackrory has done a lot of work as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss. I thank her for sharing her personal story again; she has been a trailblazer in this area. She talked about how the tragedy of baby loss has a long-standing impact on fathers as well as mothers, which is not always talked about. She also talked about making sure that there is adequate space for fathers at maternity wards.

As the name indicates, International Men’s Day is a worldwide celebration of the positive contribution that men bring to their families and communities. It is only fitting for me to thank all the incredible men who inspire and uplift others and promote a fair and inclusive society for all. I know that I have a number of male allies and that I would not be in this place today if they had not played a key role in supporting me. However, this annual event is also a crucial moment when the public come together to say that our men and boys face extreme challenges. These include the high rate of male suicide, shorter male life expectancy, falling educational standards among boys compared with that of girls, and so much more. We must also not neglect to mention the shocking inequalities that often leave minorities and the least privileged men in our society most vulnerable. Those are big challenges, but ones where progress can and must be made.

Figures on men’s mental health in the UK continue to show that suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 50. The Minister may remember that, in my first Health questions in my current Front-Bench role, I raised the issue of men aged 45 to 49, who are at most risk of suicide. However, we know that suicide affects the young as well.

Although it does not always come down to one factor, men can face specific life events that may increase their risk of suicide, including the breakdown of relationships, loneliness, unemployment, alcoholism and financial difficulties. Some of these contribute to the sad fact that the poorest in our society are more than twice as likely to die from suicide compared with the wealthiest. It is also important to mention that young black men are around three times more likely to present with suicidal risk. Research has found that gay, bisexual and trans men are even more prone to poor mental health, substance misuse and self-harm. I hope we can all agree that much needs to be done to support men who are struggling in crisis, because around three quarters of the deaths from suicide each year are men. As has been mentioned, men are less likely to seek help. If they do not seek help, they are less likely to get the help they need.

I want to commend a few charities doing fantastic work in this space by providing community support, especially for middle-aged men. They include James’ Place, the Men’s Sheds Association, Andy’s Man Club and Second Step’s Hope Project. I also want to mention Tommy’s, raised by the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth.

Although suicide is extremely complex, it is preventable. The Opposition believe that we must shift towards a system that focuses on prevention. The high rate of suicide is a haunting indictment of a lack of early intervention and support. For example, it is shocking that patients across England waited a total of 5.4 million hours in A&E while experiencing mental health crises last year. It is further shocking that 1.8 million people are on the NHS waiting list for specialist mental health treatment, and those numbers are growing only higher.

A Labour Government will treat mental health as seriously as physical health. Our mission will be to get the rate of suicide down. If we are privileged to get into Government, we will do that within our first term. Our plan will also include recruiting more than 8,500 more mental health professionals to cut waiting times for treatment. We will provide access to specialist support in every school and every community. We will open mental health hubs for young people. Labour has a plan and mission to build an NHS that is fit for the future and there for when people need it.

I turn to the many concerning disparities in men’s physical health. It is important to note that men have a shorter life expectancy, as has been mentioned, with one in five dying before the age of 65. We know that those deaths could be prevented by diet and lifestyle changes. Men are disproportionately affected by heart disease, and more men than women are overweight or obese.

As with mental health inequalities, when comparing life expectancy, there is a stark inequality between the most and least deprived areas of the country. In England’s most deprived postcodes, life expectancy for men is 73.5 years compared with 83.2 years in the least deprived areas. Despite that, men are still less inclined to seek help or advice from medical professionals, and therefore do not get the help they need. Without regular health check-ups, serious issues can go untreated for longer, and sometimes it is too late.

When instances of cancer are 21% higher for men than for women, we know how important early intervention can be. We also know about the well-recognised high rate of prostate cancer among black men. When the cancer is detected, patients must get the treatment they need, yet year after year, the Government have failed to meet the cancer waiting-time targets. Missing target times means missing lifesaving cancer treatment.

We need a strategy that is focused on early intervention and ensures that people receive the care and support they need. Instead, the Government have chosen to cut public health budgets substantially across the country. A Labour Government will invest in a bigger than ever expansion of the NHS and look to improve the cancer survival rates within five years by hitting all NHS cancer waiting times and early diagnosis targets, so that no patient waits longer than they should.

We will also tackle the stark health inequalities faced by disadvantaged groups. We have committed to a fit for the future fund to arm the NHS with state-of-the-art equipment and new technology to cut waiting times. That means doubling the number of CT and MRI scanners and getting people diagnosed earlier.

Of course, we cannot discuss men’s health without looking at boys’ performance in education. In basic terms, boys perform worse than girls by the end of primary school, with 70% of girls reaching the expected standard in maths. The disparity is even more acute among those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with disadvantaged white boys being the least likely group to go to university. Children only have one chance at education, and reducing those disparities with early intervention will make outcomes better.

I will conclude by repeating what I said at the start of my remarks. While we have spent most of today’s debate on the areas of most important concern, this occasion should also be a moment of celebration. It may be obvious to say this, but we all know that men—including you, Mr Davies—provide an invaluable contribution to our families, communities and society. This occasion should be one of appreciation as well as awareness, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Women) 10:51, 21 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. May I start by saying how pleased I am to participate in today’s debate? The theme of this year’s International Men’s Day is “zero male suicide”, which was touched on in many contributions today and is something that I am passionate about in my role as mental health Minister. I will touch on the groundbreaking work that we are introducing in that space, which is absolutely a priority area for this Government.

I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for securing the debate and for his tireless campaigning. He has held my feet to the fire to get men’s health recognised in a way that has not happened before, and pushed the Government to make this a priority area.

We are clear that more needs to be done to improve outcomes across the board for men, particularly in relation to health. That includes men and boys, whose place in society, as we have heard today, is integral to equality for all, because when men thrive, we all thrive. We all have fathers, brothers, friends, husbands, partners and colleagues. When we improve care for women, that impacts society, but that is equally true when we improve care for men. That is why, as part of International Men’s Day, we have made some significant announcements, which I will touch on.

My hon. Friend highlighted really well that improving outcomes for men is everybody’s business, and I absolutely agree. Whether in relation to economic prosperity for society, delivering education to the next generation, or even politics—or, of course, our own families—it is really important that we support men in every way, and International Men’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the issues that they face.

My hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory spoke about the impact of supporting men, particularly around the loss of a child; my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley gave the example of “Tommy” and talked about how many Tommies there are across the country facing those very issues today; my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller touched on life expectancy differences for men; and Jim Shannon touched on the issues facing veterans. Alongside the NHS, we are rolling out Op Courage for veterans, service leavers and reservists across England, and there is different support in different regions, but I will absolutely take up with the veterans Minister what we can do to help support a similar scheme in Northern Ireland.

The theme of this year’s International Men’s Day is zero male suicide. The latest data we have from the Office for National Statistics tells us that men account for around three quarters of all deaths by suicide. As many Members have said, that is the biggest cause of premature death in men under 35, but middle-aged men are also a significant risk group, and that is why they are a priority group in our recently published suicide prevention strategy. Over 4,500 men die by suicide in England alone every year. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley noted that is 13 deaths a day.[This section has been corrected on 29 November 2023, column 8MC — read correction] Every suicide is a tragedy, and we know about the ripple effect that it has for family and friends. We have heard from campaigners what a devastating loss it can be.

Achieving zero male suicide is an ambitious target. In our suicide prevention strategy, we have addressed men as a priority group and addressed the many issues that they face, including alcohol addiction, financial pressures and relationship breakdown. Those are all key drivers of male suicide, so we want to tackle them and put better support systems in place.

Male suicide is everyone’s business. About two thirds of men who take their own lives are in contact with a frontline service, such as primary care, in the three months leading up to their suicide. That is why every Department—whether it is the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Justice—has a role to play in our suicide prevention strategy. We are bringing those Departments together to make suicide everyone’s business, and we want to see a difference—a reduction—in two and a half years.

I do not have a huge amount of time, because my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has to respond to the debate, but I want to touch on the announcement we made on International Men’s Day of £16 million funding for a new prostate cancer screening trial. On my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke’s point about life expectancy, we know that cancer is a significant driver of that. That is why we have rolled out our “man’s van” for lung cancer checks, to target men who have previously smoked and perhaps are not as good as they should be in coming forward to get checks done. That is enabling us to detect around 80% of lung cancers at stage 1, rather than at stage 3 and 4 as was the case previously. The prostate research will dramatically change outcomes for men. On the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford, we can look at that on a UK-wide basis, and we will have discussions with the devolved Administrations before that is rolled out in the spring.

We are appointing a men’s health ambassador—work will start on that soon—and we are launching a men’s health taskforce to join up all the dots. In a similar way to what we have done on the menopause taskforce, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, as chair of the APPG, will be invited to that meeting. We will also improve the information on the NHS UK website, to make it easier for men to access help and support. Men often find it difficult to ask for help, but if it is available on the website, they can do that in the privacy of their own home and know that the information is reliable.

We are also now rolling out the HPV vaccine to boys. While we hope that vaccine will help us eradicate cervical cancer, we know that some male cancers—particularly oral cancers—are related to HPV, so rolling out the vaccine to boys will also have an impact on future cancers in men. We also have our major conditions strategy, which will look at things such as heart disease. There is a huge amount of work going on in this space.

I hope that in my whistle-stop tour—

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Women)

I will not, because my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley needs time to respond.

I hope that, in showcasing some of the work we are doing, I have demonstrated how seriously we take this issue. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this space.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 10:58, 21 November 2023

I thank everybody who has contributed to this excellent debate, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place, and I thank you, Mr Davies, for all the work you have done on this issue in the past. I thank the Men and Boys Coalition for organising International Men’s Day; the Men’s Health Forum for the leading work it does; the APPG team, Mark Brooks and Mike Bell; the wonderful charities that are doing great work, such as Andy’s Man Club, Men’s Sheds, Lads Need Dads, Prostate Cancer UK, and so many more.

Finally, seeing as though the debate was purposefully about suicide, I want to thank all the good men out there. It is sometimes tough being a boy or a man, but when you are feeling low and you think nobody cares, please, please, please reach out. Trust me: people do care. I care, we all in this room care, and most importantly, I know God cares too.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered International Men’s Day.