International Men's Day

Karl McCartney Excerpts
Tuesday 21st November 2023

(8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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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 the Member for Mansfield (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 the Member for South Northamptonshire (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.

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney (Lincoln) (Con)
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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?

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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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 the hon. Member for Don Valley (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.

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney
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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.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Maria Caulfield Portrait The Minister for Women (Maria Caulfield)
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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 the Member for Don Valley (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 the Member for Truro and Falmouth (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 the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) touched on life expectancy differences for men; and the hon. Member for Strangford (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. 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—

Karl McCartney Portrait Karl MᶜCartney
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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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.