International Men's Day

Nick Fletcher 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.

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
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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.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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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 the Member for Don Valley (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.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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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?

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller
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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 the hon. Member for Strangford (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.

--- Later in debate ---
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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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.