International Men's Day

Stella Creasy Excerpts
Tuesday 21st November 2023

(8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (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 the hon. Member for Strangford (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.

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller
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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.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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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 the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (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.