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12 September 2023

The case for a minister for men

From educational failure to high suicide rates, the government needs to address male problems.

By Richard Reeves

Sometimes an unorthodox idea becomes commonplace. Take the recent proposal for a minister for men from Conservative MP Nick Fletcher. Just a few years ago, this would have been dismissed out of hand. At best, it would have been fodder for a few jokes at the MP’s expense. (In fact that’s what happened when Ben Bradley MP made a similar proposal in 2020.)

What a difference a few years can make. Now it is being taken seriously. The BBC’s Woman’s Hour ran a long segment on the idea of a minister for men, featuring Fletcher, followed by an extended listener call-in show. The MP also appeared on Good Morning Britain. There have been some respectful responses in the press, largely from women

A minister for men is a good idea. There is sufficient evidence of a range of challenges that are specifically facing boys and men to justify having a minister dedicated to them. Top of the list are education and mental health. Boys and men, especially those from working-class areas, are lagging badly in schools and at college. According to one government social mobility study published in 2016, only 40 per cent of boys eligible for free school meals reach the expected standard in English at Key Stage 4, the age when students take GCSEs, compared with 66 per cent of girls on free school meals. Many more young women than men head off to university straight from school, where they account for almost three in five students.

White boys from poor families are the least likely to go to university and becoming less so. According to the latest numbers available, only 13.4 per cent of white boys on free school meals went to college in the 2020-21 academic year, down from 13.6 per cent the previous year, and compared with the 23.6 per cent of white girls on free school meals who entered higher education.

Suicide rates, especially among young men, are high. Men account for three out of four deaths from suicides. In 2021, a man took his life every two hours. Suicide is now the biggest cause of death among British men under the age of 50.

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Of course, there are many issues for women and girls that also demand specific attention That’s why the role of minister for women was created in 1997, and was expanded to minister for women and equalities by David Cameron when he added responsibility for the Government Equalities Office to the portfolio. Kemi Badenoch currently holds the role.

[See also: Will Sadiq Khan lose the London mayoral election?]

In theory, the Government Equalities Office could take on the gender gaps that disadvantage boys and men, as well as the other way around. In practice, it does not, and seems unlikely to. There’s a parallel situation in the US, where the White House Gender Policy Council, a replacement for the Council on Women and Girls, addresses gender inequality in one direction only. So it makes sense to add a complementary ministerial position for boys and men; it would also make sense for that new minister to have a role in the Equalities Office. 

Will it happen? So far there has been silence from No 10, and from the Labour leadership. But there are some encouraging signs. At the very least it looks like parliament may give it a fair hearing. There is an active all-party parliamentary group on Issues Affecting Men and Boys, formed in March 2021, which has been producing solid research on education and health.

Perhaps the most visible sign of political progress is the parliamentary treatment of International Men’s Day (19 November). In 2015, when the UK parliament held the first debate to mark the day, there was widespread derision in the media, even in conservative-leaning outlets. The Labour MP Jess Phillips likened a day for men to a “white history month”, and she’s not the only one who made that comparison.

But in 2022 the parliamentary debate was substantive, respectful and balanced. The contribution from Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi, the shadow women and equalities minister, was especially impressive. She discussed troubling trends in both mental and physical health for boys and men, but then broadened her scope to take in the issue of education too. She cited a litany of statistics showing boys, especially from white-working class families, being failed by the education system. When another parliamentarian raised the issue of violence against women, Qureshi gave a brilliant answer. 

“At every level, we should all be tackling violence against men and women,” Qureshi said. “We must not consider gender equality to be a zero-sum game or a trade-off. Let me be clear: we can address women’s safety as well as serious issues and concerns for men. Indeed, we must do both.”

Indeed we must. We can hold two ideas in our head at the same time. We can do two things at once. Appointing a minister for men, while continuing to support the work of the minister for women and equalities, would send a powerful message to our struggling boys and men that we see them, that we care about them, and that we are working to make a better future for them as well as their sisters.

That message would be a powerful counter to online misogynists such as Andrew Tate who claim that mainstream institutions and governments don’t care about male problems. He is wrong. But so are the politicians who are failing to respond to the real problems among many boys and men. We must do better.

[See also: Scottish independence is not going away]

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