[James Gray in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: Correspondence with the Minister for Women and Equalities on LGBT conversion therapy, reported to the House on 27 July and 22 September 2020.]
We come now to the second of these hybrid debates in Westminster Hall, which are actually being held in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House. From my point of view, they are an extremely good innovation.
Before we start our debate on LGBT conversion therapy, perhaps I can remind Members of one or two matters. Social distancing must be maintained in this room, as it has been already. Those who are here are expected to be here for the beginning and the end of the debate, including those who are with us virtually; please stay until the end. And those who are here physically should use a wet wipe to clear up their space after they have spoken.
With that, I call Elliot Colburn, who is appearing virtually, to propose the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300976 relating to LGBT conversion therapy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. The petition is entitled, “Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK”. The prayer of the petition states that
“I would like the Government to:
• make running conversion therapy in the UK a criminal offence
• forcing people to attend said conversion therapies a criminal offence
• sending people abroad in order to try to convert them a criminal offence
• protect individuals from conversion therapy
Despite all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK, including the NHS, condemning LGBT conversion therapy, it is still legal and LGBT individuals in the UK are still exposed to this psychological and emotional abuse to this day. The very thought of this sickens me, and I would like to see it stopped one day.”
When the petition closed, it had 256,392 signatures, including 487 from my own constituency of Carshalton and Wallington.
I can think of few moments so humbling as opening this important debate today. II is a testament to the importance of this issue that the debate was heavily over-subscribed, and I know that many colleagues who wanted to get in could not do so. Briefly, I want to thank and acknowledge from my side of the House the campaigning done by my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Watford (Dean Russell), for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), for High Peak (Robert Largan), for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), and others.
In preparation for today’s debate and throughout my campaigning on this issue since being elected as an MP, it has been my absolute honour to speak to campaign and charitable organisations, to experts from the fields of health, religion, education, law and beyond, and to legislators from across the world, including Malta, Canada, Australia, Spain and New Zealand, where these practices have either already been banned or are in the process of being banned. Most importantly, I am grateful to the survivors for speaking out and sharing their stories. Their bravery in shining a light on these abhorrent practices will help to save countless lives in the future if we can secure this ban.
First, we must ask ourselves what conversion therapy is and why it needs to be banned. According to a May 2020 report by the UN Office for Human Rights, and indeed according to a definition from the Government Equalities Office, so-called conversion therapy is an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. These so-called therapies can manifest in many forms, from pseudo-psychological treatments and aversion therapies to practices that are religiously based, such as purification or fasting. At the most extreme, there has been evidence that this practice can also involve physical and sexual violence, including so-called corrective rape.
I will share just some of the stories of the survivors who have bravely shared their stories with me and the world, in an attempt to help campaign for the end of this practice in the UK. The first is Joe’s story. As a boy, Joe grappled with his hidden gay identity before leaving for his year in a yeshiva in Israel—a highly significant moment for many young Jews. He sought out conversion therapy and began weekly phone calls with a so-called therapist. After a year this clearly had not worked and instead he sought in-person therapies, where a group leader would force them to process moments of homosexual attraction, only for them to be scrutinised, judged and shamed, leaving Joe with an immense sense of depression. Thankfully, after hearing other gay Orthodox Jews speak out about their own experience, he stopped his conversion therapy, but the experience has left a scar to this day.
Next is Josh’s story. In 2017, Josh went undercover for the Liverpool Echo to a Liverpool church that offered a cure for homosexuality through a three-day starvation programme. The assistant pastor told Josh to starve himself and not drink any water before taking part in weekly prayer sessions, referring to being gay as “the deceit of Satan”. In the prayer groups the assistant pastor would shout phrases such as “kill it with fire” and “die in the fire,” while members of the congregation were seen crying, shaking, sweating and appearing to speak in tongues. It is shocking that the assistant pastor was an NHS doctor at that time, and I can find no evidence that he is no longer an NHS doctor.
Finally, I want to talk about Carolyn. At 17, Carolyn confided in her local vicar her feelings of self-hatred and depression, and her suicidal thoughts, because she did not feel like a boy. Her vicar took her to a doctor and a psychiatric hospital, where Carolyn was strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room. As images of women’s clothing were projected on to the wall in front of her, doctors would deliver painful electric shocks, hoping to associate the feelings of being a woman with memories of intense pain. As with Joe and Josh, that experience remains with Carolyn to this day.
Joe, Josh and Carolyn are just three survivors I have had the privilege of speaking to, and they experienced a wide range of so-called conversion therapies. I commend them for their bravery in speaking out, sharing their stories and campaigning to end these practices in the UK. Sadly, they are just three of many. In 2018, the Government’s first ever national survey of over 108,000 LGBT people in Britain found that 7% of respondents had either undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Some 13% of trans respondents had undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Of those who had been offered it, 51% said that it was conducted by faith groups and a further 19% said that it was done by healthcare providers or medical professionals. As the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition has outlined, though, given the clandestine and deceptive way these so-called conversion therapies are offered—giving them different names or dressing them up as alternative treatments—the real number is likely to be a lot higher. Tragically, we will never hear the testimonies of many who, grappling with their own identity while being told how wrong they were through these therapies, were left feeling that they had no other option than to take their own life.
It is important to point out that we are not talking about harmful practices that occurred some time ago; this is happening today, here in the UK, right now. A UN report into conversion therapy last year summed it up perfectly when it concluded that any and all forms of conversion therapy are
“inherently degrading and discriminatory. They are rooted in the belief that LGBT persons are somehow inferior, and that they must at any cost modify their orientation or identity to remedy that supposed inferiority.”
So strong was the report that it called for nothing less than
“a global ban on conversion therapy.”
Here in the UK, the practice has received almost universal condemnation. In 2017, a memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK was signed by NHS England and 12 other psychotherapy and health bodies, charities and organisations. I thank Igi Moon for their time speaking to me about the impact this has had. In another powerful intervention, in 2017 the Church of England also passed a motion condemning these practices and calling on the Government to ban them—a call that has now been echoed by over 370 global religious leaders and organisations. I pay particular tribute to Jayne Ozanne and her foundation for her leadership, her courage and her tireless efforts in campaigning on this issue.
Finally, in the national LGBT action plan of 2018, the UK Government committed to bring forward proposals to ban conversion therapy—a call that has been echoed many times in the House since that commitment was made. We have the agreement, the commitment and the coalition of voices from all parts of society urging a ban to be implemented. What we need now is the action. With every day that passes, another person is at risk of being subjected to this degrading treatment. We risk losing even more lives of people who feel there is no other way out.
I have two final points to make today. On what the ban must include, the Government do not need to start from scratch. Highly praised examples already exist in places such as Madrid, Malta and Victoria in Australia. Learning from those examples, and in line with the UN report’s recommendations, a ban must cover both the public and the private spheres and all forms of intervention, no matter what they might be, whether that be healthcare, religious, cultural or traditional, and so on. It must cover children and adults, those who have been coerced and indeed those who consented to such conversion practices. There must be an up-to-date definition of advertising to ensure that it encompasses public, private, community spaces and online advertising. The ban must include the sending, or the threatening to send someone, overseas to undergo so-called conversion therapies. As well as investigative frameworks, a punishment framework for non-compliance must be established, and mechanisms created for support and redress to victims. Finally, it must truly protect all LGBT+ people.
The ban cannot be just on gay conversion therapy. It must cover degrading and inhumane interventions aimed at changing anyone’s sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. We must remember that this is about the practice itself and about the fact that absolutely no one should be subject to such abhorrent interventions. To avoid confusion and to protect those delivering real and actual support to LGBT+ people, laws passed elsewhere in the world have introduced specific mention of what should not be considered as part of a ban, including safe and supportive therapies.
My final point is about the need for a timeline. We have the commitment, the evidence and the international working examples, so what we need now is a Bill. I appreciate that the Government have been gathering evidence, looking to understand this better and exploring options, but I hope that the Minister will deliver some good news and tell us when a Bill will be published, so that we may debate it on the Floor of the House.
To conclude, the evidence is clear. So-called conversion therapy does not work. There is no scientific basis for it whatever. Parts of every section of UK society have come together, united in their condemnation and calling for it to be banned. Since 2021 looks like a year of restarting, reopening and regrowing, let us add to that positivity by getting a conversion therapy ban on to the statute book this year. As a gay man and on behalf of LGBT+ people in the UK and around the world, I will end by saying, we are here—our existence is real, our lives are valid, and we cannot and do not need to be cured.
It may help the House to know that some 50 people originally put in to speak in this debate, of whom Mr Speaker has selected 20. If we are to achieve that number, as a courtesy to each other, I suggest a maximum speaking time of three minutes—two minutes would be even better.
“Converting gays”—just wonder for a moment about how primitive that concept is. It is a cruel hangover from a darker time—a time when to be gay, lesbian or trans was to be flawed or inadequate.
I do not know why I am gay. I do not know why I have green eyes or curly hair, but I do know that no one made me gay; I was born gay. When I was younger, to borrow from Alfred Kinsey, I would have taken a magic pill to make myself straight, but I now know that that was not because I hated being gay, but because I did not want to be the victim of prejudice. Who does? We know that there is no magic pill, nor do we need one. We need love and acceptance.
LGBT conversion is the very antithesis of that. It promises a cure where none is available and none is needed. We look back in horror at the tortures endured by our LGBT brothers and sisters, even in recent history—electro-shock therapy, lobotomy and the chemical castration endured by Alan Turing at the hands of a vicious and ungrateful political class and legal system.
Changing people’s sexual orientation is, as we know, scientifically impossible, but that does not stop bigots from trying. “Pray away the gay,” cry some religious groups, who somehow see no contradiction with the command that thou shalt love thy neighbour. People who hold out the promise of conversion are cruelly targeting the most vulnerable. It is abuse.
Some hon. Members know I was a journalist before entering politics, and I once made a film for the BBC in which I interviewed a conversion therapist. It was one of the most chilling encounters of my career. The man in question, who was utterly untrained, advertised himself as offering the last chance at a normal life. He preyed on the young and the vulnerable: teenage boys and men in their early 20s who were terrified of who they were. He talked of weak fathers and overbearing mothers. I sat in on one session, and it was gibberish.
I asked the man what his motivation was, and he told me that his gay son committed suicide using the car exhaust pipe in their garage. The boy had written two suicide letters: one for his father, and one for his lover. The man showed me the letter that had been written to him. The handwriting tailed off as the boy lost consciousness. He was pleading with his father to understand his anguish. He could not reconcile his certainty that he had been born gay with the church’s teachings, and he implored his dad to befriend his boyfriend and learn acceptance. “So what did you do?” I said to the father. He said he redoubled his efforts to convert and confuse the young. We must protect society from men like him. I welcome the petition, and the Government must now act.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on leading the debate so well, and I congratulate his Committee on securing it. I have two key points for the Government. The first is that we must legislate. Deliver the promise to protect in law. Use the work done in the Government Equalities Office before 2019. Use the examples elsewhere, particularly in Spain and the Australian state of Victoria, which have already legislated. Our common law system enables the drafting challenge of defining conversion therapy to be met. There is no need to overcomplicate this issue. The police, prosecutors and jurors will know conversion therapy when they see it. Most critically, the victims will know it too, and they will have been equipped with a defence mechanism.
Such a law is an important step as a declaratory statement, as it is as a legal tool. If someone is LGBT, the law says that the state supports them. It supports how they want to live their life. When victims find themselves under pressure that is improperly applied to convert them to something they are not, they will know that it is against the law and that they can call it out. They can say to the person or people who are the source of this—[Interruption.]
The law gives the victims the opportunity to go to the police and, therefore, to have a weapon in their hand against the source of a conversion therapy. The state is on the side of victims’ freedom—the freedom that that individual is trying to take away from them.
The second point I want to make is that such protection must include trans people. They are by far and away the most vulnerable group among the LGBT community. Identity around gender dysphoria is surely a much more challenging thing to meet than a minority sexuality, but all must be protected. The law must include trans people, and not only because they are the group who need it the most. In 2018, it appeared that trans people were on a trajectory to achieve their rights and protections to live their lives as they wished, supported by the Government’s comprehensive LGBT action plan, but all that now seems to have changed. Trans people are a community under siege. Organisations whose principle raison d’être is to attack and challenge the very legitimacy of trans people have come into being, and they appear to trans people to be firmly in the ascendant.
The lived experience of trans people reflects the awful paucity of services for them in the United Kingdom, as graphically illustrated by VICE News in January and November. They also see 250 articles a year attacking them in our newspaper of record, The Times. They see that groups such as the Conservative Women’s Pledge and LGB Alliance, whose purpose seems to be to protect cisgender women from trans women, have the ear of Ministers. They see reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 abandoned, and the principle of gender-neutral legislation was reversed only last week.
Gender is much more complicated than sexuality, and the drafting of the ban on conversion therapy will need to protect those giving informed, regulated and properly peer-reviewed advice to assist those on the path to reconciling their gender dysphoria. If the legislation does not include the protection of trans people, however, it will send to them the unmistakeable message that their Government do not want to protect them, do not value them and, at some level, do not really accept that trans is really a thing. That awful message would inadvertently make the Government themselves party to the practice of conversion therapy.
I was proud to be a Minister in the last Labour Government, which did so much to ensure that LGBT+ people were finally afforded equal rights in law. There is a difference, however, between ending bigotry and prejudice in law, and making the right to equal treatment and respect a reality for every LGBT+ person in our country. The petition aims to move us further towards that point.
That would seem like an obvious, non-contentious step when considering the mistaken beliefs that underly the existence of the degrading and dehumanising practice of conversion therapy: that sexual orientation can be changed; that LGBT+ people are a threat to society, evil or disordered; that LGBT+ people are ill, sick or can be cured; and that LGBT+ people can be persuaded or forced to become heterosexual by undergoing treatment or counselling. If that approach sounds almost medieval, that is because it is, yet every day, people in our country have their lives and mental wellbeing put at serious risk by being subjected to attempts, by people who have power over them, to change their sexual orientation.
The extent of the prevalence of conversion therapy in the UK is shocking, as we heard in the excellent opening contribution by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). There is very strong evidence of the harm that conversion therapy inflicts: more than half of those who have gone through it report mental health issues, including breakdown, eating disorders, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. Evidence also shows that it is being inflicted mainly, but not only, on vulnerable LGBT+ teenagers. That is horrific, but it is not surprising. Being told by faith leaders or your family that you are sinful, evil, and disordered for being yourself creates self-loathing and trauma that only the strongest can survive. Being told to pray harder to change and to question your innermost feelings and thoughts, and being taught to hate yourself—none of that should be legal.
Conversion therapy certainly causes untold damage and trauma for those who encounter it. Many survivors need specialist help because of the damage that that unethical and degrading process has caused. The Government must end the delay and bring the ban forward now. I welcome the petition, and I look forward to what I hope will be the Minister’s positive response and a timetable for legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his thoughtful opening of the debate and his moving acknowledgment of survivors. I think it very important that we see the debate as an opportunity for a call for action from the Government.
The debate is obviously of moment, particularly for the quarter of a million people who signed the petition. It is an acknowledgment, as the national LGBT survey demonstrated, that this is going on in our country: 2% in the LGBT+ community had received such therapy and 5% had been offered it. We must treat the term “therapy” with the contempt it deserves, because we must be clear that this is not therapy; it is a pseudo-psychiatric 21st-century snake oil. There is nothing more pernicious than to deem someone sick and then to try to coerce them into treatment for something that is right at the core of who they are and who they love. We cannot tolerate it continuing.
There was a similar petition in the Scottish Parliament entitled “End Conversion Therapy”, which was dealt with last year by its Public Petitions Committee. Stonewall Scotland, Equality Network, Scottish Trans Alliance and LGBT Youth Scotland all supported the principles of that petition. In response, the Scottish Government—positively, from my perspective, because this is not always how they respond—said they wanted to work with the UK Government to bring about a ban. I want to encourage that working together on this issue so that we can deliver a ban that works across the United Kingdom and impacts on those in my own constituency in Scotland who might be put in this position. I also want to see the Scottish Government and the UK Government working on the GRA issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) mentioned in relation to trans issues, we need that to be dealt with—on a UK-wide basis, in my view.
While I am sure that the Government’s intentions are positive and the Prime Minister’s statement will be honoured, the Government have given the impression of being tardy, and now is the time to end that impression. As the chief executive of Stonewall, Nancy Kelley, said:
“The UK government must stop dragging its feet and make good on its promise to bring in a full legal ban, and put a stop to conversion therapy in the UK for good.”
I hope that the Minister, in her summing up, will give us clarity that that will happen and set out the timescale.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my colleague the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his wonderful introduction to the debate. I have been contacted by many of my constituents about the petition, each of them as shocked as I am that the Government have still not acted to outlaw the practice of so-called conversion therapy inflicted on LGBT people.
The petitioners’ aims are not difficult to enact, nor are they asking too much. Their requests are clear and simple: they simply want LGBT people to live in dignity without having their sexuality or gender identity questioned. Every human being should have the right to express their own identity without the judgment of others. It is clear from the evidence surrounding this practice, compiled by the charity Stonewall, that that is not the case for everyone who identifies as LGBT in the UK. According to Stonewall’s figures, one in 20 LGBT people living in the UK has at some time been subject to or recommended for therapies that question their very identity. That number rises to almost one in 10 among young LGBT adults aged between 18 and 24 and almost one in five for trans people.
In a modern, supposedly decent society, that should not even be an option, and it certainly should not be legal. Many of the people subjected to such practices have them forced upon them by their families. In some cases, LGBT people are sent abroad for treatment by relatives who believe it will somehow cure them, when there is nothing—absolutely nothing—to be cured. The only result is severe distress and untold psychological trauma.
Every recognised medical and professional body in the UK has described the practice as dangerous. Many other public bodies have signed a common pledge against the practice. However, substantial evidence still shows that too many people continue to believe, despite the evidence, that sexuality and gender identity can be cured in some way. Enacting legislation to end these so-called therapies and ensure that no practitioner in the UK can consider them an option to which they can refer a patient would contribute greatly to preventing people from persisting in that belief.
I appreciate that the Government have previously made supportive statements on the issue. The Prime Minister himself described it as “abhorrent”, and as something that
“has no place in a civilised society”.
He made that statement last summer, but nine months on there has been no movement. There is clearly cross-party consensus in favour of legislating to outlaw this practice. Every day that the Government delay legislation, another LGBT person could be subject to this continued abuse. We have the power to act and the support to pass the legislation. All we need is the legislation to put our words into action. We can prevent further damage to the lives of LGBT people in this country, but only if we act quickly.
When I was elected, I said that I would be a voice for those whom others seek to silence, and I stand here today to do exactly that. The need for this ban is quite simple: victims of conversion therapy currently have no legal recourse to justice and, without a legislative ban, lives are being destroyed.
Last year, I submitted to the Minister a proposed legislative framework, backed by more than 15 major LGBTQ advocacy groups and 10 representatives of all major faith groups in the UK. It sets out a framework that would enable prosecutions to stop this heinous practice and enable statutory bodies to give victims support and protection. It would enable us to identify serial perpetrators, stop the advertising of this fraudulent quackery, protect potential victims and prevent them from being taken abroad.
It is only through legislation that we will achieve the protection that those communities need and deserve. I thank the Prime Minister, the Women and Equalities Minister and the Health Secretary for their support for a ban. I want to focus today on the arguments made by those opposing the legislation. First, on the idea that people can consent to this so-called therapy, Parliament and our courts have long recognised that one cannot consent to bodily harm and torture, and conversion therapy is that. Victims of conversion therapy bear mental and physical scars for life, and for that reason consent cannot be freely given.
Secondly, it is said that a ban somehow infringes on the practice of religion. It does not. Religious liberty is fundamental, but so too is people’s liberty to live their lives free from identity-based violence and abuse. We must protect the conversations between religious leaders and members of their flock. This is not a fight between faith and unbelief; rather, it is about protecting the freedoms of the LGBTQ community and stopping those who abuse their authority. We must protect people from those who carry out practices that would never be accepted by any qualified mental health professional. For that reason, representatives of every major faith group, including the Church of England, have backed a ban. The legislation I propose does not prevent individuals from seeking guidance from faith leaders.
Thirdly, it is argued that a ban will not end the practice, and that the worst forms of conversion therapy are already illegal. A practice such as this can never truly be eradicated, but legislation gives victims legal recourse. We need specific legislation, like we have for female genital mutilation, rather than relying on existing general bodily harm laws.
Fourthly, it is argued that conversion therapy is not happening in our country, or that it is happening to very few people and is not that severe. How many lives have to be lost for it to be deemed to be worthy of tackling? In our country, people are being forced to eat purifying substances. They are beaten and whipped, forced to undergo exorcisms and corrective rape, forced into marriages and made to undergo genital mutilation. People in my party have been threatened with, and forced to go through, conversion therapy. Two thousand people in the country have had the courage to tell the Government that they have been subjected to it, but how many more suffer in silence?
Finally, some opponents claim that transgender individuals should be removed from the legislation. It is quite straightforward to introduce a safeguard for professionally accredited individuals who can assist persons considering undergoing a gender transition. Conversion therapy falls disproportionately on this community, and any ban that excludes trans people would make legislation self-defeating.
On my election, I came to Parliament with one legislative change I wanted to deliver, which was a ban on conversion therapy. I particularly pay tribute to the campaigning that took place before I came to this place by my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), and all those LGBT groups and survivors who have worked so hard. To my fellow MPs I say that, as legislators, we have a duty to protect the vulnerable and deliver a ban. To the survivors of conversion therapy and all those hurting—to all those made to feel ashamed—I say today that love is not conditional. You do not need to change. Love is not a pathology, and it damn well does not need treating.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
Conversion therapy, in many ways, is a manipulation. It is a manipulation of emotions; it is a manipulation of the coming-out process; and it is a manipulation of people finding themselves and understanding themselves over many years. I came out when I was 22, nine years after I probably realised that I was slightly different from the rest of the lads at school. People go through emotional turmoil when they are going through that process. Even when I started school—I am only 31—it still was not legal to adopt, and marriage was a distant, far-away thought. Until recently, the NHS still did not want my blood.
We go through this process, and it is incredibly difficult for people to process it, because we put ourselves under so much strain and pressure. For me and so many other people, the emotions that we feel—the emotions that are being manipulated by this conversion therapy—are emotions of shame, of not belonging, and of being selfish. These are the things we put ourselves through. We talk ourselves down and we end up convincing ourselves that we are doing wrong—that we are deliberately trying to behave differently from other people. The reason it took me so long to come out of the closet is that I did not want to tell my mum that she would not be a granny, because I am an only child. We put ourselves through this for years and years. I was very lucky, because I plodded on and managed to get through that very difficult period in my life, but so many other people can have those emotions manipulated. By allowing these conversion therapies to continue, we are opening the door for this sort of practice to continue.
I talk about gay and lesbian people, because I am gay, but I also fully support many of the contributions today that have said that this conversion therapy also needs to end for trans people; I am 100% behind that battle too. I want to send a message to the Government that it has been three years since this promise to ban conversion therapy. We have got to get on with it and make sure that we deliver on it, because every day is a delay; another day in which somebody else has their emotions manipulated; another day in which someone else’s life could be ruined forever by going through these highly traumatic experiences.
That could be any one of a number of us. Looking through these stories, we can see similarities in what we read. We can point them out and think, “This was me at one point during my life” or, “This was a friend of mine at some point during their life.” I look at the apology that was given last year by the University of Birmingham, where electric shock treatment was given to gay people in the 1970s, and think, “That could have been me.”
We owe it to all those people to make sure that we ban conversion therapy as soon as possible, because if we allow that door to be open for much longer, I fear the consequences for so many young people—and not necessarily just young people; it could be middle-aged people; people who are later on in their life who find themselves hiding things and make daily lies a normal thing, as I did, to try to cover their tracks. This sort of stuff puts people through enormous emotional turmoil, which is why it is so important that we ban conversion therapy as soon as possible.
It is easily done, Mr Gray; please do not worry.
I am honoured to be able to take part in this incredibly important and powerful debate, which clearly has cross-party support. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for the way he introduced the debate and, in particular, for centring the survivors of conversion therapy in his remarks. It is incredibly important in a debate like this to remember those whose voices may not yet be heard in this place, but for whom we need to speak.
I also pay tribute to the journalist Patrick Strudwick and to Vicky Beeching, who have done amazing work uncovering and talking about their own personal experiences, bringing to the fore an understanding of how toxic this treatment is. To everyone who has spoken so far and given their personal experience: that is what Parliament at its best does.
Like previous speakers, I want to take on some of the arguments about why conversion therapy should be made illegal. There has been a lot of focus on whether it works, as if there are any conditions in which such a therapy would be acceptable if it could be shown to be ethical. Many of the major bodies for psychotherapy in the UK have outlawed the practice and said that there is no semblance of an evidence base behind it. However, I believe that we have to make it illegal, to send the clear message that it is not about whether homosexuality is a pathology, because it is not. It is not about whether being trans is a pathology, because it is not. It is a part of who someone is. We in this place need to send the clear message that we will not see the behaviour in question indulged. We will not see the question as one of medical ethics, but as about a progressive, inclusive society that bans practices that demean, belittle and discriminate against people.
Where young people who are gay, lesbian, transgender or bi grow up in communities where they are not supported, they are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, six times more likely to report depression and three times more likely to use illegal drugs. There are consequences of living in a society where what I am talking about is even a debate, in many different communities, but we know it is a live debate. Right now there are websites where people can go to book conversion therapy, and it is talked about as a matter of free speech. Let us put the argument to bed today. It is not a matter of free speech to cause someone harm in the way that conversion therapy does.
It is also claimed that the matter is about a conflict with spirituality. There is no conflict with spirituality. I will not give a platform to the organisations that can be found, but I want to give a platform to the House of Rainbow and the Reverend Jide Macaulay, who is a proud member of the local community in Walthamstow and our local faith communities too. He teaches every single day that God loves you, not that God cares about who you love. Those are the organisations that we should be supporting. But we also need to send a clear message that it is not just about the medical side; it is simply about living in a better society. We want to outlaw the practice, to protect people from the harm and damage that it does.
We know that it is possible to do that. Frankly, when countries such as China, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Malta and even Samoa have a ban, we could have one in the UK, and quickly. As the debate shows, there is cross-party consensus for it, so I urge the Minister to use the energy from the debate and the support across civil society for action and not to delay further. Let us make Britain proud to be a world leader, for once, on some of those issues, rather than following the pack. Let us tell everyone in the community that we love them not for who they love but for who they are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I can think of no better way to open my speech than where the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) finished, with a passage from Vicky Beeching, who gave me a lot of support before I came out publicly. In her book “Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame”, she writes: “There was only one thing that had caused vast emotional shame in my life for years. I had known I was gay since I was 12 or 13. Keeping that hidden for two decades had been wrecking my heart and mind. Now, as I neared the age of 30, it seemed to be wrecking my body too. All these years I’d prayed and fasted, submitted myself to an exorcism, confessed to a Catholic priest, believed that conversion therapy could change a person’s orientation, read the Bible until my eyes were sore and never acted on my attractions even once. I’d done anything and everything to try and become straight or to shut down any desires for a life partner. My immune system, my adrenals and my sympathetic nervous system were all stretched to breaking point from years of living in fight or flight mode.”
If Members need any other first-hand accounts of how devastating conversion therapy is, a good friend of mine who wanted to remain anonymous shared this with me: “I had not known until today what they had endured. It’s only now, at almost 35 years old, that I even have some small level of strength to begin to deal with it. It cost me most of my teenage years and 20s. I still struggle with acceptance of my sexuality to this day, which has affected my ability to have any open and meaningful relationships. I went through years of really dark mental health battles because of this. The first time I tried to kill myself by suicide was at 12 years old, because I wasn’t who I was meant to be, and this was unfortunately the beginning of what was to become a very dark decade of self-hatred brought on because of these practices. It’s torture, and it has had lifelong debilitating effects that affect every part of my life. It has to stop.”
We should not have to choose between our religion and our sexuality, or between following the faith of our choice or the person we love. I might not be formally part of any faith, but I recognise what a huge part faith can play in many people’s lives and in our society. The national LGBT survey of 2018 showed that 51% of respondents who had undergone conversion therapy said that faith groups had conducted it, and 19% said it had been conducted by healthcare providers or medical professionals. As parliamentarians and legislators, we simply cannot allow such a practice to continue.
I was well into my 30s when I came out. Why I did not come out sooner will always be a mystery to me, but a big part of it was because I was from a single-parent family. I grew up in a loving family that I knew would accept me for whoever I was, but I did not grow up in a society that would accept me for whoever I was. I grew up in a society that said heteronormativity and having a parent of each gender was the ideal, and I could not face up to being a lesbian. Now, as the daughter of a single mother and as a proud out lesbian, I realise that they are my strengths, my superpowers, but that is not the case for so many in the LGBT community.
I know how hard it was to come out to a loving family and friendship group. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for people who are oppressed and subjected to conversion therapy, so we must draw a line in the sand. We must ask ourselves as parliamentarians, “What are we here for?” We are not here just to make grand speeches and gestures. We are here to bring about change, to change the law, and to outlaw that abhorrent practice.
It is a particular honour to follow that very moving speech by the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). Today I received an email from my constituent, Madeline Dhesi, to thank me for my card wishing her a happy 18th birthday, which she is celebrating today. She asked me to speak today in support of the campaign to ban conversion therapy, particularly as articulated by Stonewall Cymru to both her and me. I am honoured to speak in this debate on Madeline’s behalf and on behalf of many of my other constituents in Clwyd South who have written to me with views similar to those of Madeline.
The speakers who have come before me have articulated with passion, emotion and clarity the barbarity of conversion therapy, which is an alarmingly widespread practice that seeks to erase, repress, cure or change an individual’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. I hope very much that we can end soon the possibility that conversion therapy can currently legally take place in medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious and cultural communities in the UK.
I am glad that the Prime Minister has taken a clear position and has stated that conversion therapy has no place in a civilised society. Put simply, being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not an illness to be treated or cured. I am deeply concerned by the long-term impacts of this practice on victims, both mentally and physically. There are clear links between conversion therapy and an increased risk of suicide. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) said in his powerful opening speech, the issue has cross-party support, and the call to ban conversion therapy is backed by those in the health, counselling and psychotherapy industry.
Numerous countries have already banned conversion therapy and have taken action to tackle that abhorrent practice. The Government have been clear that such a practice has no place in our society, and that they will take action to prevent these activities from continuing. I know that Ministers are considering all legislative and non-legislative options in order to end conversion therapy practice for good, but I hope that the debate will accelerate the Government’s move to legislate for that ban, and therefore enable us to continue to progress towards a world where everyone can live without shame or fear of their sexuality and whom they love.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate, and all Members who have spoken so far for their powerful contributions.
The first thing to say is that conversion therapy is happening. It is happening in this country, and that should be a shame to us. We must act on it. It has no scientific basis. It is torture. It is a denial of basic human rights. It leads to violence. It can, in some cases, as we have heard, lead horrifically to corrective rape. It is abuse and, in tragic circumstances, it can lead to death. I thank the many constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth for writing to me and reaching out, and the friends who over many years have spoken to me of their own harrowing direct experiences.
I pay tribute to the group of organisations, the memorandum of understanding group and all the other individuals and organisations, some of whom I have met with this week, for all the work that they have been doing. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), who has been raising this issue for many years. In fact, he introduced Bills in this place to ban conversion therapy in 2013 and 2018. It is a shame that they were not taken up by the Government before now. This is not a party political issue; it is a human rights issues, as we have seen from the breadth and strength of feeling across the House.
I will speak predominantly about the religious context, because that is where I come from. I am gay. I am a Christian. God created me, God loves me, and I love God, but I have had some pretty unpleasant experiences in repressive environments when I was not able to be clear about my sexuality. I was very lucky that I saw a therapist once, and when I said, “I don’t want to have a sham heterosexual marriage,” she just said, “You don’t have to, Stephen. You don’t have to.” What if there were more therapists like that, instead of some of the horrors that we have been hearing about today?
Anybody who has watched such films as “Boy Erased”, or heard the powerful testimony from such groups as the Ozanne Foundation will know the reality that many people can go through in religious experiences. The 2018 faith and sexuality survey showed that, of the 468 people who had been through conversion therapy, 91 admitted attempting suicide and 193 had suicidal thoughts. Over 50% were advised to go through it by a religious leader.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) raised a point about consent. I do not think that someone can give consent to this, and I was alarmed to see, I am sorry to say, in the Secretary of State’s letter attached to the debate, what I fear could be a get-out clause. It talked about “seeking spiritual support”, but we need to be aware of what that can be used to cover up. I point to article 10 of the Evangelical Alliance’s biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality, which says:
“We encourage evangelical congregations to welcome…lesbians and gay men. However, they should do so in the expectation that they, like all of us who are living outside God’s purposes, will…see the need to be transformed”.
It also states that there is a need for
“pastoral care during this process and after a person renounces same-sex sexual relations.”
That could be used as a cover for some very dangerous practices.
I stand by all those who have stood by the trans and non-binary community. They must absolutely be included in this, and we must also protect the legitimate services that are there to support them through transition and the challenges that they face. We have to ban this, and I hope that the Minister will be able to explain what the definition is of “seeking spiritual support”, how trans and non-binary people will be protected, and when we will get on with this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I declare a brief interest, in that my husband works for a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender charity that works in schools. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) touched on the fact that society has come a long way. Some of that has been law led and some of it has been developments over time. Ultimately, the discussions around conversion therapy are really about acknowledging who we are—not who we want to be, not who society wants us to be, not who our parents or friends want us to be, but who we are as individuals.
To be different is still difficult. So many things have changed and society has improved, but we still live with tremendous pressures upon individuals, who still feel the need to deny who they are. One of the difficulties that I have had in listening to an amazing array of speeches from people from all parties—this is a cross-party issue and debate—is that we want to solve everything, and to say to every person in this country, “You can be who you want to be, and you can be proud and happy.”
We cannot do that as lawmakers because only so many things are under our control. However, one thing that we can do, and there is clear consensus to do it within this room and among all the people on all these wonderful screens in front of us, is to take a step in the right direction and end this “abhorrent” practice—not my words but the words of the Prime Minister—for which there is no medical justification. The hon. Member for Wallasey said it is medieval, and that term is absolutely right.
I stand here as someone who is openly gay and who came out at a comprehensive school in Doncaster. I am not religious, but I did not have the best experience with coming out, which I am sure many people can relate to. I want to say to all the boys and girls who know that they are a little bit different, whether they are gay or whether they think that something is just not quite right, that we have your backs. We will continue to push for this ban and we will continue to try to make your lives a little bit better.
In my last 30 seconds, I will just say one thing to the online LBGT community who have looked today and said, “Why should there be a debate? We should just crack on and end conversion therapy.” I understand their argument, but I question that arrogance, because there is always a need to win the argument, and there is always a need to keep advancing and making sure that the things that we do here and elsewhere are led by the best arguments, and that we continue to fight that fight.
In my constituency of Arfon, 243 people signed this important petition. I add my support and that of Plaid Cymru to the calls for a legislative ban on conversion therapy across the UK and on minors being taken out of the UK for conversion therapy abroad. This must include a ban on the advertising and promotion of such practices, and proper support for victims.
In 2018, the Conservative Government acknowledged the issue and committed to ending conversion therapy in their LGBT action plan. Nearly 1,000 days later, this practice is still legal. Cranogwen, who was an important 19th-century figure in the history of LGBTQ+ people in Wales and a literary figure of national importance, said:
“It is a pretence in everybody…to try to be what they are not; and it is a loss for anybody not to be what they are.”
Despite progress since then, her words still ring true. In fact, Stonewall Cymru found that a third of LGBTQ+ employees in Wales hid or disguised their identity at work.
Banning conversion therapy is an important step towards creating a truly equal society, as is the Plaid Cymru policy of ensuring that trans people have legal recognition of their gender through a streamlined and de-medicalised process based on self-declaration.
Lastly, the action plan says that ending conversion therapy will require a UK-wide approach. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government about this issue and have the Welsh Government requested legislative competence to introduce a comprehensive ban in Wales?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on leading this very important debate and on making such a compelling and moving opening speech.
Conversion therapy is a damaging, degrading and discriminatory practice that seeks to correct something that does not need fixing—somebody’s sexual orientation, or their gender identity and/or expression. It causes severe physical and psychological suffering; it violates the human rights of the LGBT community; and it is considered by some to be a form of torture, and for good reason.
If we want to eradicate this insidious form of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic abuse, we need a legislative ban to make conversion therapy illegal and we need one as soon as possible. It is vital that this Government lead the way for our LGBT+ community and make history with an effective legislative ban as quickly as possible.
The national LGBT survey found that 7% of people had been offered or undergone conversion therapy. I should echo comments made in support of trans people, because trans respondents to that survey suggested that they are almost twice as likely to have undergone or been offered such therapies.
It is important to echo the comment that this abhorrent practice is taking place across Britain right now. As it is, the law does not protect my constituents from conversion therapy, despite how harmful and damaging it is.
In the short time I have, I will finish by saying that the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition’s ask for support for victims and survivors—whether through charities, faith groups or mental health practitioners—to help them overcome the trauma that they have endured and rebuild their lives is very important. I ask that it be included in any future services that are offered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington made some very good points about what an effective ban should include, and I echo his statements on that. A ban should prevent people from being threatened or sent abroad, it should protect people regardless of age, and it should support victims and survivors regardless of whether they were coerced into or consented to the practice. It must ban the advertising and promotion of said practices, both offline and online. These are the right things to do, and the sooner the Government take action, the sooner the UK can join the growing number of global leaders in LGBT rights who have taken such steps.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I can be brief.
I called for this debate back in September and am glad to see it tonight. I am also glad to see so many passionate and thoughtful contributions from all points of the compass across the House. This is an issue that we need to act on, and I praise the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his excellent speech. I have to say that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) made a very strong contribution—it is good the see her back, and she has demonstrated why it is good to see her back. She has done a power of work on this issue, and it is great that there is such a cross-party consensus on it.
I will confess that I am a gay man, but I am happy to say that I have no direct experience of this issue. Frankly, the scale of the problem was news to me. According to the UK Government’s 2018 LGBT survey, 5% of respondents had been offered conversion therapy and 2% had undergone it in one shape or another. In the trans community, the figures were even higher: 9% had been offered it and 4% had undergone it. There is much to agree with in the discussion tonight, but it boils down to one phrase: let’s get on with it. I say that as a challenge to the Minister while offering my support for her efforts.
There is a cross-party need for legislation. There is work to be done, of course, but work is well advanced on the proposals for a legislative framework. The NGOs are behind it, the equalities community is behind it and the faith groups are behind it. There is cross-party support. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd and many people in Northern Ireland are supportive of this legislation, and we need to get it done. The only people who are speaking in defence of conversion therapy are quacks, bigots and bullies. They need to be called out for what they are, and their dreadful activities and consequences criminalised. If the UK Government are serious about bringing forward legislation, they will have my support, and I look forward to hearing some good news from the Minister tonight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and it is a pleasure to have heard such impassioned and important speeches. The stories that people have told have highlighted the damage that has been done and the lasting consequences for lives. That is well understood, so it must be time for action.
When I looked into the background to the debate, I was struck by the number of signatures on the petition that closed in September last year, compared with two previous petitions on the same subject in 2017 and 2018. Across the UK, the number of signatures increased over sevenfold from 2017 to last year’s quarter of a million signatures. In my constituency of East Renfrewshire, the 2017 petition attracted 33 signatures, but almost 400 of my constituents signed last year’s petition, and I have heard from a great many of them by email. That upswing in signatures tells us two things. The first is that there is a growing and welcome recognition of the need to tackle the wholly unacceptable practice of conversion therapy, which we know is not only hugely discriminatory, but so very damaging to those directly affected. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) spoke very powerfully about that.
The second reason for the upswing in support for the petition could very well be a growing frustration that action is taking so long, which results in people who are potentially directly affected feeling that we are not listening to them. A similar frustration was expressed by the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) when, over five years ago, he sponsored a debate on conversion therapies. In that debate, he wondered why we are struggling to get conversion therapy banned, when there is such significant agreement on the issue. Let us be clear: LGBT people do not need their identities debated nor do they need to be converted. That is fundamental. Nobody’s identity should be subject to debate or to change by other people.
When we get to the end of this debate and hear the Minister’s response, I hope that is what she will say. I hope she will accept these concerns about delay, and respond to them by telling us what is the hold-up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) has just said, let’s get on with it. Is there a reason for the delay? Are the Government experiencing some push-back on this? Who would be doing that? What has prevented action from being taken before now? It is difficult to comprehend. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) described in vivid detail why it matters and the horrific impact it has on many lives.
I accept that the UK Government have been clear that they are committed to banning conversion therapy. I welcome that, but it is nearly three years since they laid out the plan to ban it across the UK. Since then, it looks like inactivity and prevarication to me. It looks like they are kicking the can down the road. Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) so eloquently described, more and more human tragedies occur.
In July 2017, the UK Government launched what would become, with over 108,000 respondents, the largest national survey of LGBT people undertaken anywhere in the world. As the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) has told us, almost a thousand days after publishing the results and an accompanying action plan informed by its findings, it seems that the Government are still at the research stage. What exactly are they researching?
In July last year, the Prime Minister said his Government would do a study on where conversion therapy was happening and its prevalence, and then bring forward plans to ban it, but that information is already there. It is contained within the survey that the Government already did, with over 7,000 people among the respondents who had either undergone conversion therapy or been offered it. That surely provides a clear picture of the geographic spread and the demography of conversion therapies across the UK. This determination to do more research, three years on, does not look like a process of implementing change; it looks more like an attempt to stave off change, and that is not okay.
The UK Government have also said they will take a UK-wide approach to this. The Scottish Government have expressed their support for action by the UK Government. There is already cross-border co-operation on the issue. For instance, NHS England and NHS Scotland both signed up to the 2017 memorandum of understanding, along with other stakeholders, to record their commitment to ending conversion therapy in the UK. Commitments like these, from health groups, counselling groups, psychotherapy groups and many religious groups, are welcome, but we need to do our bit now. We need action.
If we look at the July 2018 action plan, the UK Government said that they would bring froward these proposals, but their correspondence in May 2020 with the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) rights, of which I am a member, raises some serious questions about what progress we are going to see.
There are examples of attempts to implement a holistic ban on conversion therapies, starting with Brazil, which acted on the issue over 20 years ago; that is something we could ponder. Action has also been taken by Canadian cities and by Spanish cities and provinces, including Madrid and Andalusia, which adopted a broad definition of conversion therapies as
“all medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious or any other interventions that seek to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person”.
Given these widespread examples, and the widespread understanding of good practice, it is concerning that in her response to the chair of the APPG, the Minister for Women and Equalities, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), mentioned Germany and Albania as countries that she is reaching out to in order to gain an understanding of the way forward. What is proposed in Germany looks like it could be a prohibition on conversion therapies only on minors and on adults whose participation was secured by coercion or deception. That would absolutely not
“end the vile practice of so-called conversion therapy”
that she says is her intention in her letter. There is a real danger that going down a road like that would legitimise conversion therapy, and we are absolutely not prepared to support that. To be clear, and to echo the very sensible words of the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), this is not therapy; it is very unfortunate that that is the phrase that people use to describe the practice.
I want to hear from the Minister a response that tells me whether the Government are actually thinking about introducing a more narrowly defined Bill. I certainly hope not, but if that is the intention, when did that change of policy take place and why? The Minister for Women and Equalities’ mention of Albania raises some serious questions about the Government’s commitment. In Albania, every therapist has to be a member of the Order of Psychologists, and it is that body, not the state legislature, that has banned conversion therapies. There seems to be little that we can learn from the Albanian approach that has not already been implemented in the 2017 memorandum of understanding, so why is it raised as an example?
When I look at all those things, I am concerned that the UK Government are potentially finding diversions along the way to avoid confronting the difficulties they now face due to changes on their Back Benches. I hope I am wrong about that. The LGBT community cannot be held hostage by right-wing politics or changes in political personnel. I say that, but I am mindful of the powerful speeches that we heard today from Members from across the House, including very powerful speeches by Conservative Members. I take some heart from those consistent and clear words.
In that context, and thinking about the people who are directly affected by this practice, I urge the Minister to do the right thing. We have a responsibility to take action to right wrongs. This practice needs to be made illegal. Nobody should be subjected to that kind of assault on their identity. It needs to stop, but it will not until we move this from being a debate to being a reality. It is time to make progress, and I really hope the Minister tells us that will happen.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this important debate.
So-called LGBT conversion therapies are disgusting, exploitative, damaging and a relic of bigotry. In 2021, we recognise better than ever what illness and disease look like. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans is not a sickness; it is a fundamental part of an individual’s very identity. So-called LGBT conversion therapies need to be banned.
I thank in particular the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) for their powerful contributions. We are lucky in this place to have such assiduous campaigners on LGBT issues on both sides of the House, and I am pleased that there appears to be cross-party consensus on this issue.
Pedlars of these supposed treatments not only perpetuate a fraud on the public but cause genuine harm, psychological distress and lasting emotional damage. The 2018 national faith and sexuality survey found that 58.8% of people who had undergone such therapies had suffered mental health issues. Significant numbers cited anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders. More than two thirds had suicidal thoughts, and more than a third had actually attempted suicide. That is why all major UK therapy professional bodies and the NHS oppose treatments that try to change a person’s sexual orientation or supress a person’s gender identity.
All our major faith groups support a ban, as was reiterated at the interfaith conference held remotely in London in December 2020. As a religious Jew and a bi woman, I have been heartened by contributions from hon. Members in the debate who hold their faith close to their heart but know that there should be no dichotomy to reconcile between religious freedom and protecting the safety, wellbeing and dignity of the LGBT community. That cannot be a justification for continued delay, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for making that point so clearly.
A number of countries have fully banned conversion therapies, including Malta. In other federalised countries, various states and provinces have legislated for bans. I commend Instagram and Facebook for banning the promotion of conversion therapies on their sites, and hope that other social media companies will follow suit.
In 2018, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and the Conservatives announced in their LGBT action plan that they would ban conversion therapies. That was apparently still their policy at the last election. However, last year the Prime Minister said:
“What we are going to do is a study right now on, you know, where is this actually happening, how prevalent is it, and we will then bring forward plans to ban it”.
I am sure that colleagues on all sides, not to mention the LGBT+ community, will say that we have waited long enough. Last month, Labour supported the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 that rightly permitted the Attorney General to take maternity leave. That showed that the Government can take legislation through quickly when they want to—it did not require lengthy studies to consider the prevalence of Attorney Generals becoming pregnant.
There are LGBT+ people experiencing harms from these practices every day and the longer we wait for action, the longer they are denied legal redress. The most recent annual update on the implementation of the Government’s LGBT action plan was published in July 2019. Given that it is now 2021 and that February was LGBT+ History Month, when can we expect publication of the 2020 annual update? Labour has consistently urged the UK Government to live up to their promise and implement the 2018 proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), the shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, has continuously pressed the UK Government to deliver on their LGBT action plan.
Putting laws on the statute book such as protection orders for people who are vulnerable to cultural or religious pressure to suppress, deny or forcibly change their sexuality or gender identity is not merely a matter of virtue signalling; it would make concrete legal defences for people who need them and would make it simpler for statutory support services to work together to help people in need. I commend Galop, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity that I met on Friday ahead of the debate to hear not only the harrowing evidence it has collected about such abhorrent practices but how protection measures, including multi-agency risk assessment conferences, would have allowed individuals to have been safeguarded. The Labour party welcomes the action that the Government have taken in the past decade to legislate against female genital mutilation and to take further steps against honour-based violence and forced marriage where these protection order frameworks are in place. This is a further area where we must now see action.
This is an opportunity to show the world the face of global Britain, setting an example and doing what is right. Our values can be clearly put into law to be seen by other countries where these awful practices are more common. The time has come for the Government to act to ban these practices. If they do, the Opposition will support them.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I start by thanking those who signed the petition for raising the important issue of conversion therapy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate? I also thank all colleagues for speaking so passionately about this issue. I know how important it is to so many parliamentarians, and it is right that we should have this time to debate it. I will endeavour to answer the various questions put this evening.
I am pleased to be able to respond not just to acknowledge the importance of the topic but to say more about the Government’s approach to ending conversion therapy. We have a proud record of championing equal opportunity, and it is of great importance to me and the Government that everyone has the freedom to live their life as they see fit without fear or intimidation.
I assure hon. Members that we are committed to ending conversion therapy in the UK and we take the issue very seriously. The Prime Minister reiterated recently that we want to end conversion therapy and underlined that the practice has
“no place in a civilised society”.
It is indeed shocking to think that conversion therapy practices still take place in modern Britain, yet the 2017 national LGBT survey found that 5% of respondents—people in the UK—had been offered conversion therapy and 2% had undergone it. The national LGBT survey was launched in 2017 and received more than 108,000 responses, making it the largest survey of its kind in the UK. The aim was to gather more information about the life experiences of LGBT people in the UK and the biggest difficulties they face, including conversion therapy.
Acknowledging that conversion therapy is wrong and should end is only the first step in tackling such behaviours. The Government want to ensure that we correctly identify and capture these harmful practices. To do that, we have been working hard to establish a clear view of what constitutes conversion therapy. “Conversion therapy” is often used as an umbrella term for a number of acts. On the most egregious end of the spectrum are acts of violence. Around the world, sexual violence, including rape, is used in sinister attempts supposedly to cure someone of an innate aspect of their person. People may also be beaten, or forced to fast or to take snake-oil medicines, all because of who they are and who they love. We are fortunate that in this country we have cultivated a robust criminal law framework for dealing with those types of conversion therapy.
I would like to take this opportunity to be clear that if someone commits an existing offence in the course of conversion therapy, they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, no matter what their reason for doing so is. At the extreme end of such practices, someone could face charges of rape or grievous bodily harm. At the other end of the spectrum are acts that are primarily delivered through the spoken word or through the guise of healthcare support, such as advertising and selling products, or charging a fee to undergo conversion therapy practices.
The Government have been clear that we do not intend to stop those who wish to seek spiritual counselling as they explore their sexual orientation, but there will be cases when a line is crossed, where someone is actively seeking to change another’s sexual orientation—an innate aspect of their personal identity—via coercion under the guise of spiritual support. The Government will exercise great care when considering what does and does not constitute conversion therapy, and how to intervene. Just because greater care is required, however, it does not mean that we should shy from protecting our most vulnerable from those practices.
It is clear that conversion therapy is associated with significant mental health problems and isolation from a support network. That, in turn, can lead to homelessness and abuse. We are also alive to the need to ensure that the action we take does not push those practices underground, which could ultimately cause more harm to those who are victim to them. Our response to the issue will ensure that we end those practices, not hide them.
It may help to explain the work that the Government are doing to tackle conversion therapy. Officials are undertaking a review of the current legislative framework to see how conversion therapy can be stopped by making use of existing laws and offences. As I have mentioned previously, many acts of conversion therapy are already illegal, including sexual violence and kidnapping, as well as inciting violence. People who engage in those criminal activities can and will be prosecuted for doing so. Where dangerous practices are not already unlawful, we are examining the best ways to stop them without sending them underground.
The Government believe that a comprehensive approach is needed to end the suffering that those practices inflict. We need to explore all measures to combat those abhorrent practices, ensuring that survivors have access to the help and care that they need. In addition to the work on legislative and non-legislative measures to end conversion therapy, we have commissioned research into the scope of practices and the experiences of those subjected to conversion therapy, so that we can fully consider the needs of all those whom it affects. That is important in our approach to establishing the most effective way to stop it happening. Once the findings have been reviewed, we will continue to engage with key stakeholders to ensure that we progress an effective approach as quickly as we can.
I know that there may be questions around what a legal ban could include, and we have heard a number of views on that. We are actively considering that issue, on which we have been consulting widely to seek a broad range of views. We will continue that engagement to ensure that any action that we take is proportionate and effective. As I said earlier, I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not want to prevent LGBT people from seeking support on their own terms. People will always have the right to seek support from anyone and have conversations to rationalise and understand their own identity. We will not restrict the right to seek counsel when needed, but that does not mean that we will tolerate the use of conversion therapy described in the debate. We are working to understand the impacts on wider rights and freedoms of any Government action to tackle conversion therapy. The legal landscape is complex, and we want to ensure that we get our proposals absolutely right.
We will continue to engage with religious organisations and groups to understand how best support to LGBT people of faith. It is not the place of Government to dictate what is legitimate spiritual guidance, but it is the Government’s place to protect all their citizens, and we will not tolerate the use of harmful coercive practices under the guise of spiritual support. I am also pleased that all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK have agreed to tackle conversion therapy in healthcare settings. We will engage with experts to understand the best way of ending conversion therapy in these contexts in a targeted and proportionate way.
It is also encouraging to see jurisdictions around the world starting to take notice of the issue, and join us with their own commitments to ending conversion therapy. We are in conversations with international counterparts, both those who have introduced a variety of legislative and non-legislative actions and those who plan to. Although it is important to figure out what will work in a UK context, we may also look to our friends around the world to understand the effectiveness of different approaches. Hon. Members have mentioned, for example, that Germany has implemented a ban on conversion therapy for minors only, or when an adult has been coerced, and I understand that other countries such as Malta have also taken this route. However, we understand that different countries will take different approaches that best suit their needs. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
The safety of LGBT people in the UK in every aspect of their life is of the utmost importance to me, including in our work on conversion therapy. However, this is only part of the work we are doing to promote equality for everyone. The Government understand that colleagues across the House who have taken the time to attend the debate are passionate about the work that my officials and I are doing, so I wish to update them on all the broader LGBT work we are undertaking. In April 2019, we appointed Dr Michael Brady of King’s College Hospital to be the first national adviser on LGBT healthcare. This appointment shows the Government’s commitment to improving healthcare for all. I am very proud that in December 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that men who have sex with men in a long-term relationship will be able to donate blood in England, following changes to blood donation criteria that will be implemented in the summer.
I am also aware that waiting times for gender identity services are currently very long. We are taking meaningful actions to address the historical problems that have resulted in long waiting times, and I am pleased that we will establish at least three new gender identity clinics over 2021, with the first of these opened by the Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust in July. This is the first service of its kind established in the NHS in England for around 20 years.[Official Report, 15 March 2021, Vol. 691, c. 2MC.]
There is so much more that I would say about the work that the Government are doing, but I am afraid that we are out of time. Our goal now is to end these harmful practices, and we are going to engage widely and listen carefully so that we can develop measures that end them for good. I know that all Members are keen to know the timetable. We continue to work to ensure that the actions we take are proportionate and effective, and will set out our next steps soon. We have heard a range of views and voices, and it is imperative that we continue a constructive dialogue to ensure that we get our proposals right. To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), officials from the Government Equalities Office have been in liaison with Welsh Government officials, and the Welsh Government have not requested devolved competence.
Put simply, being LGBT is not an illness to be treated or cured. This is an issue that has cross-party support, and the call to end conversion therapy is backed by those in the health, counselling and psychotherapy industry. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that LGBT people can be truly safe and free to live their life as they wish, and this will be the next important step in ending conversion therapy for good.
I take this opportunity to thank all colleagues who have spoken in today’s debate in support of ending conversion therapy. It is wonderful to see so many people united against this abhorrent practice, and I look forward to many more debates on the issue. I am happy to continue individual engagement, as I have already done, where there are further questions.
In my short summing up, I sadly do not have time to go through everyone’s contributions, but I do want to send my heartfelt thanks to every Member who has spoken today for their very powerful interventions. This has proven to be a truly cross-party moment, and I hope that it has proven that there is true consensus across the House that we want a ban on conversion therapy, and we want that sooner rather than later. I thank the Minister for replying, and I hope we can send her away today with the message that we want to see some proposals made very quickly indeed. I believe I speak for everyone who has spoken today when I say that we would like to see those proposals in the form of a Bill.
I thank you, Mr Gray, for being in the Chair, and for allowing the petitioners’ concerns to be raised this afternoon. I also thank the petitioners for signing the petition, and I will end by reiterating what so many people have said throughout this afternoon’s debate: being LGBT is not an illness, and we do not need to be cured.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 300976 relating to LGBT conversion therapy.