MP seeking ‘consensus’ on CT ban calls sceptical colleagues ‘bigots’
Alicia Kearns is one of the foremost Conservative Party advocates for a conversion therapy ban. Back in December, she tabled a Private Member’s Bill to criminalise such practices on behalf of Labour colleague Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who she has been working closely with on the issue, which will be debated on 1st March. They say the Bill is an “attempt to seek consensus not division” with those who have serious concerns about the implications of a ban.
But in a ‘slip’ from this conciliatory tone, Ms Kearns has shown just how little she values concerns around religious and parental freedoms, once again going on record to call colleagues opposing a conversion therapy ban ‘bigots’.
Perhaps she didn’t get the memo from Lloyd that though “many of us have got over passionate in arguing about these issues in the past”, it’s now time to tone it down!
In a podcast for Politics Home, the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton suggested that although sceptics of a ban claim they are “standing up for religious freedoms”, in reality they are “wrapping up [their] own personal religious beliefs and imposing on other people”.
One detects a certain degree of irony here. Despite protestations to the contrary, surely one of the chief reasons that the Government have taken so long is that it is proving very difficult to legislate for a ban without an ‘imposition on personal belief’. Certainly, the Government keep talking about the need to avoid “unintended consequences”.
And the ban in the Australian State of Victoria, which Ms Kearns has previously praised as “a good” model to follow, illustrates the point. Guidance on the law from the Victorian Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission goes as far as to dictate “acceptable” forms of prayer for faith leaders. It suggests that prayers which speak of a person’s “need to repent” are “likely to cause harm” and so be criminal. If this isn’t an ‘imposition on personal belief’, what is?
And let’s be clear, these concerns around religious freedoms have not just been concocted out of thin air. In a powerful legal opinion back in April 2021, leading human rights lawyer Jason Coppel KC concluded that a Victoria-style ban applied in the UK would likely breach no fewer than four rights under the European Convention on Human Rights – including Article 9 on freedom of religion and belief.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that this time, when the Politics Home podcast panellists were directly asked about which other countries could be considered “as to how this might work in practice”, they decided to fudge the question. Not only was the ‘gold standard’ law in Victoria conspicuous by its absence, but also reference to any other country that has introduced a ban. Instead we were given the vague assurance that every country found passing a ban “not a big deal”.
It seems that time and time again activists calling for a ban miss the magnitude of what they are proposing because they are blind to the unintended consequences. And sometimes in their eagerness to show that a ban is not ‘too difficult’, politicians can too readily believe their own assurances even if they are not reflected in legislative reality.
Ms Kearns attempts to reassure concerned parents were quite frankly bizarre. As recent headlines have shown, many parents are worried that they could face jail time if they refuse to support their child gender transitioning. Instead of making clear that such a refusal would not be caught under the definition of conversion therapy, Ms Kearns told parents not to worry: we’ve made a “lot of compromises on our side” you won’t face jail, just a potential “fine of you know, millions upon millions”. That will be a great comfort to parents!
And in a moment of renewed composure, Ms Kearns even tried to reassure those who are concerned about religious freedom. The idea, she says, that a ban “is going to impinge on religious freedoms” is just an attempt by colleagues to ‘weaponise’ the Bill “for their own political gain”.
Once again it reveals just how little she understands. She says that “none of us are trying to police private prayer”, suggesting it’s a “straw man” argument dreamed up by “biased” opponents of a Bill. But opponents only talk about this because leading campaign group Ban Conversion Therapy, specifically called for “private prayer” to be outlawed. A point reiterated by Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelley just last summer.
Perhaps, Ms Kearns only wants us to judge her own work. She urges us to go away and “read the Bill” she says she has worked on with Lloyd Russell-Moyle and self-congratulatory calls “exceptionally well drafted”.
And indeed, in the podcast, Ms Kearns makes some bold claims about that Bill which, if true, would address many concerns. She claims: “We are not going to be cracking down those conversations [between religious leaders and their flocks]. We're not going be [cracking] down on private prayer and we're not going prosecuting parents having conversations with their children.”
Sounds good. But, unfortunately, when one follows her instruction and reads the current draft of the Bill available publicly on Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s website, the house of cards comes crashing down.
Clause 2 of the Bill provides an exemption for “the expression only [sic] of a belief or a religious principle made to an individual that is not part of a premediated [sic] programme, course of conduct or activities [sic] intended to change or suppress the individual’s sexual orientation or transgender identity”.
This totally misses the point of pastoral conversations. Most church ministers will tell you there is always a premeditated aim to their conversations: to help their members live more faithfully to Christ in all areas of life, including sexual ethics. This is an aim they carry out without coercion and abuse. But the very fact these conversations are purposeful, rather than abstract and aimless, risks putting them beyond the protection of this ‘exemption’.
Similarly, for parents the rhetoric does just not match the reality. The draft’s current exemption if an act is “done by any person lawfully exercising parental responsibility in accordance with the Children Act 1989” is totally circular in its logic.
The Children Act assumes reasonable parental responsibility, unless any evidence of harm can be explicitly presented. But if ‘conversion therapy’ is always ‘harmful’, as activists claim, surely the Children Act defence would never apply?
Furthermore, the Bill provides that all these ‘exemptions’ could be taken away at the whim of a Secretary of State using Henry VIII powers without effective parliamentary scrutiny.
It should be stressed that this is not necessarily the final version, and we will have to wait and see later this month the final wording of Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s Bill. But it illustrates how, even with a charm offensive, just how difficult, if not impossible, the task of designing an acceptable Bill is.
But if Alicia Kearns is the face of compromise and consensus, can we really expect any better?
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