The faulty foundations of a ‘conversion therapy’ law

16, November 2023

LGBT activists had hoped the King’s Speech (7th Nov) would include new legislation on so-called ‘conversion therapy’.

The speech sets out the Government’s agenda for the forthcoming Parliamentary session. But thankfully, after much reported wrangling behind the scenes, no such controversial announcement was made. But it doesn’t stop the Government progressing a draft Bill. And a Private Members’ Bill on ‘conversion therapy’ has topped the ballot for introduction in the Lords.

Parliamentary procedure gives MPs and Peers the opportunity to raise their grievances with what the King’s Speech has promised – or not. Several have expressed their disappointment that Rishi Sunak hasn’t made ‘conversion therapy’ a priority. But what is the basis for a new law?

Unnecessary and dangerous

The Government’s reticence to pursue a Bill reflects the difficulty with legislating in this fraught area. Abuse and coercion against LGBT people are already illegal. For that reason, a new law on the sorts of practices most people think of as ‘conversion therapy’ is entirely unnecessary.

But LGBT activists argue that a broader law is still required, to ‘protect’ gay and trans people in religious contexts. They want the ban to cover things like prayer and pastoral care from orthodox Christians. They want parents trying to dissuade their children from pursing certain gender identities to be caught.

These activities might be entirely innocent, but in the minds of controversial groups like Stonewall they should be ended immediately at risk of criminal sanctions. Sadly there are some politicians who have bought into this line of thinking, and demand the Government proceeds with this sort of ‘ban’. It is a dangerous idea indeed.

A plan begins to form

It would have seemed impossible a few decades ago to conceive of legislation like this. Yet successive Conservative governments have gone back and forth over the plans since 2018.

It goes back to a Government survey of LGBT experience in the UK, which was carried out in 2017. Advertised to those connected to major LGBT campaign groups, it asked whether its respondents had experienced ‘conversion therapy’. A small proportion (but not as small as everyone expected) said they had.

The Government jumped into action, publishing the results in 2018 alongside a new ‘LGBT Action Plan’, which promised to ‘end conversion therapy’. Paul Brand of ITV claimed that the Government had said a ‘conversion therapy ban’ would be forthcoming (which it hadn’t) and the die was cast.

A misleading campaign

In the early stages, under the then-PM Theresa May, the Conservatives remained guarded in how they spoke of ‘conversion therapy’ legislation. The Party’s commitment was to consulting on the best approach to take, not to writing a new law.

It was right to be cautious. As time has gone on, it has become increasingly clear how misleading the campaign for a ‘ban’ has been. The Government, under Boris Johnson in 2020, eventually admitted privately (in a memo leaked to ITV) that the 2017/18 survey had not demonstrated what many had claimed.

For a start, it didn’t use representative sampling. That means it is impossible to know whether it properly represents wider society, or just the experiences of a limited cohort. But that was far from the worst deficiency.

Perhaps most serious was its total lack of a definition of ‘conversion therapy’. So we cannot know what it was that people were claiming to have experienced. It will likely have included practices that are already illegal. It will certainly have included practices that are not, and never should be, illegal – such as the ordinary work of churches.

The survey also failed to ask when the experiences had taken place. People may have been reflecting on abuses that were carried out against them in the middle of the last century – practices that no longer take place and are thankfully long-outlawed.

For more detail on the flaws in the survey, see the critique from a Cambridge academic here.

Spiralling out of control

Rishi Sunak is the fourth successive Prime Minister to take the reins since Theresa May’s Government first started thinking about legislation on ‘conversion therapy’. A continual barrage of confusing campaigning from LGBT activists has led to significant differences of opinion between MPs who might ordinarily be on the same page.

Theresa May was enthusiastic about dealing with the ‘problem’ of ‘conversion therapy’, but cautious about exactly what the solution would be. Boris Johnson progressed a consultation and was heading full-throttle towards a new law. But he soon realised it could have disastrous consequences and changed course altogether – twice in a day, in fact.

During that time, the goalposts have continually shifted. The amorphous concept of ‘transgender conversion therapy’ was added in to activists’ demands. And a campaign which once talked about stopping electro-shock experiments on gay people, now admits it really wants a ban on “casual conversations” and “private prayer”.

Let Us Pray has been clear from the very start that a new law on ‘conversion therapy’ is a bad idea. Legal advice from Jason Coppel KC explained that it would be impossible to legislate in the way activists demand without trampling on protected human rights.

Many other groups have pointed out the problems too. The Equality and Human Rights Commission explained that there could be horrendous ‘unintended consequences’. Feminist groups point to increasingly one-way pressure facing adolescent girls confused over gender.

Yet those campaigning for a ban continue. The House of Lords will debate the issue in the coming months and the Government may bring forward its own draft Bill too. But Parliamentarians and Peers should be clear: this legislation is built on faulty foundations.

Latest articles