The ‘jellyfish’ let loose in the House of Lords

9, February 2024

As the noble Lords and Baronesses prepared to give their speeches in the House of Lords today, few would have had their minds on sea creatures.

They were debating Baroness Burt’s 'Conversion Therapy' Bill; a dangerous piece of legislation that could undermine the ability of parents and religious leaders to help those struggling over issues of sex and gender.

As we watched from the public gallery, there was palpable displeasure with the proposal. It would be an understatement to say that the Bill was badly drafted. Peers spoke rather convincingly on that point. So much so that Baroness Burt was forced into a somewhat embarrassing admission in her closing statement: “I accept that this Bill is not well drafted”. It was a subtler way of putting what Lord Forsyth of Drumlean had said earlier: “in nearly 40 years in Parliament, I have never seen a more badly drafted or dangerous piece of legislation”.

There was plenty of time to write a better Bill, though. Five years is how long the members keep telling us they’ve been waiting. When finally given the opportunity to do what they want, they fall at the first hurdle. But that isn’t surprising.

Any legislation on ‘conversion therapy’ will be poorly drafted. No number of substantive clauses would fix the problems with the faulty thinking which lies underneath it. That’s why Lord Trevethin and Oaksey used the term “jellyfish” to describe this Bill, borrowed from a legal opinion on the Scottish Government’s proposals on the same topic:

“A Scottish KC described the similar but much more extensive proposed legislation in Scotland as a jellyfish—something that it is impossible to get hold of but has a sting in the tail. It is not that far wide of the mark. The Bill is clearly borne of excellent intentions, but I very much doubt that it is curable by amendment.”

The Scottish Government has been working on the proposals for years. They’ve had various enquiries, Committees and ‘Expert’ groups. And still their proposals seem set to put innocent people in jail.

The very concept of ‘conversion therapy’ is where the problem begins. What is it? Does anybody know? Peers kept asking. The noble Lords and Ladies had no answer. Evidently a few have been convinced by Stonewall’s hype and haven’t bothered to interrogate the point.

If the term applies to genuine abuse, like electroshock treatments, or imprisonment or starvation, then these have long been illegal. If it applies to prayers and conversations, then a new law is an impossible imposition on freedom of expression and belief.

The closest peers came to a convincing example was when Baroness Brinton explained how someone she had spoken to recounted mistreatment by the NHS. She said the case of ‘Mr B’ “might help to understand when things cross a boundary”. It totally failed on this point, though, since the case had been examined by the Ombudsman, with apologies given and compensation paid. In other words, the problem was appropriately dealt with, without any new laws.

It’s clear the proposed law is impossibly difficult to understand. And if the Bill’s wording made it as hard to grasp as a jellyfish, Peers showed backbone whilst grappling with it. The Church of England’s Bishop of Guildford found cause to declare his “deep alarm at the almost unlimited reach of the Bill”:

“…it appears to introduce blanket bans on certain ways of behaving, even certain ways of thinking, within the workplace, school, church, mosque and even the family. At the very least, it creates a culture of fear across the board—a kind of chill factor, especially for those who may not be fully signed up to the current societal orthodoxies”.

Sharing the Bishops conviction was self-declared atheist and secularist Baroness Claire Fox, who pointed out that a Bill in which the State intervenes in matters of faith would fall foul of freedom of belief. Just in case anyone felt the Bill would be only a minor imposition on believers, she pointed out that even ordinary beliefs are in view:

“Every day, in this Chamber, noble Lords recite the Lord’s prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee was clearly moved by the very likely imposition of this Bill on her own Christian practice. She pointed out that even liturgy from a service of Holy Communion would be caught: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins…” her minister begins his invitation: “I thought to myself, is that going to be allowed under this new conversion therapy Bill?”

She pointed out that the same problem has already raised its head in the Australian State of Victoria, declared by some as the “gold-standard” legislation for the UK to copy. Its language of ‘change and suppression’ is written into Baroness Burt’s Bill, but that State has official guidance claiming prayers “about a person’s brokenness or need to repent” are likely to be illegal.

The Victoria guidance also contains the wildly disturbing declaration that parents who “refuse to support” their child receiving puberty blockers are breaking the law. Describing how you might know if you’ve experienced ‘conversion therapy’ the guidance gives “not affirming someone’s gender identity” as an example.

Lord Farmer unsurprisingly called this imposition “extraordinarily intolerant”. Lord Curry echoed this point: “Such a law would be wholly intolerant of Christians who hold orthodox convictions”. Baroness Ludford pointed out that parents are equally at risk under a Victoria-style law.

Perhaps we're boring you with the names of Peers who spoke out. That would be understandable. But it is worth realising just how broad a range of voices were heard against this Bill. This is not just some niche group of eccentric peers as activists would have you believe. This is lawyers and feminists and bishops and rights campaigners, all saying this Bill – this sort of Bill – is entirely intolerable.

In some ways it is a shame there is no vote at this stage of a Bill. This disastrous jellyfish of a Bill would doubtless have been sunk. For too long, too many have been unwilling to wade into these murky depths. At least now it’s clear this activist legislation won’t get a free pass.

See also: Conversion therapy law opposed by gay rights campaigners

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