LIb Dem Lords speak out on conversion therapy

Last week, Lorely Burt’s private members bill aimed at outlawing conversion therapy practices passed its first stage in the House of Lords.

This post highlights the speeches in support of the Bill made by Lib Dem peers, but there were many others made by people like Ruth Hunt, Michael Cashman and Helena Kennedy which are worth reading.

This post is a long one, but it is worth reading to understand why this measure is necessary.

Lorely explained in her opening remarks that conversion therapy s:

any practice with the predetermined purpose of changing or suppressing a person’s expression of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Conversion therapy is barbaric, cruel and harmful.

Listening to the debate, I felt I was back in the 80s and 90s. I remember then being chilled to the bone when I heard prejudice against gay people. That still exists, but the real venom these days is directed at trans people. And it’s quite interesting that some of the opposition now comes from the same people who opposed any liberalisation for gay people then. Our job as liberals is to protect these vulnerable groups from that prejudice, discrimination and from the cruelty of those who try to convince them that it is wrong or them to be who they are.

Here are some of the highlights of Lib Dem members’ contributions. You can read the whole debate here.

“My Bill will not tell people what to think or what to say” – Lorely Burt

There are many people—particularly young people—who may be wondering about themselves. It is not always straightforward to understand your sexuality or gender identity, and grappling with these topics can be confusing and even distressing. What these people need is not a cure, but space—and support—to work things out. This may take the form of speaking with a trusted adult, like a mentor or counsellor, to explore their own feelings in a non-judgmental way.

However, the difference between that and conversion therapy is that the latter has a predetermined goal to change that person. I want to make it clear: my Bill will not criminalise these sorts of open conversations in any way, nor will it tell people what to think or what to say. Freedom of speech and religious freedom are important cornerstones of any liberal society. As a Liberal Democrat, I have always championed these values, and the last thing I would want to do is to unduly curb anybody else’s rights. Noble Lords are free to say what they believe: the rules on free speech are the same here as anywhere else in British law. Noble Lords are entitled to express an opinion, just not to coerce somebody else into agreeing with them and changing their behaviour as a result.

“Hold that child safe until they find their own way forward without bias, prejudice and pre conceived rights and wrongs” – Lynne Featherstone

Developmental psychotherapists who can work with children who need proper support absolutely must be available. With something as fundamental as your very being, that means sessions every week over whatever period is needed. Such a developmental psychotherapist, or other appropriate care support, is there not to advocate for or against anything but to hold that child safe until they find their own way forward, without bias, prejudice or pre-conceived rights or wrongs, and without the influence of religion, societal norms or anything else—just the best interests of the individual, their well-being and mental health.

I am so glad that my noble friend Lady Burt won the ballot and was able to bring forward this important Bill to stop the hideous and dangerous practice of conversion therapy

“Being constantly told that you are not good enough, that there is something wrong with you…damages you” – Brian Paddick

But I still suffer from low self-confidence and self-esteem as a result of people constantly telling me I was not good enough just because I am gay. My parents told me that homosexuality was abhorrent, so I felt I could not even discuss it with them. I was bullied at school because of it. My police colleagues targeted people like me, and my church told me it was sinful. Being constantly told that you are not good enough, that there is something wrong with you, that yes, God made you a loving, caring, sensual individual but you cannot love the person whom you truly love because they are of the same sex damages you. Conversion therapy is an intense version of the same thing.

By all means, have an open discussion with someone about who they are or who they are attracted to, if that is what they want, without judgment and without blame, where the question, “Are you sure you’re straight?” is as valid as, “Are you sure you’re gay?”. It should not be a conversation designed to steer someone in one direction or another, to ensure that they conform with what the other person in that conversation wants them to be. If someone cannot be objective about gender identity and sexuality because of their own honestly held beliefs, they should not be having that conversation.

I was a young police sergeant in Brixton when I took pity on two frozen female officers who were on foot patrol one night. I gave them a lift in my police car. They were whispering to each other in the back seat, and I asked them what they were talking about. One of them said to me, “Sarge, why don’t you just be yourself?” It changed my life. There is nothing more limiting, more damaging, more inauthentic, than trying to be something or someone you are not. How many times do we criticise others for not being genuine? Yet conversion therapy is designed to do just that—to stop someone being genuine. Hence my joke, “I hate actors because they are constantly trying to be someone they are not”.

Of course, some people may be unhappy with their gender identity or sexuality, but the first question to those seeking help should be, “If your family, your friends, your religion, society generally, completely accepted you and loved you for who you are, would you really want to change?”

“This is about ending degrading and inhuman treatment; it is about ending coercion and abuse” – Earl Russell

The harms these practices can cause individuals are severe. One 2020 study found that people who had undergone conversion therapy were twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts, and 75% more likely to plan a suicide attempt. Similarly, A UN expert on sexual orientation and gender identity has said that conversion therapy “may amount to torture” and has called for a global ban. Many countries have already banned it, including France, Canada and New Zealand. It is possible; we can find a way forward and agreed wording. Harm is taking place, and that harm cannot be ignored any longer. We have a duty of care—a duty to prevent unnecessary suffering.

A ban is long overdue. The Government have failed to deliver a ban to the promised timescale. This Bill seeks to move the debate forward. It seeks to make it an offence for any person to practise, or offer to practise, conversion therapy. The definition in this Bill—or any Bill—should be sensible and not cast the net too wide, nor restrict others’ rights to freedoms. It should set a high bar. Again, we are talking about banning coercion and abuse, nothing else. The Bill should not prevent legitimate professional health advice being given. It should not prevent conversations about gender identity. It should not tell people what to say or what they can believe. It should not restrict religious freedoms.

“I want to use my time to highlight one medical conversion therapy case” – Sal Brinton

I have talked to Mr B, an adult transgender man in Wales who came out 10 years ago. At that time in Wales, in order to get a GRC, transgender people had to be seen by a psychiatrist. For eight years he was constantly delayed and ignored by the hospital. Worse, the psychiatrist he did see during that period announced at the start of the process that he did not believe he was transgender and that he would only recommend antidepressants and would not initially permit any discussion of transgender matters at all.

Mr B says that this treatment over a number of years made his mental health considerably worse. Then, the psychiatrist told him he should have ECT for his severe depression. This psychiatrist and another he saw were absolutely against making a referral to the gender identity committee, and he could not progress without its approval. This is the exact opposite of the affirmative and curious responses the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, outlined so effectively: this was definitely the furious response. At this point, Mr B was suicidal; years of constant challenge and denial had taken its toll. The hospital doctor even said it was not their job to stop him killing himself. But this case was even worse. The psychiatrist wrote to Mr B’s GP with an inaccurate account of the sessions, as well as keeping inaccurate medical records at the hospital. Finally, after eight years, he saw a doctor at the same hospital who was a gender specialist: someone who, in the description of the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, was affirmative and curious.

This is not just Mr B’s view of his own case. He was brave enough to make a complaint to the Welsh ombudsman, who was clear in his judgment:

“The Ombudsman found that there were failures [by the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board] to conduct an appropriate assessment in 2017, that an assessment in 2018 failed to identify that Mr B met the criteria for a referral, and that a challenge to the 2018 assessment outcome was not dealt with appropriately.

“All this Bill seeks to do is to make sure, particularly in situations where individuals are vulnerable, that they are not subject to abuse.” – Liz Barker

I would like to suggest that we should consider the context in which this debate is happening. It is against the backdrop of an international campaign to roll back women’s rights and LGBT equality. The ultimate purpose of this campaign is to eradicate human rights. It is a campaign that we see every day in our media as trans people are daily depicted as being somehow unacceptable.

Today we are debating a specific measure about outlawing a particular practice: conversion therapy. There is a need for this measure. It is needed, first, because, despite many noble Lords saying that existing legislation covers different practices, we know from individuals that these abuses go on. Not only do these abuses go on, but they continue in two places of specific importance—within religious settings and within psychotherapeutic and counselling settings. These are two places in which people are particularly vulnerable. It is for that reason that I think my noble friend’s Bill is an important contribution.

In full: Paul Sriven’s winding up speech

My Lords, your Lordships are probably as surprised as I am to see me winding up from our Front Bench on this. That is because, even though I am an openly gay man, I have never got involved at all in the wider debate on gender identity. I understand there are very strong and passionately held views on both sides of the debate, and there is a lot about personal identity—what it is to be a woman or to be transgender. I have listened carefully, and I will continue to do so. However, I am afraid that sometimes in this debate we have done exactly what society has done: we have polarised ourselves around an argument which I believe not to be true.

I come to this debate with a sense of wanting to listen; the debate has raised some quite important issues and some important points of law and of clarification. That is this House at its best, with Members listening and debating with each other about points if something is going to become law. However, I come here as a human being with a sense of humanity, decency and empathy, trying to do my best as a legislator for our fellow citizens. I am sure that all noble Lords have come to the Chamber with that view.

I have also come with one principle. Would I support degrading, hurtful, damaging practices on a fellow human being? I am sure all noble Lords would say, “No, that’s not something that we would want”. However, I find it quite strange that when we then put a label on some individuals, some people start fraying at the edges because it does not fit to a norm which we hold, and we want our norms enforced on others. That cannot be right.

I have listened to this debate carefully. In fact, I threw out what I was going to say; the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has seen me scribbling on my phone quite a lot during this debate, because I have been trying to respond to what has been said. The argument against my noble friend’s Bill comes down to four reasons. The first one is that there is no need; new laws are not required. In 2021, the Government pointed out very clearly that:

“Our existing criminal law framework means that conversion therapy amounting to offences of physical or sexual violence is already illegal in this country. However, we have identified gaps that allow other types of conversion therapy to continue”,

and they identified that we need to close them. They went on to talk about “Targeting talking conversion therapy”: the Government identified that as a potential gap in terms of consent and in terms of some practices.

The Government also talked about “targeting physical acts conducted in the name of conversion therapy” by pseudo-psychological therapy. Those are not my words, but the Government’s. They also talked about it potentially being a mitigating factor that judges would have to look at in sentencing, and raised other gaps—potentially looking at conversion therapy protection orders, support for victims, restricting promotion and removing profit streams. So there is a gap in what is required, and the Government have outlined that.

A lot of noble Lords have said that the Bill is badly drafted. As somebody who supports the Bill, let me tell noble Lords that I have been in this House quite a lot and it is not the first time I have seen a badly drafted Bill. But I have been told many times by many noble Lords that the point of the Lords—and I accept that it is our role—is to reform and change Bills and make them better. That is what Committee stage is about. There are things that some noble Lords have said today about which I think, “Actually, that does need exploring further”. The question is whether this law is not required—the Government said in 2021 that extra law was required—or whether it is a matter of principle that it should not go forward. I would like to see it go to Committee, so we can explore some of the important issues that many noble Lords have identified.

Another reason given why the Bill should not go ahead is that it will stop medical practice and limit what happens. Let me be clear: the Bill will not stop any legitimate registered medical practitioner carrying out regulated activity. What it will stop is somebody deciding, before they have even started exploring the issue with that young person, that their sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong and needs to be changed. Through the process, as happens now, some will change and some will not, and medical practitioners will determine with them what happens—you will not come before someone who predetermines that your sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong. That is really important to understand.

The final issue is freedom of speech. Certain noble Lords are shaking their heads; that will have to be explored in Committee, if that is the case, with amendments and probing. That is absolutely fine. I believe one thing about the Bill and other noble Lords believe something different, so we will have to tease that out in Committee.

A number of anecdotes have been given today; let me give one of mine. About four or five years ago, I was at Gay Pride in Sheffield when a number of evangelical Christians turned up with megaphones and soapboxes, and suddenly started telling us that we were sinful and were going to hell. There was a big outcry from some members of the LGBT+ community that we should get the police, and off the field these people should go. Much to the anger of some of the people on the committee, I said; “No. They’ve got every right to tell us that we’re going to hell, and we’ve got every right to argue with them why we’re not going to hell. They can have that view”. The difference would have been—here, the police would have been called, and this is where my noble friend’s Bill comes in—if they had decided to take me somewhere in the park and tried to force me to stop being gay. But they were not doing that. It is exactly the same in this Bill; the motivation for stopping you being gay or having a certain gender identity also has to be taken into consideration in this Bill.

My noble friend’s Bill may need amending, but it is important. She has created a space on an issue that the Government, since 2018, have been saying needs space Toggle showing location ofColumn 1909to be debated and legislated on. She wants the loopholes in the law, which the Government also identified in 2021, to be closed. I hope that noble Lords today will allow that space to remain and allow us to deal in Committee with some of the genuine concerns that have been raised, iron them out and stop once and for all this abhorrent practice of conversion therapy, which has no place in modern Britain.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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