The problem with the latest conversion therapy ban bill

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

This Friday a private member's bill for banning conversion therapy across the UK will have its second reading in the House of Lords. Baroness Burt of Solihull tabled it before Christmas. She is a Liberal Democrat peer and is vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. The wording of this bill raises serious questions as to what politicians think they can get away with on this topic.

The wording of the bill

This is how the core of the bill is worded:

"(1) A person commits an offence if they practise, or offer to practise, conversion therapy.
(2) In this Act, "conversion therapy" is any practice aimed at a person or group
of people which demonstrates an assumption that any sexual orientation or
gender identity is inherently preferable to another, and which has the intended
purpose of attempting to—
(a) change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, or
(b) suppress a person's expression of sexual orientation or gender identity.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary 10
conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale."

Anybody could be criminalised

The wording of the bill makes clear that any person – not just any therapist – could be criminalised due to being deemed to have tried to change a person or group's sexual orientation or gender identity, or suppress their expression thereof. As 'conversion therapy' is glossed as a 'practice' this should not be in doubt.

The potential for criminalising dress codes

Clearly this could cover examples such as schools insisting upon different school uniforms for boys and girls, indeed all sex-based dress codes in organisations or events. The continued use of the term 'therapy' is highly misleading.

By the same token it captures parents enforcing dress codes for their own children. There is no age limit included in the wording of the bill.

Dress codes for pastors would also be affected.

Given the universal reach of the bill, dress codes in all kinds of settings including even independent studios producing internet videos could be affected.

Police assessment of therapists sneaked in through the back door

The House of Lords Library briefing on this bill reproduces a text that Baroness Burt provided directly to its researchers. In it she says this:

"Of course, it's important to differentiate between psychological practice or religious advice and conversion therapy. A therapist, for example, who is exploring gender dysphoria with a young person in good faith—with no predetermined goal to change how that young person ought to be—shouldn't be penalised. That's why my bill would require the police to demonstrate both action and motivation when attempting to prosecute in relation to this offence."

So whilst claiming to allow therapists freedom to work with clients – including presumably teenage clients – on problems with gender dysphoria, Baroness Burt also says the police will be involved in proving a therapist's action and motivation. The problem here is that this police involvement is nowhere mentioned on the face of the bill.

Who and what is covered by the bill?

Baroness Burt finished her message to the House of Lords Library by referring to protecting all 'identities' covered under the acronym 'LGBT+', which again is not on the face of the bill.

"These are complex, often uncomfortable conversations about where the line should be drawn. But I believe to be effective, the ban needs to be comprehensive, clear and inclusive of all LGBT+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other identities] people."

The text of the bill talks about 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity', which is different.

This means that should the bill or a similarly worded one progress and be supported by the government, an ever-increasing list of 'identities', i.e. obsessions, fantasies and fetishes, will be added and the police will be required to criminalise therapists and others who don't play along with them.

This bill shouldn't be allowed to go quietly

The single example of dress codes for all ages goes to show how totalitarian the effect of this bill would be. We should not allow this to pass quietly through Parliament, excusing it as merely a private member's bill. Parliamentarians should not be allowed to get away with mouthing support for it in the chamber only later to pretend they didn't understand its true implications. By the time a government bill is tabled, it will be too late in the day to persuade politicians to oppose it, as they will have persuaded each other of its inherent righteousness.

The government is clearly going round in circles on its promise to ban conversion therapy. A year ago, it promised a bill, but that has not been tabled. It still has not published the response to its own consultation for England and Wales. Maybe the government doesn't really want to do anything, but to pass the baton onto the likely next Labour government. Keir Starmer has promised a full ban which would be 'trans inclusive'. In this year that is a run-up to a general election, we need to send a clear and regular message to Parliamentarians that such totalitarian ambitions are unacceptable and have no place in the UK.