Conversion therapy won't be banned for consenting adults under new proposals, critics fear

Six-week public consultation begins today, with draft bill planned for Spring 2022, as critics decry "major loophole leaving thousands at risk"


Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: Wiki/Pexels

The UK government's latest proposals for banning LGBTQ conversion therapy in England and Wales will not outlaw talking therapies for over 18s, critics fear.

Conversion therapy is the scientifically debunked practise of trying to change or alter a person's sexuality and/or gender identity.

A public consultation on 'how to make coercive conversion therapies illegal' launches at 9am today and will end on 10 December 2021. To take part, click here.

The government's response and refinements will be posted in January 2022. A draft Bill is planned for Spring 2022.

Yesterday, an Equalities Office spokesperson told Attitude: "Those that continue to offer talking conversion therapies for over 18s in this country will be legally required to inform people that there is no evidence that these therapies work, and that they can be associated with negative mental health outcomes. Anyone consenting to undergo such therapies must also be capable of giving consent and can in no way be coerced into doing so - protecting vulnerable adults from exploitation."

"It is the view of the Government that the freedom for an adult to enter such an arrangement should be protected"

A 36-page document on the consultation seen by Attitude indicates plans for an outright ban on all forms of conversion therapy for under 18s. It then states that "consent requirements for adults seeking out talking therapy will be robust and stringent."

Elsewhere it states: "We recognise that some believe that an adult cannot consent to non-coercive and non-forced talking conversion therapies even when fully aware of the potential for being harmed; however it is the view of the Government that the freedom for an adult to enter such an arrangement should be protected. Our approach is in line with our international counterparts and precedent for similar issues."

It also states: "The Government is aware of concerns regarding the impact of legislation. We recognise there is a plurality of experience in this area and that there are adults who seek counselling to help them live a life that they feel is more in line with their personal beliefs. We do not intend to ban adults from seeking such counselling freely, but consent requirements will be robust and stringent. The person entering the arrangement must have freely consented and received all the appropriate information about the potential impacts, short and longer term, of such counselling to allow them to do so, otherwise this would amount to an offence."

It adds: "Our proposal is to introduce a new criminal offence that will capture talking conversion therapies. Our view is that a talking therapy delivered to either a person under 18 or a person who is 18 or over and who has not given informed consent, with the intention of changing their sexual orientation or changing them to or from being transgender, should constitute a criminal offence. In line with existing law, vulnerable people aged 18 and over who lack the capacity to consent will also be considered unable to consent to talking conversion therapies."

Jayne Ozanne, a former member of the government's now-disbanded LGBT advisory panel and survivor of conversion therapy, today told Attitude: "There is clear evidence of the harm and trauma that conversion practices cause - which include suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide. The one figure we can’t sadly measure, but which many in the LGBT+ community are all too aware of is the high level of suicide that exists amongst those who go through conversion therapy, independent of whether they consented or not. This is because it places unbearable pressure on people to change and when they can’t they are told that they are the problem, that they are not being open or faithful enough and they are left feeling they have no other option but to take their lives. We have been saying this to government for years, people have been testifying about this for years, research studies have concluded this for years - but sadly it seems that government still wants to allow people to be able to consent to it."

She added on Twitter: "Extremely concerned that the government is allowing 'informed consent' for adults - it's a major loophole and will leave thousands at risk. Sadly, the desires of perpetrators have been prioritised over the needs of survivors in relation to religious practices."

"Non-binary people will also be protected by the ban"

An Equalities Office spokesperson also told Attitude: "The government strongly believes that conversion therapy does not work and we recognise the serious mental health issues it causes.

"[...] We have ensured that our proposals are in line with those of fellow forward thinking nations and we welcome all contributions to our consultation."

The spokesperson added that "non-binary people will also be protected by the ban," adding: "Our proposals protect everyone, whatever their sexual orientation or whether they are transgender or not. An attempt to change a person from being attracted to the same-sex to being attracted to the opposite-sex will be treated in the same way as the reverse scenario. An attempt to change someone to or from being transgender will also be treated in the same way."

On potential punishments, the spokesperson said: "The Government is proposing penalties in line with existing offences for similar acts. Our proposed penalties are also in line with international precedence for acting on conversion therapy."

The aforementioned document also outlines restrictions on the promotion of conversion therapy in adverts in broadcast media and online, plus a package of support to ensure victims of conversion therapy can find and access what support they need, including a helpline.

The government’s proposals include:

1 'Ensuring physical conversion therapy acts are sentenced appropriately and introducing a new offence for so-called talking conversion therapies.'

2 'Ensuring those found guilty of conversion therapy offences have any profit they obtained from those crimes removed, and strengthening the case for individuals to be disqualified from holding a senior role in a charity where they are convicted of a conversion therapy offence.'

3 'Introducing Conversion Therapy Protection Orders to protect potential victims from undergoing the practice, including abroad - this could include removing passports of potential victims, who are at risk of being taken overseas for conversion therapy.'

"Freedom of speech and belief, and are central to my proposals"

Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss [above, left], said in a statement today: “There should be no place for the abhorrent practice of coercive conversion therapy in our society.

“Today we are publishing detailed proposals that will stop appalling conversion therapies and make sure LGBT people can live their lives free from the threat of harm or abuse.

“As we build back better from the pandemic, I want everyone to be able to love who they want and be themselves. Today’s announcement sets out how we will ban an archaic practice that has no place in modern life.”

In a ministerial foreword in the consultation document, Truss added: "I want to reassure those who may have concerns about the impact of this ban on clinicians’ independence as well as on freedom of speech. People’s personal freedoms are key to the health and functioning of a democratic society, such as freedom of choice, freedom of speech and belief, and are central to my proposals. It is also vitally important that no person is forced or coerced into conversion therapy, and that young people are supported in exploring their identity without being encouraged towards one particular path. This is especially the case for those who are under 18 and where this might result in an irreversible decision. These proposals therefore do not alter the existing clinical regulatory framework or the independence of regulated clinicians working within their professional obligations."

Minister for Equalities, Mike Freer, added in a statement: “Everybody should be safe to be themselves at home, in the workplace and going about their daily lives. That is why we have set out these proposals to ban coercive conversion therapy and stop it impacting on the lives of people in this country.

“Input from victims and stakeholder groups will be vital and I urge everyone to have their say, making sure the ban puts an end to these practices, once and for all.”

The UK government promised to ban conversion therapy in the Queen's Speech in May 2021, three years after then-Prime Minister Theresa May first outlined plans for a ban. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called the practise "abhorrent."

Any form of conversion therapy that involves physical or sexual violence is already illegal in the UK.