Transgender Conversion Therapy

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Monday 13th June 2022

(2 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Trade (Mike Freer)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the petitioner for securing the debate and the 145,000 people who signed the petition. On a personal note, I would like to recognise the 50th anniversary of Pride, and to thank those who went before me to secure the rights that I have today. We can get caught up in the heat of the debate around the issues we have to address, but it is sometimes important to look back and remember that we have made progress. Let us not lose sight of the progress we have made, while agreeing that we still have further work to do. I have to say that I welcome this debate, because I have spent considerable time and energy on the legislation, not least trying to myth-bust much of the nonsense going around regarding what is and is not conversion practice.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) not only for securing the debate, but for what I thought was a powerful and thoughtful speech. It was a speech that he could have made from the Minister’s position—perhaps one day he will.

I have to say that the debate saddens me; I am genuinely sad that we are having this debate yet again. It saddens me that we have yet to achieve a consensus on many of the more thorny or heated topics that people disagree on or choose to misunderstand. It is a real regret that, having spent so much time trying to explain what is and is not a conversion practice, we continue to have this debate. From that point of view, since taking up the position of looking after LGBT issues in the equalities brief, I have genuinely tried to seek consensus, to pursue the debate with a degree of honesty and respect, and to remove the toxicity from the debate.

Many of us do not have direct experience of trans issues, although some of us do. I get deeply frustrated when colleagues make comments—from what I believe to be a position of ignorance—about the trans community, which also hurt colleagues in this House. The trans community is not some invisible, amorphous blob that people cannot recognise. Trans people are our friends and our colleagues. Members of this House have trans siblings and trans children. We have our first trans Member of Parliament. It deeply saddens me that hurtful comments are still being made, even if they are not designed to hurt.

I have taken time to speak to many of the survivors who have been through conversion practices, some of them decades ago. From speaking to them, it is clear that they still live with that trauma today. I have also spoken to people who have survived conversion therapy more recently. When people say that conversion therapy no longer exists, that is absolute, utter nonsense. They just need to go out and talk to people who have survived it, whose partners have committed suicide, or who have seen children taken abroad to conversion camps or to be married off.

It deeply saddens me that people continue to deny the existence of conversion practices. Yes, many of the more abhorrent physical acts are illegal. However, the pernicious, insidious, coercive so-called therapies are what we are trying to address, and they are still present today.

Colleagues have talked about rape being used as a tool to correct people’s behaviour. Part of the Bill that is being drafted will ensure that, while rape is obviously already an illegal act, using rape in the way Members have described would be an aggravating factor. That is the difference. People ask what the Bill will change in law that is not already illegal—that is one example. The use of corrective rape will be an aggravating factor. That is not currently the case.

I recognise people’s strength of feeling for ensuring that the Bill includes trans people. I want to make it abundantly clear that the Bill will protect everyone from coercive attempts to change their sexual orientation. We do not agree with attempts to change someone’s gender, but we wish to ensure that any action that we bring forward on transgender conversion practices does not have wider implications, such as affecting access to legitimate therapies.

At the start of my speech, I referenced the sadness I felt that we have not been able to reach a consensus. I am disappointed that we have not brought forward a fully inclusive Bill, as is fairly obvious from my previous statements, but in terms of where we go from here, I want to use the piece of work that is currently being scoped out, hopefully at pace, so that we can have an informed process as the Bill proceeds in its passage through Parliament. We must try to address the issue of how to ensure with cast-iron clarity, if one can have cast-iron clarity, that clinicians are protected in questioning someone’s gender discomfort—I will be corrected if I get this wrong, but dysphoria is the clinical end of the process. When someone is suffering from gender distress, a clinician needs to have absolute clarity that they are protected, and that their ability to explore why their client is feeling that way is not a conversion practice.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price
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I think a lot of people will be very reassured by the tone of the Minister’s comments, because there is genuine fear that legitimate practices would be outlawed. However, one of the issues we have is that campaigners are looking at other laws elsewhere, which has perhaps led them to conclude that things will be included in the Bill that might not be. Could the Minister say what the timescale for a draft Bill will be? No one can predict what will be in the legislation, because we have not seen it yet.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I thank my hon. Friend for asking for clarification. It is certainly my intention that the draft Bill, which is expected to be narrow in scope, clearly setting out what is and is not a conversion practice so that we have that clarity, will be brought forward in—I hope—September or October of this year.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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I have a lot of time for the Minister, and I think his heart is in the right place, but he has just mentioned a narrow scope. Is it the Government’s intention that the scope of the Bill will be so narrow that an amendment to include trans and non-binary conversion therapies and practices within a ban would be excluded, so that the will of the House could not be tested and MPs would not have the chance to vote for such an amendment?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I know he spends a lot of time on this issue, and we are probably of a similar mindset about where we want to get to.

I am straying into parliamentary draftsmanship, but I think it is possible to draft a Bill that ensures that attempts to reopen the Equality Act 2010 or the Gender Recognition Act would be out of scope. That is one of the dangers: if we write a Bill that is open to being repeatedly amended, there is a risk of the debate widening beyond conversion therapy, which is why I am trying to ensure that the Bill is narrow. However, the way I see it—I cannot give that cast-iron guarantee, because I am not the parliamentary draftsperson—is that a Bill about conversion practices would be amendable. Of course, that is a debate for another time, but our purpose is that the Bill remains narrow, so that it is limited to conversion practices and does not get hijacked and caught up in debates about other issues. I hope that we can keep it very, very narrow.

The extra work of scoping out, which I hope will be done at pace, is about ensuring that legitimate clinicians and therapists are protected in being able to explore all the reasons why somebody might be suffering from gender distress. It is also to make it abundantly clear that parents can have robust conversations with their children. There is nothing wrong with a parent disagreeing with their child’s trans status or sexual orientation—that is not a conversion practice.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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We are having a good debate, but can the Minister confirm that conversion practices are those that are aimed at a certain outcome? What he is describing—an open conversation to explore a person’s gender identity—is of course not something that a ban should include, but all practices with a closed outcome should be banned, and that ban should include trans people.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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A conversion practice is clearly defined as where a person has the predetermined objective of taking someone away from being trans and pushing them towards not being trans. Being straight and being gay would be symmetrical. Key to the additional work that I am seeking to get undertaken at pace is the clarity that we need to ensure that clinicians, parents and teachers are protected, to ensure that the chilling effects, which some clinicians and therapists have expressed concern about, are equally mitigated.

The Cass report mentions how affirmative therapy could be abused. We will always find a rogue practitioner with any practice, but it is legitimate to consider how affirmative therapy should be performed. Again, it is about achieving clarity so that people are not caught and made to feel that they have practised conversion therapy by simply being a good therapist or clinician. That is why the work that we have scoped and done at pace will, I hope, allow us to achieve a consensus and put to bed many of the fears and concerns that people have legitimately expressed. Although I am clearly disappointed that we are having this debate again and that we are where we are, I feel that it is not unreasonable to take some extra time to try to build a consensus, so that when a Bill comes forward, we can make it as inclusive as possible. I cannot guarantee that we will get there, but that is my aim and objective, and I do not think it is wrong to spend some extra time trying to ensure that we can build as much consensus as possible.

Let me turn to a couple of points that have been raised. We have talked about trans healthcare. I have spoken to Dr Cass a couple of times, and she has clearly put a lot of thought into how we need to reform the healthcare system for trans people—not just for under-18s, but in general. The idea that people wake up on a Monday, decide that they want to change their gender, and have been banged through surgery by Friday is clearly nonsense. Anybody who has spent any time looking at the whole trans journey knows that it is cumbersome, it is not patient-centred, and it does not work. It forces too many people to opt out and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) said, to buy things on the internet—the wild west—where we do not know what they are doing and what they are being exposed to. That is an important piece of work, alongside the work we are doing on conversion practices.

I want to reiterate that the call for the ban on conversion practices to wait until Dr Cass has reported in full, and the Government have responded, is missing the point. Dr Cass has said that our work is complementary—we are not sequential—and that her work is not a reason not to bring forward the legislation. She has made that abundantly clear. In fact, she has gone as far as publishing a Q&A on her website, which clearly says:

“The Cass Review was commissioned as an independent review of NHS gender identity services for children and young people. Its terms of reference do not include consideration of the proposed legislation to ban conversion therapy.

No LGBTQ+ group should be subjected to conversion therapy. However, through its work with clinical professionals, the Review recognises that the drafting of any legislation will be of paramount importance in building the confidence of clinicians working in this area.”

That is what Dr Cass said, and she is absolutely spot-on.

I want to put a couple of other things on the record. Hon. Members raised the victim support service, which is already operating and is run by Galop. The service is fully inclusive and available to anybody who believes they have been subject to conversion practices or believes they have been at risk of those practices, regardless of their sexuality, gender or non-binary identity. Galop is the leading LGBT+ anti-violence charity and has significant expertise in that area of work.

To conclude, I remain wholly committed to delivering our commitment to ban conversion practices and to protect victims and survivors. I know many colleagues in this Chamber, from across the House, are equally committed to realising that goal. We have to work together to ensure that the legislation is right and that we are seen to be supportive of people’s right to be who they are. It is not our job to interfere in how people see themselves; it is a matter of autonomy and dignity. I thank all colleagues for their contributions and I look forward to working together to make the Bill a success.