Conversion Therapy Prohibition (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Bill [HL]

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Friday 9th February 2024

(5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Frost Portrait Lord Frost (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak at the end of such a fascinating, interesting and important debate. I imagine we have all heard things—personal experiences, reflections, arguments—that have made us think harder about our own assumptions in this complex area. I certainly have, but I am afraid nothing has shaken my basic view that this is a bad, poorly written Bill, which, if it ever became law, would have a number of rather damaging consequences.

I have certainly not been persuaded by anything I have heard that there is a genuine problem with violent or coercive conversion therapy in this country. These things are, after all, already illegal. What worries me is that the effect of the Bill would be—as we have heard from many noble Lords—to criminalise a much broader range of actions and interactions. The consequence of that—and maybe this is one of the underlying purposes of the Bill—would be to reinforce a tendency towards control and conformity that is already very evident in our society. That is what worries me. The Bill does it in three particular ways.

First, it begins the process of giving legislative force to the controversial view that simply hearing opinions that you do not agree with can in itself cause harm and should therefore be made illegal. This is a damaging proposition anywhere, but it is particularly harmful in this area, where individuals differ and where, as we have heard, there is far from societal or expert consensus—thus, free debate and discussion is vital if we are going to find the right solutions.

Free society works on the opposite principle to that. It works on the principle that everyone has the right to reach their own judgments and opinions, and equally, that every adult has the right to ignore such judgment and opinions and do what they want within the law. Once we question that principle, as the Bill begins to do, we are changing the nature of society. We are asking the state to be our parent, to protect us from uncomfortable concepts and challenging ideas. The only way the state can do that, effectively, is to define which opinions are acceptable and which are not.

That leads to the second problem: that the Bill is another step towards creating in practice a state ideology of approved and unapproved ideas. After all, without such an ideology, how do you know which opinions can be safely expressed and which cannot? In fact, we have already gone some way down that road. It is not possible to hold certain jobs in the public sector without signing up to—or at least not publicly dissenting from—a set of controversial beliefs about diversity and inclusion. The Bill would take it further into wider society. It would make it illegal for religious leaders with their flock, parents with their children, psychologists or psychiatrists with their patients, to express some of their profound disbeliefs, or even to broach certain ideas. Indeed, in some cases, such people would seemingly be required by the Bill to actively say things they do not believe in order to avoid prosecution.

That is obviously a problem in itself, but it is also a problem because in modern conditions, such a state ideology will inevitably be aggressively secular—not just neutral, as between different belief systems, which is what many of us think of as secular, but rather one that requires conformity to a particular set of propositions. This is the third way the Bill shapes society more broadly. These are not propositions shaped by traditional values, beliefs or an established philosophical code, but propositions defined by opposition to those things, in which there is no room for such beliefs. That is what the Bill represents, and it is why it is another step towards pushing religious beliefs out of mainstream debate. If it is not slowed, before long we will find that religious beliefs may be held in private, may occasionally be referred to in public—like a dark and shameful secret—but may never be actively brought into the public or professional square. When we reach that point, which is perhaps not far off, if you believe God created men and women in male and female bodies, you had better keep it to yourself, because the state may think differently.

To conclude, I am sure some noble Lords will listen to my remarks and think I am simply exaggerating. They may be saying to themselves, “How do you get from a Bill that purports to be about treating everybody decently and fairly to this nightmare vision of state-controlled speech?” In answer to that, it is precisely in these liminal, border areas, these marginal cases, that new directions get set. Of course, every human being needs to be treated decently and fairly, because everybody has intrinsic value. However, the catch comes when we go on to identify that fair and decent treatment as necessitating that no one should ever hear anything challenging to the beliefs they hold, even if they have chosen to hear that. We cannot ensure that in a free society, and trying to do it takes us down a very difficult road. The only thing we can reliably ensure is the right to disagree, to stop listening and to walk away. However, we have that right already. Do not let us start taking it away. Let us reject this Bill.

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Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I first congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, on securing this important Second Reading debate on her Bill and thank her for the tone in which she opened it. Like others, I also acknowledge the courage of those noble Lords and Baronesses who have experienced direct discrimination or prejudice because of their sexual orientation.

As we heard in your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness’s Bill would make provision to prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy across the United Kingdom. The Government share the noble Baroness’s goal to protect vulnerable people from harm, and it remains our intention to publish a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.

However, I must express reservations about this Bill and raise concerns relating to four areas: the definition of “conversion therapy”; the inclusion of “suppression” within the offence; the use and lack of definition of “gender identity”; and the proposed territorial extent of the Bill. A number of these issues have been raised by your Lordships today.

I will take these issues in turn. First, on the terminology and definition, the Government now use the term “conversion practices” to reflect the fact that conversion acts take a range of different forms and to avoid conflation with legitimate talking therapies. Further, I am concerned that the definition is very wide in scope and appears to lack precision and clarity, therefore leaving it vulnerable to misapplication. It is vital that any legislation targeting these harmful practices does not affect the ability of parents, teachers, counsellors, religious leaders or healthcare practitioners to have open, exploratory and sometimes even challenging conversations, particularly with young people who are expressing or exploring their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In particular, I worry that such a broad definition would create a chilling effect for those working in the legitimate clinical care sector, who may feel too nervous to conduct their jobs out of fear of potential criminalisation. This in turn could negatively impact those people who are seeking, and indeed needing, support in relation to feelings of gender distress or gender dysphoria, or in coming to terms with their sexuality.

I must also express reservations around the inclusion of suppression within the scope of the offence. This risks a very wide range of acts being criminalised and is likely to disproportionately impact freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

I move on to the use of the term “gender identity”. While we agree that any protections should include all those at risk, whether straight or gay, transgender or not, the Government have significant reservations about relying on the term “gender identity”. This is not a recognised term within our existing legal framework and is a contested belief. Introducing it in this way risks a lack of legislative clarity, which would likely make prosecutions difficult and set an unhelpful legislative precedent that could have much wider ramifications, in both criminal and civil law.

Finally, the Bill proposes to legislate for the whole of the UK. This would be problematic because, of course, criminal justice is fully devolved to our Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts.

Let me be clear that the Government’s opposition to this Bill does not mean that we are complacent about the harm that conversion practices can cause. We absolutely condemn conversion practices; they are inherently wrong and have no place in our society. As a number of noble Lords pointed out, many harmful physical and violent acts done in the name of conversion practice are already illegal in this country, as of course they should be. As Equalities Ministers have said, these acts are aimed at changing someone else’s identity, whether that be to or from being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or indeed heterosexual, and have no place in UK society.

However, there remains a gap, albeit narrow, in the existing legislative framework, including surrounding non-physical and speech-based acts, such as one-off instances of significant verbal degradation or abuse, which are not covered by existing legislation. For other examples, I would point to the Cass interim report, which notes:

“The complex interaction between sexuality and gender identity, and societal responses to both; for example, we have heard from young lesbians who felt pressured to identify as transgender male, and conversely transgender males who felt pressured to come out as lesbian rather than transgender”.

These examples highlight just how complex but essential it is to legislate in a balanced and measured way, alive to all the potential impacts of the approach taken, both intended and unintended.

This is why the Government plan to bring forward our own draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of both Houses on this issue, which has been thoughtfully considered over some time and, crucially, informed by public consultation. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for engaging on this important issue. Her Bill has allowed for further consideration and discussion on how to tackle these abhorrent practices. However, on the basis of the specific issues that I outlined, I express reservations on behalf of the Government on the noble Baroness’s Bill.