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

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Department: Cabinet Office

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

Lord Bishop of Guildford Excerpts
Friday 9th February 2024

(5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, the use of coercion to seek to alter the sexuality or gender identity of another person, whether medical, psychological, spiritual or otherwise, is clearly an abhorrent abuse of power. If there is a gap in the law at this point—I leave that question to those who are more expert in the law than I am—it needs to be filled. The Church of England has given serious thought to coercion in recent years, as we have become more aware of the dangers of controlling and bullying leadership styles and the toxic cultures that they can engender. In that sense, I welcome at least part of the intention of this Bill—to protect vulnerable LGBT adults and young people from such potentially abusive and harmful environments and behaviours.

However, I share with many others across this Chamber a sense of deep alarm at the almost unlimited reach of the Bill as drafted, in which no attention is given to questions of consent, harm, vulnerability or the use and abuse of power. Instead, it appears to introduce blanket bans on certain ways of behaving, even certain ways of thinking, within the workplace, school, church, mosque and even the family. At the very least, it creates a culture of fear across the board—a kind of chill factor, especially for those who may not be fully signed up to the current societal orthodoxies.

Following her opening remarks, I do not believe that to be the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and I have sensed her frustration when this theme has come up time and again. I welcome her assurances here, but Acts of Parliament are necessarily judged on their actual wording, rather than the intentions of those who move them. The actual wording of this Bill has wide-ranging implications for a range of freedoms under the European Convention on Human Rights, as has been pointed out by many others in the Chamber. Nuance is everything here, as the Church of England’s recent guidance on conversion therapy makes clear, but this Bill is in danger of promoting a world in which all right-minded people are expected to behave and even think alike—even in contested areas such as gender identity or the often complex world of bisexuality.

I think, for example, of a teenager in my diocese who has gender dysphoria and is on the autistic spectrum. Aware of the repercussions of life-changing decisions through medication and surgery, this courageous young person has agreed to the parental suggestion of psychotherapeutic support in a process known as “watchful waiting”. How would that situation be treated under the precise wording of this Bill, rather than its intention? How would that teenager’s loving parents respond, say, were it to be claimed by a teacher at school that their behaviour fell within its ambit? Whatever the intentions, the fear would still be there—and a justifiable fear. After all, watchful waiting might well be interpreted as a delaying tactic, suppressing their child’s expression of gender identify out of some form of bias or prejudice, with a fear of an unlimited fine as the only real alternative to unquestioning affirmation.

I also think of a man in my earlier experience as a parish priest. He was married but bisexual and came to me to ask for prayer that he might resist the temptation of cheating on his wife. Did my prayer—for which he was deeply grateful—demonstrate

“an assumption that any sexual orientation … is inherently preferable to another”?

Or did it have

“the intended purpose of attempting to … suppress a person’s expression of sexual orientation”?

Well, I think it probably did. Anyway, it would certainly be the cause of real fear for a parish priest—or indeed an imam or rabbi—simply doing his or her job in prayerfully supporting a parishioner’s resolve to obey the seventh commandment and to be faithful to his marriage vows. These may be unintended consequences of the Bill as it stands, but they illustrate the deep concerns shared, I know, by many in this House when it comes to such a fundamental shift in the relationship between the state and individual freedoms, not least our proud history of freedom of religion or belief.

A free society is right not to tolerate violence, abuse or hate speech, and there is already a raft of legislation that covers those areas. If coercive and controlling attempts to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity are not covered by that raft, as may be the case, it needs to be extended somewhat further. Any extension, however, must be commensurate with the scale of the problem we are looking to address. Otherwise, we are in danger of criminalising potentially millions of citizens who are living by their own convictions, whether religious or otherwise, without an ounce of malice or hatred in their hearts; or, at the very least, of causing them to live in fear of a knock on the door from the police or social services, followed by months of uncertainty and stress.

We may need a Bill, in other words, but one that is carefully written to ensure that basic freedoms are not unwittingly undermined in the process.