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 Moore of Etchingham Excerpts
Friday 9th February 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Moore of Etchingham Portrait Lord Moore of Etchingham (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I approach today’s debate with some hesitation because I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject. Your Lordships have heard so many well-informed and often moving speeches on both sides of the argument, and I will not be able to add to that body of knowledge. However, I hope to examine what happens when Parliament tries to make laws about matters concerning free speech and personal feelings without asking itself the difficult questions involved. Too often, laws are made merely because some people feel very strongly on a subject and wish to give their opinions the force of law. I will remind your Lordships, however, of a well-known example from fairly recent history which should be a cautionary tale.

In the mid-1980s, there was widespread indignation, chiefly among Conservatives, about how left-wing councils were, as they saw it, wasting money and abusing local government duties to preach all sorts of “propaganda on the rates”. This was the era, noble Lords will remember, of the so-called nuclear-free zones, the militant tendency, “Red Ted”, “Red Ken” and so on. One area of contention was gay rights. The media reported that left-wing councils and education authorities were using public money to promote homosexual inclinations and lifestyles among children. Some noble Lords may remember a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which was allegedly available in a Haringey school library—actually, it was not. The pressure mounted for laws to ban such material in schools. Several Conservatives objected to the idea; some argued it would be an infringement of free speech, while others pointed out there was no need for legislation because existing new laws—which gave greater powers to parents and governors—would deal with the problem. “No,” said the supporters of a possible Bill. They believed the offending councils and education authorities were using the rubric of equal opportunities to smuggle in works which, as one put it, eulogised for 15 year-olds

“precisely the kind of homosexual acts that give rise to AIDS”.

Such propaganda must be stopped, they said.

In the end, an alliance of the Conservatives who were fed up with the hard-left councils and those who wished to enforce traditional moral attitudes prevailed. A Private Member’s Bill ran out of time before the 1987 general election, but the Conservative manifesto in the election complained that:

“In certain cases education is used for political indoctrination and sexual propaganda”.

This stand was thought to have done well on the doorstep. After victory in the election, Mrs Thatcher, now Prime Minister for the third time, allowed the conversion of the original idea of a Private Member’s Bill into an amendment to then Local Government Bill—hence the famous, indeed notorious, Section 28 was born. It forbade

“the teaching, in any maintained school, of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

There was private consternation within government at this, with some Ministers complaining that Section 28 would

“proscribe the mere expression of opinion”,

and others that it would simply “not work”. There was public outrage too. In the debate here, eight lesbians abseiled from the Public Gallery down to the Floor of your Lordships’ House. It was probably Section 28 that galvanised the British gay rights movement, leading, for example, to the rise of Stonewall in this country. There were no successful prosecutions under the Act; it was repealed in 2003. The whole thing was a failure, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, has testified, it did a considerable amount of damage.

Your Lordships will have quickly spotted where my argument is heading. Attempts at banning so-called conversion therapy risk becoming the mirror image of Section 28. The Bill contains many of the same problematic elements. These include: the lack of proper evidence of a wide and deep problem; an attack on free-speech rights, which many noble Lords have noted, including the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford; the failure to use existing laws to find a remedy, if remedy is needed; inattention to how the Act would work in practice; the tendency to use legislation to make an empty moral gesture rather than a useful difference; and the tendency to exploit, in a political or electoral context, a sensitive issue which many regard as a matter of conscience.

If, as many expect, another party holds the majority in another place before the end of the year, we may even encounter the same shift from a Private Member’s Bill to a government measure which happened in 1987. Such a repetition of history would show that nothing has been learnt from it. One of the puzzles about this subject is that the present Government have given so much countenance to it. Since 2017, in various incarnations and under three Prime Ministers, the contentious idea that conversion therapy is a defined reality and a threat is meekly accepted. Also elided, without understanding the arguments, are questions of sexual orientation and questions of gender identity. The Government are in a muddle and do not know what to do. I think this confusion derives, in part, from their feelings of inherited guilt over Section 28. Surely the best way to assuage such guilt is for the Government not to replicate, on one side of the argument, the mistakes their predecessors made on the other.

I can advise this with some confidence because I hereby confess my own error on Section 28, which I supported in the paper I edited at that time. Because I shared the dislike of left-wing councils using schools for propaganda, I was impatient of the practical difficulties involved in the legislation, and I underrated the sense of threat that laws of this nature can carry with them, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, has referred to. Then, many gay people felt threatened. Now, with the Bill, it is parents, church people and some professionals in the field who feel threatened. I studied the story of Section 28 and I hope I have learnt my lesson. I now apply it more than 30 years later by arguing against this Bill today.