Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con) [V]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300976 relating to LGBT conversion therapy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. The petition is entitled, “Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK”. The prayer of the petition states that
“I would like the Government to:
• make running conversion therapy in the UK a criminal offence
• forcing people to attend said conversion therapies a criminal offence
• sending people abroad in order to try to convert them a criminal offence
• protect individuals from conversion therapy
Despite all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK, including the NHS, condemning LGBT conversion therapy, it is still legal and LGBT individuals in the UK are still exposed to this psychological and emotional abuse to this day. The very thought of this sickens me, and I would like to see it stopped one day.”
When the petition closed, it had 256,392 signatures, including 487 from my own constituency of Carshalton and Wallington.
I can think of few moments so humbling as opening this important debate today. II is a testament to the importance of this issue that the debate was heavily over-subscribed, and I know that many colleagues who wanted to get in could not do so. Briefly, I want to thank and acknowledge from my side of the House the campaigning done by my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Watford (Dean Russell), for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), for High Peak (Robert Largan), for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), and others.
In preparation for today’s debate and throughout my campaigning on this issue since being elected as an MP, it has been my absolute honour to speak to campaign and charitable organisations, to experts from the fields of health, religion, education, law and beyond, and to legislators from across the world, including Malta, Canada, Australia, Spain and New Zealand, where these practices have either already been banned or are in the process of being banned. Most importantly, I am grateful to the survivors for speaking out and sharing their stories. Their bravery in shining a light on these abhorrent practices will help to save countless lives in the future if we can secure this ban.
First, we must ask ourselves what conversion therapy is and why it needs to be banned. According to a May 2020 report by the UN Office for Human Rights, and indeed according to a definition from the Government Equalities Office, so-called conversion therapy is an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. These so-called therapies can manifest in many forms, from pseudo-psychological treatments and aversion therapies to practices that are religiously based, such as purification or fasting. At the most extreme, there has been evidence that this practice can also involve physical and sexual violence, including so-called corrective rape.
I will share just some of the stories of the survivors who have bravely shared their stories with me and the world, in an attempt to help campaign for the end of this practice in the UK. The first is Joe’s story. As a boy, Joe grappled with his hidden gay identity before leaving for his year in a yeshiva in Israel—a highly significant moment for many young Jews. He sought out conversion therapy and began weekly phone calls with a so-called therapist. After a year this clearly had not worked and instead he sought in-person therapies, where a group leader would force them to process moments of homosexual attraction, only for them to be scrutinised, judged and shamed, leaving Joe with an immense sense of depression. Thankfully, after hearing other gay Orthodox Jews speak out about their own experience, he stopped his conversion therapy, but the experience has left a scar to this day.
Next is Josh’s story. In 2017, Josh went undercover for the Liverpool Echo to a Liverpool church that offered a cure for homosexuality through a three-day starvation programme. The assistant pastor told Josh to starve himself and not drink any water before taking part in weekly prayer sessions, referring to being gay as “the deceit of Satan”. In the prayer groups the assistant pastor would shout phrases such as “kill it with fire” and “die in the fire,” while members of the congregation were seen crying, shaking, sweating and appearing to speak in tongues. It is shocking that the assistant pastor was an NHS doctor at that time, and I can find no evidence that he is no longer an NHS doctor.
Finally, I want to talk about Carolyn. At 17, Carolyn confided in her local vicar her feelings of self-hatred and depression, and her suicidal thoughts, because she did not feel like a boy. Her vicar took her to a doctor and a psychiatric hospital, where Carolyn was strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room. As images of women’s clothing were projected on to the wall in front of her, doctors would deliver painful electric shocks, hoping to associate the feelings of being a woman with memories of intense pain. As with Joe and Josh, that experience remains with Carolyn to this day.
Joe, Josh and Carolyn are just three survivors I have had the privilege of speaking to, and they experienced a wide range of so-called conversion therapies. I commend them for their bravery in speaking out, sharing their stories and campaigning to end these practices in the UK. Sadly, they are just three of many. In 2018, the Government’s first ever national survey of over 108,000 LGBT people in Britain found that 7% of respondents had either undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Some 13% of trans respondents had undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Of those who had been offered it, 51% said that it was conducted by faith groups and a further 19% said that it was done by healthcare providers or medical professionals. As the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition has outlined, though, given the clandestine and deceptive way these so-called conversion therapies are offered—giving them different names or dressing them up as alternative treatments—the real number is likely to be a lot higher. Tragically, we will never hear the testimonies of many who, grappling with their own identity while being told how wrong they were through these therapies, were left feeling that they had no other option than to take their own life.
It is important to point out that we are not talking about harmful practices that occurred some time ago; this is happening today, here in the UK, right now. A UN report into conversion therapy last year summed it up perfectly when it concluded that any and all forms of conversion therapy are
“inherently degrading and discriminatory. They are rooted in the belief that LGBT persons are somehow inferior, and that they must at any cost modify their orientation or identity to remedy that supposed inferiority.”
So strong was the report that it called for nothing less than
“a global ban on conversion therapy.”
Here in the UK, the practice has received almost universal condemnation. In 2017, a memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK was signed by NHS England and 12 other psychotherapy and health bodies, charities and organisations. I thank Igi Moon for their time speaking to me about the impact this has had. In another powerful intervention, in 2017 the Church of England also passed a motion condemning these practices and calling on the Government to ban them—a call that has now been echoed by over 370 global religious leaders and organisations. I pay particular tribute to Jayne Ozanne and her foundation for her leadership, her courage and her tireless efforts in campaigning on this issue.
Finally, in the national LGBT action plan of 2018, the UK Government committed to bring forward proposals to ban conversion therapy—a call that has been echoed many times in the House since that commitment was made. We have the agreement, the commitment and the coalition of voices from all parts of society urging a ban to be implemented. What we need now is the action. With every day that passes, another person is at risk of being subjected to this degrading treatment. We risk losing even more lives of people who feel there is no other way out.
I have two final points to make today. On what the ban must include, the Government do not need to start from scratch. Highly praised examples already exist in places such as Madrid, Malta and Victoria in Australia. Learning from those examples, and in line with the UN report’s recommendations, a ban must cover both the public and the private spheres and all forms of intervention, no matter what they might be, whether that be healthcare, religious, cultural or traditional, and so on. It must cover children and adults, those who have been coerced and indeed those who consented to such conversion practices. There must be an up-to-date definition of advertising to ensure that it encompasses public, private, community spaces and online advertising. The ban must include the sending, or the threatening to send someone, overseas to undergo so-called conversion therapies. As well as investigative frameworks, a punishment framework for non-compliance must be established, and mechanisms created for support and redress to victims. Finally, it must truly protect all LGBT+ people.
The ban cannot be just on gay conversion therapy. It must cover degrading and inhumane interventions aimed at changing anyone’s sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. We must remember that this is about the practice itself and about the fact that absolutely no one should be subject to such abhorrent interventions. To avoid confusion and to protect those delivering real and actual support to LGBT+ people, laws passed elsewhere in the world have introduced specific mention of what should not be considered as part of a ban, including safe and supportive therapies.
My final point is about the need for a timeline. We have the commitment, the evidence and the international working examples, so what we need now is a Bill. I appreciate that the Government have been gathering evidence, looking to understand this better and exploring options, but I hope that the Minister will deliver some good news and tell us when a Bill will be published, so that we may debate it on the Floor of the House.
To conclude, the evidence is clear. So-called conversion therapy does not work. There is no scientific basis for it whatever. Parts of every section of UK society have come together, united in their condemnation and calling for it to be banned. Since 2021 looks like a year of restarting, reopening and regrowing, let us add to that positivity by getting a conversion therapy ban on to the statute book this year. As a gay man and on behalf of LGBT+ people in the UK and around the world, I will end by saying, we are here—our existence is real, our lives are valid, and we cannot and do not need to be cured.