LGBT Conversion Therapy Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Monday 8th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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We come now to the second of these hybrid debates in Westminster Hall, which are actually being held in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House. From my point of view, they are an extremely good innovation.

Before we start our debate on LGBT conversion therapy, perhaps I can remind Members of one or two matters. Social distancing must be maintained in this room, as it has been already. Those who are here are expected to be here for the beginning and the end of the debate, including those who are with us virtually; please stay until the end. And those who are here physically should use a wet wipe to clear up their space after they have spoken.

With that, I call Elliot Colburn, who is appearing virtually, to propose the motion.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con) [V]
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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.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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It may help the House to know that some 50 people originally put in to speak in this debate, of whom Mr Speaker has selected 20. If we are to achieve that number, as a courtesy to each other, I suggest a maximum speaking time of three minutes—two minutes would be even better.

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Crispin Blunt Portrait Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con) [V]
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on leading the debate so well, and I congratulate his Committee on securing it. I have two key points for the Government. The first is that we must legislate. Deliver the promise to protect in law. Use the work done in the Government Equalities Office before 2019. Use the examples elsewhere, particularly in Spain and the Australian state of Victoria, which have already legislated. Our common law system enables the drafting challenge of defining conversion therapy to be met. There is no need to overcomplicate this issue. The police, prosecutors and jurors will know conversion therapy when they see it. Most critically, the victims will know it too, and they will have been equipped with a defence mechanism.

Such a law is an important step as a declaratory statement, as it is as a legal tool. If someone is LGBT, the law says that the state supports them. It supports how they want to live their life. When victims find themselves under pressure that is improperly applied to convert them to something they are not, they will know that it is against the law and that they can call it out. They can say to the person or people who are the source of this—[Interruption.]

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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We have lost the sound, Mr Blunt. You are mute.

Crispin Blunt Portrait Crispin Blunt
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My apologies.

The law gives the victims the opportunity to go to the police and, therefore, to have a weapon in their hand against the source of a conversion therapy. The state is on the side of victims’ freedom—the freedom that that individual is trying to take away from them.

The second point I want to make is that such protection must include trans people. They are by far and away the most vulnerable group among the LGBT community. Identity around gender dysphoria is surely a much more challenging thing to meet than a minority sexuality, but all must be protected. The law must include trans people, and not only because they are the group who need it the most. In 2018, it appeared that trans people were on a trajectory to achieve their rights and protections to live their lives as they wished, supported by the Government’s comprehensive LGBT action plan, but all that now seems to have changed. Trans people are a community under siege. Organisations whose principle raison d’être is to attack and challenge the very legitimacy of trans people have come into being, and they appear to trans people to be firmly in the ascendant.

The lived experience of trans people reflects the awful paucity of services for them in the United Kingdom, as graphically illustrated by VICE News in January and November. They also see 250 articles a year attacking them in our newspaper of record, The Times. They see that groups such as the Conservative Women’s Pledge and LGB Alliance, whose purpose seems to be to protect cisgender women from trans women, have the ear of Ministers. They see reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 abandoned, and the principle of gender-neutral legislation was reversed only last week.

Gender is much more complicated than sexuality, and the drafting of the ban on conversion therapy will need to protect those giving informed, regulated and properly peer-reviewed advice to assist those on the path to reconciling their gender dysphoria. If the legislation does not include the protection of trans people, however, it will send to them the unmistakeable message that their Government do not want to protect them, do not value them and, at some level, do not really accept that trans is really a thing. That awful message would inadvertently make the Government themselves party to the practice of conversion therapy.

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Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my colleague the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his wonderful introduction to the debate. I have been contacted by many of my constituents about the petition, each of them as shocked as I am that the Government have still not acted to outlaw the practice of so-called conversion therapy inflicted on LGBT people.

The petitioners’ aims are not difficult to enact, nor are they asking too much. Their requests are clear and simple: they simply want LGBT people to live in dignity without having their sexuality or gender identity questioned. Every human being should have the right to express their own identity without the judgment of others. It is clear from the evidence surrounding this practice, compiled by the charity Stonewall, that that is not the case for everyone who identifies as LGBT in the UK. According to Stonewall’s figures, one in 20 LGBT people living in the UK has at some time been subject to or recommended for therapies that question their very identity. That number rises to almost one in 10 among young LGBT adults aged between 18 and 24 and almost one in five for trans people.

In a modern, supposedly decent society, that should not even be an option, and it certainly should not be legal. Many of the people subjected to such practices have them forced upon them by their families. In some cases, LGBT people are sent abroad for treatment by relatives who believe it will somehow cure them, when there is nothing—absolutely nothing—to be cured. The only result is severe distress and untold psychological trauma.

Every recognised medical and professional body in the UK has described the practice as dangerous. Many other public bodies have signed a common pledge against the practice. However, substantial evidence still shows that too many people continue to believe, despite the evidence, that sexuality and gender identity can be cured in some way. Enacting legislation to end these so-called therapies and ensure that no practitioner in the UK can consider them an option to which they can refer a patient would contribute greatly to preventing people from persisting in that belief.

I appreciate that the Government have previously made supportive statements on the issue. The Prime Minister himself described it as “abhorrent”, and as something that

“has no place in a civilised society”.

He made that statement last summer, but nine months on there has been no movement. There is clearly cross-party consensus in favour of legislating to outlaw this practice. Every day that the Government delay legislation, another LGBT person could be subject to this continued abuse. We have the power to act and the support to pass the legislation. All we need is the legislation to put our words into action. We can prevent further damage to the lives of LGBT people in this country, but only if we act quickly.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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Physically speaking and back from her maternity leave, we have Alicia Kearns.

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Gary Sambrook Portrait Gary Sambrook (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

Conversion therapy, in many ways, is a manipulation. It is a manipulation of emotions; it is a manipulation of the coming-out process; and it is a manipulation of people finding themselves and understanding themselves over many years. I came out when I was 22, nine years after I probably realised that I was slightly different from the rest of the lads at school. People go through emotional turmoil when they are going through that process. Even when I started school—I am only 31—it still was not legal to adopt, and marriage was a distant, far-away thought. Until recently, the NHS still did not want my blood.

We go through this process, and it is incredibly difficult for people to process it, because we put ourselves under so much strain and pressure. For me and so many other people, the emotions that we feel—the emotions that are being manipulated by this conversion therapy—are emotions of shame, of not belonging, and of being selfish. These are the things we put ourselves through. We talk ourselves down and we end up convincing ourselves that we are doing wrong—that we are deliberately trying to behave differently from other people. The reason it took me so long to come out of the closet is that I did not want to tell my mum that she would not be a granny, because I am an only child. We put ourselves through this for years and years. I was very lucky, because I plodded on and managed to get through that very difficult period in my life, but so many other people can have those emotions manipulated. By allowing these conversion therapies to continue, we are opening the door for this sort of practice to continue.

I talk about gay and lesbian people, because I am gay, but I also fully support many of the contributions today that have said that this conversion therapy also needs to end for trans people; I am 100% behind that battle too. I want to send a message to the Government that it has been three years since this promise to ban conversion therapy. We have got to get on with it and make sure that we deliver on it, because every day is a delay; another day in which somebody else has their emotions manipulated; another day in which someone else’s life could be ruined forever by going through these highly traumatic experiences.

That could be any one of a number of us. Looking through these stories, we can see similarities in what we read. We can point them out and think, “This was me at one point during my life” or, “This was a friend of mine at some point during their life.” I look at the apology that was given last year by the University of Birmingham, where electric shock treatment was given to gay people in the 1970s, and think, “That could have been me.”

We owe it to all those people to make sure that we ban conversion therapy as soon as possible, because if we allow that door to be open for much longer, I fear the consequences for so many young people—and not necessarily just young people; it could be middle-aged people; people who are later on in their life who find themselves hiding things and make daily lies a normal thing, as I did, to try to cover their tracks. This sort of stuff puts people through enormous emotional turmoil, which is why it is so important that we ban conversion therapy as soon as possible.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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I apologise to the House. I inadvertently missed out the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy).

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Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I can think of no better way to open my speech than where the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) finished, with a passage from Vicky Beeching, who gave me a lot of support before I came out publicly. In her book “Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame”, she writes: “There was only one thing that had caused vast emotional shame in my life for years. I had known I was gay since I was 12 or 13. Keeping that hidden for two decades had been wrecking my heart and mind. Now, as I neared the age of 30, it seemed to be wrecking my body too. All these years I’d prayed and fasted, submitted myself to an exorcism, confessed to a Catholic priest, believed that conversion therapy could change a person’s orientation, read the Bible until my eyes were sore and never acted on my attractions even once. I’d done anything and everything to try and become straight or to shut down any desires for a life partner. My immune system, my adrenals and my sympathetic nervous system were all stretched to breaking point from years of living in fight or flight mode.”

If Members need any other first-hand accounts of how devastating conversion therapy is, a good friend of mine who wanted to remain anonymous shared this with me: “I had not known until today what they had endured. It’s only now, at almost 35 years old, that I even have some small level of strength to begin to deal with it. It cost me most of my teenage years and 20s. I still struggle with acceptance of my sexuality to this day, which has affected my ability to have any open and meaningful relationships. I went through years of really dark mental health battles because of this. The first time I tried to kill myself by suicide was at 12 years old, because I wasn’t who I was meant to be, and this was unfortunately the beginning of what was to become a very dark decade of self-hatred brought on because of these practices. It’s torture, and it has had lifelong debilitating effects that affect every part of my life. It has to stop.”

We should not have to choose between our religion and our sexuality, or between following the faith of our choice or the person we love. I might not be formally part of any faith, but I recognise what a huge part faith can play in many people’s lives and in our society. The national LGBT survey of 2018 showed that 51% of respondents who had undergone conversion therapy said that faith groups had conducted it, and 19% said it had been conducted by healthcare providers or medical professionals. As parliamentarians and legislators, we simply cannot allow such a practice to continue.

I was well into my 30s when I came out. Why I did not come out sooner will always be a mystery to me, but a big part of it was because I was from a single-parent family. I grew up in a loving family that I knew would accept me for whoever I was, but I did not grow up in a society that would accept me for whoever I was. I grew up in a society that said heteronormativity and having a parent of each gender was the ideal, and I could not face up to being a lesbian. Now, as the daughter of a single mother and as a proud out lesbian, I realise that they are my strengths, my superpowers, but that is not the case for so many in the LGBT community.

I know how hard it was to come out to a loving family and friendship group. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for people who are oppressed and subjected to conversion therapy, so we must draw a line in the sand. We must ask ourselves as parliamentarians, “What are we here for?” We are not here just to make grand speeches and gestures. We are here to bring about change, to change the law, and to outlaw that abhorrent practice.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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We have 50 minutes to go and six speakers. I call Simon Baynes

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Mark Fletcher Portrait Mark Fletcher (Bolsover) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I declare a brief interest, in that my husband works for a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender charity that works in schools. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) touched on the fact that society has come a long way. Some of that has been law led and some of it has been developments over time. Ultimately, the discussions around conversion therapy are really about acknowledging who we are—not who we want to be, not who society wants us to be, not who our parents or friends want us to be, but who we are as individuals.

To be different is still difficult. So many things have changed and society has improved, but we still live with tremendous pressures upon individuals, who still feel the need to deny who they are. One of the difficulties that I have had in listening to an amazing array of speeches from people from all parties—this is a cross-party issue and debate—is that we want to solve everything, and to say to every person in this country, “You can be who you want to be, and you can be proud and happy.”

We cannot do that as lawmakers because only so many things are under our control. However, one thing that we can do, and there is clear consensus to do it within this room and among all the people on all these wonderful screens in front of us, is to take a step in the right direction and end this “abhorrent” practice—not my words but the words of the Prime Minister—for which there is no medical justification. The hon. Member for Wallasey said it is medieval, and that term is absolutely right.

I stand here as someone who is openly gay and who came out at a comprehensive school in Doncaster. I am not religious, but I did not have the best experience with coming out, which I am sure many people can relate to. I want to say to all the boys and girls who know that they are a little bit different, whether they are gay or whether they think that something is just not quite right, that we have your backs. We will continue to push for this ban and we will continue to try to make your lives a little bit better.

In my last 30 seconds, I will just say one thing to the online LBGT community who have looked today and said, “Why should there be a debate? We should just crack on and end conversion therapy.” I understand their argument, but I question that arrogance, because there is always a need to win the argument, and there is always a need to keep advancing and making sure that the things that we do here and elsewhere are led by the best arguments, and that we continue to fight that fight.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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We have three more Back Benchers to speak and five minutes left.

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Jamie Wallis Portrait Dr Jamie Wallis (Bridgend) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on leading this very important debate and on making such a compelling and moving opening speech.

Conversion therapy is a damaging, degrading and discriminatory practice that seeks to correct something that does not need fixing—somebody’s sexual orientation, or their gender identity and/or expression. It causes severe physical and psychological suffering; it violates the human rights of the LGBT community; and it is considered by some to be a form of torture, and for good reason.

If we want to eradicate this insidious form of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic abuse, we need a legislative ban to make conversion therapy illegal and we need one as soon as possible. It is vital that this Government lead the way for our LGBT+ community and make history with an effective legislative ban as quickly as possible.

The national LGBT survey found that 7% of people had been offered or undergone conversion therapy. I should echo comments made in support of trans people, because trans respondents to that survey suggested that they are almost twice as likely to have undergone or been offered such therapies.

It is important to echo the comment that this abhorrent practice is taking place across Britain right now. As it is, the law does not protect my constituents from conversion therapy, despite how harmful and damaging it is.

In the short time I have, I will finish by saying that the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition’s ask for support for victims and survivors—whether through charities, faith groups or mental health practitioners—to help them overcome the trauma that they have endured and rebuild their lives is very important. I ask that it be included in any future services that are offered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington made some very good points about what an effective ban should include, and I echo his statements on that. A ban should prevent people from being threatened or sent abroad, it should protect people regardless of age, and it should support victims and survivors regardless of whether they were coerced into or consented to the practice. It must ban the advertising and promotion of said practices, both offline and online. These are the right things to do, and the sooner the Government take action, the sooner the UK can join the growing number of global leaders in LGBT rights who have taken such steps.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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Very briefly, please, Alyn Smith.