LGBT Conversion Therapy Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Monday 8th March 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and it is a pleasure to have heard such impassioned and important speeches. The stories that people have told have highlighted the damage that has been done and the lasting consequences for lives. That is well understood, so it must be time for action.

When I looked into the background to the debate, I was struck by the number of signatures on the petition that closed in September last year, compared with two previous petitions on the same subject in 2017 and 2018. Across the UK, the number of signatures increased over sevenfold from 2017 to last year’s quarter of a million signatures. In my constituency of East Renfrewshire, the 2017 petition attracted 33 signatures, but almost 400 of my constituents signed last year’s petition, and I have heard from a great many of them by email. That upswing in signatures tells us two things. The first is that there is a growing and welcome recognition of the need to tackle the wholly unacceptable practice of conversion therapy, which we know is not only hugely discriminatory, but so very damaging to those directly affected. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) spoke very powerfully about that.

The second reason for the upswing in support for the petition could very well be a growing frustration that action is taking so long, which results in people who are potentially directly affected feeling that we are not listening to them. A similar frustration was expressed by the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) when, over five years ago, he sponsored a debate on conversion therapies. In that debate, he wondered why we are struggling to get conversion therapy banned, when there is such significant agreement on the issue. Let us be clear: LGBT people do not need their identities debated nor do they need to be converted. That is fundamental. Nobody’s identity should be subject to debate or to change by other people.

When we get to the end of this debate and hear the Minister’s response, I hope that is what she will say. I hope she will accept these concerns about delay, and respond to them by telling us what is the hold-up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) has just said, let’s get on with it. Is there a reason for the delay? Are the Government experiencing some push-back on this? Who would be doing that? What has prevented action from being taken before now? It is difficult to comprehend. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) described in vivid detail why it matters and the horrific impact it has on many lives.

I accept that the UK Government have been clear that they are committed to banning conversion therapy. I welcome that, but it is nearly three years since they laid out the plan to ban it across the UK. Since then, it looks like inactivity and prevarication to me. It looks like they are kicking the can down the road. Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) so eloquently described, more and more human tragedies occur.

In July 2017, the UK Government launched what would become, with over 108,000 respondents, the largest national survey of LGBT people undertaken anywhere in the world. As the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) has told us, almost a thousand days after publishing the results and an accompanying action plan informed by its findings, it seems that the Government are still at the research stage. What exactly are they researching?

In July last year, the Prime Minister said his Government would do a study on where conversion therapy was happening and its prevalence, and then bring forward plans to ban it, but that information is already there. It is contained within the survey that the Government already did, with over 7,000 people among the respondents who had either undergone conversion therapy or been offered it. That surely provides a clear picture of the geographic spread and the demography of conversion therapies across the UK. This determination to do more research, three years on, does not look like a process of implementing change; it looks more like an attempt to stave off change, and that is not okay.

The UK Government have also said they will take a UK-wide approach to this. The Scottish Government have expressed their support for action by the UK Government. There is already cross-border co-operation on the issue. For instance, NHS England and NHS Scotland both signed up to the 2017 memorandum of understanding, along with other stakeholders, to record their commitment to ending conversion therapy in the UK. Commitments like these, from health groups, counselling groups, psychotherapy groups and many religious groups, are welcome, but we need to do our bit now. We need action.

If we look at the July 2018 action plan, the UK Government said that they would bring froward these proposals, but their correspondence in May 2020 with the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) rights, of which I am a member, raises some serious questions about what progress we are going to see.

There are examples of attempts to implement a holistic ban on conversion therapies, starting with Brazil, which acted on the issue over 20 years ago; that is something we could ponder. Action has also been taken by Canadian cities and by Spanish cities and provinces, including Madrid and Andalusia, which adopted a broad definition of conversion therapies as

“all medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious or any other interventions that seek to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person”.

Given these widespread examples, and the widespread understanding of good practice, it is concerning that in her response to the chair of the APPG, the Minister for Women and Equalities, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), mentioned Germany and Albania as countries that she is reaching out to in order to gain an understanding of the way forward. What is proposed in Germany looks like it could be a prohibition on conversion therapies only on minors and on adults whose participation was secured by coercion or deception. That would absolutely not

“end the vile practice of so-called conversion therapy”

that she says is her intention in her letter. There is a real danger that going down a road like that would legitimise conversion therapy, and we are absolutely not prepared to support that. To be clear, and to echo the very sensible words of the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), this is not therapy; it is very unfortunate that that is the phrase that people use to describe the practice.

I want to hear from the Minister a response that tells me whether the Government are actually thinking about introducing a more narrowly defined Bill. I certainly hope not, but if that is the intention, when did that change of policy take place and why? The Minister for Women and Equalities’ mention of Albania raises some serious questions about the Government’s commitment. In Albania, every therapist has to be a member of the Order of Psychologists, and it is that body, not the state legislature, that has banned conversion therapies. There seems to be little that we can learn from the Albanian approach that has not already been implemented in the 2017 memorandum of understanding, so why is it raised as an example?

When I look at all those things, I am concerned that the UK Government are potentially finding diversions along the way to avoid confronting the difficulties they now face due to changes on their Back Benches. I hope I am wrong about that. The LGBT community cannot be held hostage by right-wing politics or changes in political personnel. I say that, but I am mindful of the powerful speeches that we heard today from Members from across the House, including very powerful speeches by Conservative Members. I take some heart from those consistent and clear words.

In that context, and thinking about the people who are directly affected by this practice, I urge the Minister to do the right thing. We have a responsibility to take action to right wrongs. This practice needs to be made illegal. Nobody should be subjected to that kind of assault on their identity. It needs to stop, but it will not until we move this from being a debate to being a reality. It is time to make progress, and I really hope the Minister tells us that will happen.