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Government ignores calls for evidence behind ‘conversion therapy’ U-turn

Shadow equalities minister Anneliese Dodds calls out ministers’ failure to protect trans people

Lou Ferreira 2022.jpg
Lou Ferreira
15 June 2022, 4.34pm

Trans people and allies demand a trans-inclusive ban on conversion practices


Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government has ignored requests to publish evidence justifying its decision to exclude trans people from its ban on conversion practices.

The petitions committee had asked ministers to share the evidence that had informed its decision to U-turn on protecting trans people in the ban, ahead of a debate that took place in Parliament on Monday.

But ministers failed to produce any documents, and the debate went ahead without them.

Shadow equalities secretary Anneliese Dodds told MPs in Westminster Hall. “I believe that’s because such evidence does not exist.”

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She added: “Are we going to be back here in another year’s time, asking exactly the same questions? If so, I do genuinely fear for the impact on trans people in the interim, who only want to live their lives in dignity and free from abuse.”

The petitions committee chair, Catherine McKinnell, and Tory MP Elliot Colburn, who opened the debate, sent a letter to equalities minister Mike Freer on 17 May asking to know what evidence had informed the government’s decision to exclude trans conversion therapy from the proposed ban.

They also asked for more details of the “separate work” the government has said it will do to consider trans conversion practices, and when it intends to publish a response to its public consultation (which ran from 29 October 2021 until 4 February 2022 to gather feedback about the then-current proposals for a ban).

McKinnell and Colburn asked the government to respond by 9 June, in time for the Westminster debate, but received none of the materials they’d requested.

During the debate, Freer was again asked whether the government had any evidence that a trans-inclusive ban could impact the provision of “legitimate talking therapies”, including statements from medical bodies expressing concerns. He reiterated his claim that “clinicians and therapists have expressed some concern”.

All recent legislative bans, including those implemented in Canada, France, Greece and New Zealand, include both sexual orientation and gender identity. “There is no rationale for exclusion,” Dodds said. “Ministers have had almost four years to work up a ban on all forms of conversion therapy which does not inadvertently restrict access to legitimate non-coercive forms of treatment […] They could have looked at the examples of other countries that have managed to produce bans without any evidence of such unintended consequences.”

There is no rationale for exclusion

Anneliese Dodds, MP

Dodds also asked Freer to provide a detailed timeline and further information about the “scoping” process that the government argues is required in order to minimise the so-called “unintended consequences” of a trans-inclusive ban.

Freer said he is “disappointed that we have not brought forward a fully inclusive bill”, but hopes that a bill which is “narrow in scope” and “clearly sets out what is and isn’t a conversion practice” would be brought forward in September or October this year. He did not confirm whether this would include protections for trans people.

He added: “It is not unreasonable to take some extra time to try and build that consensus, so that when a bill comes forward, we’re able to make it as inclusive as possible. I can’t guarantee that we’ll get there.”

‘Outcome neutral’ therapy not affected

Nearly four years have passed since the UK government first pledged to outlaw conversion therapy. In October 2021, then equalities minister Liz Truss finally announced plans for a ban.

But on 10 May, Downing Street backtracked, saying its proposed law would only apply to practices relating to sexual orientation, not gender identity.

It will only protect under-18s, and contains loopholes for supposedly ‘consenting’ adults and for non-physical forms of conversion practices – exemptions that leave all LGBT people vulnerable, say campaigners.

A petition for a trans-inclusive ban amassed more than 145,000 signatures, triggering Monday’s Westminster Hall debate. But the government said there were “different considerations when it comes to transgender conversion therapy”. “One of the complexities is that those who experience gender dysphoria may seek talking therapy. It is vital that legitimate support is not inadvertently impacted,” it added.

Freer – who was responding on behalf of the government – repeated: “We do not agree with attempts to change someone’s gender. But we do wish to ensure that any action that we bring forward on transgender conversion practices don’t have wider implications, such as accessing legitimate therapies.”

Yet all the MPs who spoke in support of a trans-inclusive ban pointed out that such a ban would not in itself outlaw explorative discussions and talking therapies that are “outcome-neutral”.

Campaigners want to ban practices that “do not have an open outcome but aim to change what a person is,” said Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse.

Kirsten Oswald, MP and deputy Westminster leader for the SNP, added: “Banning conversion practices doesn’t criminalise outcome-neutral explorative conversations or therapy. Only practices that have a targeted focus on directing someone towards [what the practitioner deems] a more ‘acceptable’ outcome” should be banned, she said.

Even Freer appeared to concede that trans ‘conversion therapy’ refers specifically to practices “where a person has a predetermined outcome to take that person away from being trans”, rather than the “legitimate therapies” highlighted by the government.

Conversion practices: ‘deeply harmful’ and ‘abusive’

Throughout the debate, MPs shared survivor accounts testifying to the “devastating” and “lifelong, deeply traumatic consequences” of conversion practices.

The government’s own 2018 survey found that trans people are more likely to undergo conversion practices than cis lesbian, gay and bisexual people, Oswald explained. She described conversion practices as “abusive” and “deeply harmful”.

Research carried out last year found half of the gender-diverse participants who had undergone conversion practices said it had worsened “most aspects of their life” including their mental health, and their peer and family relationships, said Hobhouse.

“If the government recognises the harm these cruel and medieval practices are causing to one group of people, why does it exclude the group that is the most harmed?”

Opposition to a trans-inclusive ban is entirely built on stoking fear and division based on deliberate misinformation

Nia Griffith, MP

Nadia Whittome told MPs that the current proposals are “discriminatory and unacceptable”. She added: “Just as society looks back […] with disgust at how gay people were treated in decades gone by, we will also hang our heads in shame at trans people’s treatment in decades to come.”

Whittome, a Labour MP for Nottingham East, said she was “extremely concerned that trans people’s exclusion [from the ban] is yet another cynical attempt by this government to create a culture war between these different groups, that the government is scapegoating trans people who already face a tyrade of violence and discrimination.

“The government does the same to migrants, the same to refugees, the same to people of colour. And we saw Thatcher’s government whip up the same moral panic against gay people in the 1980s.”

The Labour MP for Llanelli, Nia Griffith, condemned the government’s actions “at a time when trans people are facing appalling abuse and bullying and discrimination”.

“Opposition to a trans-inclusive ban is entirely built on stoking fear and division based on deliberate misinformation,” she said.

“The government is not only sending a message to trans people that it is not prepared to protect them, [but also] sending a very transphobic message to wider society, and this is a very serious matter indeed.”

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