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Proposed conversion therapy ban creates ‘thought crime’ offence, peers warn

Lord Forsyth condemned the plans (House of Lords/PA)
Lord Forsyth condemned the plans (House of Lords/PA)

A proposed law to ban conversion therapy is “dangerous” and would create a “thought crime” offence, peers have claimed.

It would become an offence in the UK for any person to practise, or to offer to practise, conversion therapy linked to sexual orientation and gender identity under a Private Member’s Bill tabled by Liberal Democrat Baroness Burt of Solihull.

Lady Burt said her Bill is needed as Government efforts to introduce a ban have stalled and insisted her proposal would not criminalise “open conversations in any way” but instead protect LGBT+ people from harm.

But the draft legislation split peers, with some claiming it would limit the ability of parents, teachers, psychiatrists and religious practitioners from discussing matters with children and others.

The Bill received an unopposed second reading, as is convention in the Lords, but is likely to face a strong challenge from critics at committee stage.

Lady Burt said her Bill was designed to stop people trying to “coerce” someone into changing their behaviour and police would be required to “demonstrate both action and motivation” when attempting to prosecute under the proposed offence.

But Conservative former minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said he had “never seen a more badly drafted or dangerous piece of legislation” in his 40 years in Parliament.

Lord Forsyth said the Bill allows for unlimited fines for those convicted while a separate proposal in Scotland could result in jail time, adding: “The world has gone mad.”

He said: “It seems to me we normally, in this House, introduce legislation in order to fix a problem, not create new ones, and this (Bill) undermines the family, attacks free speech, freedom of thought and even religious belief.

“It is a dangerous, crude piece of legislation in a hugely complex and controversial area which is not suited to private legislation.

“It has all the characteristics of something written on the back of a beer mat after an unruly discussion in a pub. I very much oppose it.”

Conservative Lord Sandhurst added: “This Bill is in no way suitable, creating as it does a far-reaching criminal offence – thought crime comes to mind.”

Conservative former minister Lord Robathan said: “It seems to me, I’m afraid, to be purely virtue-signalling to placate a very small outraged minority who think their choice of lifestyle must never be questioned or discussed, however gently, by parents or anyone else.”

Former senior judge and independent crossbencher Baroness Butler-Sloss offered her support, saying: “This Bill, as I hope it would be amended, would help LGBT+ people to be protected from unacceptable efforts to make them conform to a heterosexual way of life which does not conform with their sexual orientation.”

Lord Paddick, currently a non-affiliated a peer, spoke of his personal experiences as he told the chamber: “I still suffer low self-confidence and self-esteem as a result of people constantly telling me I was ‘not good enough’ just because I’m gay.

“My parents told me that homosexuality was abhorrent, so I felt I couldn’t even discuss it with them. I was bullied at school because of it. My police colleagues targeted people like me, and my church told me it was sinful.

“Being constantly told that you’re not good enough, that there is something wrong with you, that yes God made you a loving, caring, sensual individual but you cannot love the person you truly love because they are of the same sex, damages you. Conversion therapy is an intense version of the same thing.”

Crossbench peer Baroness Hunt of Bethnal Green, a former chief executive of Stonewall, said: “We need clarity on exactly what constitutes conversion practices and what doesn’t. In similar legislation across the world, the law states explicitly what is to be included and what is excluded – our legislation must do the same.”

The Bishop of Guildford claimed the Bill has “almost unlimited reach” as he warned of a danger of “criminalising potentially millions of citizens”.

Conservative former minister Lord Herbert of South Downs said: “We should not stand by and allow these harmful practices to continue. Yes, we must frame the law carefully. But the time to outlaw this abuse is long overdue.”

The Government first announced its intention to ban so-called “gay cure” conversion therapies in 2018 as part of its LGBT action plan.

The proposals were initially intended to be “universal” and protect all LGBT people, although in 2022 then-prime minister Boris Johnson defended a decision not to include trans people.

In January 2023, the Government said it would set out how it would ban conversion therapy for “everyone” – including transgender people – in England and Wales.

Education minister Baroness Barran said on Friday: “It remains our intention to publish a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.”

Lady Barran expressed reservations about Lady Burt’s Bill, including over the definition of conversion therapy, use of “gender identity” and trying to extend the measures to the UK when criminal justice matters are devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The minister said: “It’s vital any legislation targeting these harmful practices does not affect the ability of parents, teachers, counsellors, religious leaders or healthcare practitioners to have open, exploratory and sometimes even challenging conversations, particularly with young people who are expressing or exploring their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity.

“In particular I worry that such a broad definition would create a chilling effect for those working in the legitimate clinical care sector who may feel too nervous to conduct their jobs out of fear of potential criminalisation.”