Rishi Sunak’s conversion therapy headache

4, July 2023

This article was first published in The Parliament Politics, 3 July 2023.

by James Kennedy

James works in public affairs for The Christian Institute and is part of the Let Us Pray campaign.

The Prime Minister has a problem on his hands thanks to an old Government pledge to end ‘conversion therapy’.

Successive PMs and Government ministers have promised some sort of magic bullet answer to this rather ill-defined problem.

Too many have bought into Stonewall’s blinkered thinking on the issue. They believe we need a new law banning any conversation about gender ID or sexuality that falls short of full-throated affirmation.

Stonewall demands, and the Government Equalities Office is expected to comply. Except it can’t. Because the Government is being asked for a deeply repressive law that would cut across no fewer than four rights guaranteed by the European Convention. It has spent nearly five years trying to draft a somewhat more human-rights compliant version of the Bill the activists actually want.

Apparently a draft has now made it to the Prime Minister’s desk, where it awaits sign-off.

But the legislation looks set to please no one.

I wonder what is going through Rishi Sunak’s mind as he looks at what could be one of the most ludicrous laws the UK has seen for decades. While the Government has made some of the right noises about protecting parents and religious freedom, few are convinced they can pull it off.

Many Conservative MPs aren’t on board with new legislation. They know it will embolden Stonewall and the rest of the ‘woke’ brigade in their never-ending crusade to control how we all speak.

The Bill has presumably been designed to avoid some of that. Hints at some form of consent clause suggest attempts are being made to avoid what the Equality and Human Rights Commission called “unintended consequences”.

But the PM would be wrong to think it is going to be easy to draft sufficient safeguards.

As we have seen in recent days, the ideology being pushed by Stonewall is pervasive. Schoolteachers telling children they are “despicable” for disputing whether you can identify as a cat are simply following through on years of diversity training in Stonewall dogma.

Worse still, children are being helped, behind their parents’ backs, to access dangerous medication and transgender ideology dressed up as advice.

Legislating in a way which enshrines this sort of thinking on the statute book should be unthinkable. Banning challenging conversations about identity issues would be the wrong legislation, at the wrong time.

The proposals also fail to realise the reality of religious belief in our nation.

Surely Sunak has thought about the battles he might face with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and, yes, Hindus? And there are many more besides who will object to laws that trample on the sacred territory of ‘conversion’, pastoral conversations and ‘prayers’. There is no neutral ground here.

And the effect on such groups would be enormous. When we asked Jason Coppel KC whether the legislation under consideration would impact church life, he said yes. From pastoral care and friendly conversations, to prayer groups and preaching, Christians and others could find swathes of their daily lives affected.

It doesn’t stop there. Anything that relates to the expectations placed on church members becomes a liability too. So, saying to someone that they can’t lead a service, be baptised, run the youth group or take communion, because of sexual behaviour that is at odds with the Bible, could be deemed “conversion therapy” and becomes a criminal offence.

But legitimate organisations must be allowed to uphold their principles. If a member of Sunak’s cabinet encouraged people to vote for the opposition he would remove them from office. Shouldn’t churches have comparable freedoms?

But those demanding this Bill want no exceptions.

Just look at the response to ITV’s report last week that there might be some sort of consent clause in the Bill. Uproar hardly covers it. It would “render it meaningless”, claimed the leader of the ban campaign.

But the Government simply can’t offer a Bill that tramples on basic human rights. Any law which restricts free speech and religious freedom will result in protracted court battles.

Stonewall’s friends will be bitterly disappointed by a law which doesn’t achieve everything they ask for. But the Government has to tell them the hard truth that their demands are unrealistic and repressive.

It sounds like another PR problem, another lost battle for Sunak. But there is a way out.

Surprisingly, it is a return to the Conservative Government’s pledge in 2018. Sunak can meet party commitments and ditch a disastrous policy in one fell swoop.

Take a look at what Penny Mordaunt said in 2018 when she announced the policy in the LGBT Action Plan: “a commitment to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK”. And what does the Action Plan say? “proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy”.

Notice what’s missing? There’s no mention of a ‘ban’. That’s rather significant.

Because what the LGBT Action Plan was actually recognising was that genuinely harmful practices can be tackled under existing legislation.

The UK already has strong laws against abuse and coercion. ‘Conversion therapy’ is already illegal if we’re talking about verbally or physically abusive practices.

So how does the Government fulfil its pledge? By ensuring the current law is properly applied. If someone is abused – for whatever reason – make sure the authorities take it seriously.

No one will complain about Government policies which seek to protect LGBT people from unlawful abuse or coercion. That is what the Government committed to, and that is what it should do.

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