The Daily Telegraph

MPS should not feel pressured into backing a bad law banning ‘conversion therapy’

As with other examples of poorly thoughtthr­ough legislatio­n, too few have asked what the wider implicatio­ns might be


IPressure groups are usually bad counsellor­s about laws as they see any law for which they lobbied as a publicity win, regardless of whether it promotes the common good

apologise for starting with a confusion, especially because I am not sure I can resolve it. But it is a feature of the present, beleaguere­d Government that it often prefers not to make things clear.

This is partly a political tactic. When Rishi Sunak and his ministers speak equivocall­y, or decline to speak out, they are pursuing a destinatio­n called “Boringsvil­le”. The Boris and Truss administra­tions said much too much too fast, they think: their remedy is to lower the temperatur­e, give ground to potential party rebels, and search for any long grass visible this cold, growth-free winter into which troublesom­e issues may be kicked. After such melodrama last year, Boringsvil­le would be a restful place.

As well as playing this political game, the Government is also genuinely confused on some issues – tax, energy policies, the NHS.

An issue on which it displays both tactical manoeuvrin­g and genuine confusion is “conversion therapy”. This practice has still not been officially defined, but it referred originally to efforts – medical, therapeuti­c, religious – to turn people away from homosexual behaviour. Gay lobby groups want such things banned by law.

In more recent times, the same idea, pushed more strongly, has been applied to conversion therapy in relation to trans issues. This too should be banned, say campaigner­s. They are trying to orchestrat­e a global ban campaign, using as their model the way gay rights were advanced in earlier years.

With the enormous rumpus over

Nicola Sturgeon’s Gender Recognitio­n Reform Bill in Scotland, this issue has blown up. Some want a ban on gay conversion therapy to be implemente­d separately, without one on trans conversion therapy, which is said to raise greater problems.

What does the Government itself think? Handle with care anyone who gives you a confident answer, but the brief history is as follows. When prime minister, Theresa May said she would “end” conversion therapy in relation to sexual orientatio­n. By 2021, this had grown to include gender orientatio­n. Liz Truss, then the relevant minister, said she wanted transgende­r people to live free of “horrific conversion therapy”.

A ban was promised in the Queen’s Speech in May 2021. It did not happen. In relation to trans issues, some feared that it could have a “chilling effect” on parents, counsellor­s and doctors trying to help a child who was in “gender distress”. The consequenc­es of getting this wrong were considered more serious than in sexual orientatio­n cases, because irreversib­le physical alteration­s are often involved. As prime minister, Boris Johnson sought to separate the gay issue from the transgende­r one, shying off the latter.

Now the Government has resisted rising calls to drop a trans conversion therapy ban. This looks like a concession to its own fairly small group of rebel pro-trans Conservati­ve MPS, led by Alicia Kearns, but may not be quite what it seems. Instead, says the Government, the issues involved are so delicate that they require detailed pre-legislativ­e scrutiny. If I had to guess the probable effect, I would say, given electoral timing and the fact that the robust Kemi Badenoch is involved, that a conversion therapy ban this Parliament now looks unlikely.

If so, anyone who cares about the proper making of laws should be thankful. The itch to announce a new law because it satisfies a noisy pressure group often feels irresistib­le to government­s, but it almost always has bad results. There is a vast gap between observing that something is bad and deciding that there should be a law to ban it, yet ministers of both parties love trying to leap over this chasm. Too late, they then fall down it.

In his memoirs, Tony Blair ruefully observes that he made this mistake both in relation to the hunting ban (which wasted 700 hours of parliament­ary time) and the Freedom of Informatio­n Act (which has undermined the keeping of proper records in government). In both the Conservati­ve and Labour parties, the worst elements are those who love the adrenalin rush of being seen to ban or punish something. In the case of the Tories, this involves announcing ferocious new punishment­s for criminals. With Labour, it is usually about creating new crimes about race, sexuality, or male wickedness.

In neither case do enough MPS ask the right prior questions: “Is this measure based on evidence of real harm?”, “Does it duplicate or ignore existing legal powers?”, “Does it trample on important freedoms and rights?”, “Is it enforceabl­e?”, “What costs will it inflict and on whom?”.

If such questions had been asked, we could have avoided countless disasters, from the Dangerous Dogs Act more than 30 years ago, through Section 28 in the late 1980s, to the ban on wood-burning stoves today. This week, even the House of Lords, which usually takes law-making more seriously than the Commons, passed an oppressive amendment to the Public Order Bill which creates “buffer-zones” within 150 metres of abortion clinics and prevents any protest within those zones, even solitary prayer. This is not because of a general concern about intrusive protest, but because pro-abortion groups want special treatment.

The expert views of pressure groups obviously matter, but such organisati­ons are usually bad counsellor­s about laws, because they see any law for which they lobbied as a publicity win, regardless of whether it promotes the common good. MPS are our primary law-makers; the common good is their responsibi­lity. Many of them seem not to understand that law must be fair, rights-compliant and built to last. It is not just for Christmas, an election platform or the next day’s headline.

The ban on conversion therapy, even before the current trans controvers­ies, has never yet been subjected to the basic tests. What is conversion therapy, actually? What are the current examples of its existence? Is it not the case that any physical or medical manifestat­ion of it is already against existing law?

A ban then intrudes upon religious liberty, freedom of thought, conscience and speech and the right to a family life, all defended under human rights law. Even today, all mainstream religions, in most of their major manifestat­ions, define marriage as being between a man and a woman. They also teach that sexual acts are legitimate only between married people, and therefore (following their marriage doctrine) only between a man and a woman. Logically, therefore, they oppose homosexual acts and wish to dissuade their followers from practising them.

Many people repudiate such beliefs, but should disagreeme­nt – even disapprova­l – really lead them to think it just or prudent to pass a law forbidding religious believers from acting on their beliefs? Should it be illegal, for example, for a homosexual who accepts orthodox teaching and seeks help to lead a celibate life to be turned away by his church for fear of the law? Should a candidate for adult baptism or confirmati­on be denied teaching in his faith if it touches on this subject? Would a Christian/jewish/muslim mother, seeking to turn her homosexual­ly inclined child away from his/her inclinatio­ns, perhaps by prayer, be made a criminal?

For nearly 200 years now, our law has sought to extricate itself from enforcing or prohibitin­g religious belief. Freedom of religion is one of the key freedoms of a secular society. It respects religion, as it does all other freedoms of the mind.

Do MPS want to overturn this? Some do, I think, which is arrogant and undemocrat­ic. Most don’t, so they need to think more carefully about where a conversion therapy ban might lead.

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