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The ban that wasn’t

The “conversion therapy” ban is the product of misleading memes

Artillery Row

The Government has hit a milestone this week, I’m told. If you believe the reports, it’s been five years since Theresa May “promised a ban” on so-called conversion therapy.

The legislation itself remains elusive — good news for those of us concerned that it will hinder our freedom to dispute Stonewall’s deluded thinking.

A draft is said to be sitting on the Prime Minister’s desk. LGBT campaigner and ITV journalist Paul Brand fears “No10 has ‘lost its appetite’”. Was there ever any enthusiasm to pursue this unnecessary plan, though?

All isn’t quite as Stonewall and Brand have led us to believe. Let me take you on a journey back in time, to where this all began in 2018 …

In Westminster, the political climate feels rather claustrophobic. Four Prime Ministers ago, Theresa May’s Government seemed focused almost solely on Brexit. Dig a little deeper, though, and swirling around in the background were a few curious policies about “identity” issues. Slipped in, largely under the distracted public’s radar, were some Stonewall proposals about gender self-ID.

The Government had just carried out a National LGBT Survey — the first of its kind, in fact.

It seems to be a pledge that was largely wished into existence

It asked people whether they had experienced “conversion therapy”. A small but significant number said that they had. On the face of it, it was a sensible question to ask. The survey missed out some all-important questions, however.

The term was undefined. What was this “therapy” that people had been through? Was it already illegal? Was it more than mere disagreement? The survey also failed to ask when or where the “therapy” had taken place. It could have been decades ago, or it could have been halfway around the world. These are critical details.

Still, understandably, the Government said it was concerned about the survey results. The PM agreed: “Something must be done” — but what?

This is where it gets interesting. Hard as we might look, we won’t find that promise of a conversion therapy “ban” we’re told we’ve been waiting five years for. In reality, it seems to be a pledge that was largely wished into existence by Paul Brand and other activists. It’s what they wanted the Government to commit to. It’s what they reported the Government had promised. It was never the official policy.

In fact, when the Government published its “LGBT Action Plan” in July 2018, it said, “We will bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK.” It uses similar phrasing several times. Always “end” and never “ban”. That was clearly the party line.

You might think I’m splitting hairs. “End conversion therapy” and “ban conversion therapy” amount to the same thing, right?

Well, no, they don’t — for one very important reason. Abuse is already illegal.

If the Government were to announce an initiative to “end car theft” you wouldn’t think that meant it was presently legal. You wouldn’t say, “We need a ban.” You would expect better enforcement of the existing law.

Likewise, the sorts of things that the Government was distressed to hear about gay people suffering are already covered in UK law. Even if the survey had shown that these practices were taking place, in 2018, in the UK (which it didn’t), the Government had at its disposal all manner of means of enforcing the existing law without introducing anything new.

That’s why a promise of a “ban” wasn’t given — it wasn’t needed. The promise of a single new law would have been wrong. Instead, the Government said it would consider and consult on “all” options. It can make an effort to “end” abusive practices without having a “ban” on the nebulous concept of “conversion therapy”.

That all-important distinction was ignored by ITV. Plenty of other outlets repeated the claim. Stonewall and others began holding MPs to account for a policy that never was. At the behest of the activists, some MPs began saying “gender identity” must be covered, although they argued that encouraging children to believe they are transgender should still be allowed. Stonewall was pressing for categories like “queer” and “asexual” to be included, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission said the whole thing could have a raft of “unintended consequences”.

Under Boris Johnson’s leadership, the Government said it would develop a “ban”, but it chose to drop the plans when the problems became clear. A leaked memo explained that “there is already legislation to address acts which inflict physical harm”. Exactly right.

It’s time for the Government to repair the confusion

It agreed that the LGBT survey “was not designed to elicit detail on conversion therapy practices and we were not able to conclude whether those who reported being subjected to therapies were reflecting on recent events, incidents in the UK, or to say whether what they experienced was already covered by existing legislation”. This leaked document caused a furore, and within hours the policy was reinstated. The political pirouette didn’t change the stark reality: abusive practices are covered by the law, and a wider “ban” would trample all over our Convention rights.

Precious little has been said since. The current Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch summed up the mood succinctly when she said, “Many of the things that people asked for when we first started talking about conversion therapy practices … are different from what we are looking at now. So it’s widened in scope.” That’s an understatement.

This was once a proposal to tackle hideous abuse. Now it has become a ban on “casual conversations” and “private prayer”. Those are the words of the leading campaign group.

It’s time for the Government to repair the confusion. It should say publicly and clearly that “conversion therapy” is already illegal — assuming we’re talking about genuine abuse. It should ensure everyone knows how and where to seek help when they suffer horrific treatment. It should explain to LGBT groups like Stonewall that they are letting their supporters down when they tell them they have no recourse to justice.

It should admit that, whatever the intention was in 2018, a “ban” on Stonewall and Paul Brand’s terms would wrongly restrict others’ freedoms. From the liberty of Christians to uphold the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics in prayer and pastoral care, to the rights of feminists to refuse to accept men as really being women, and the responsibility of parents to deter their gender-confused children from dangerous cross-sex hormones and life-changing surgery — essential freedoms are at stake.

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