Conversion therapy: Government moves closer to a ban, unless you consent

Paul Brand reports on the difficult experiences faced by those forced to go through conversion therapy and how the new legislation may prevent similar situations

The government has finally published detailed proposals to ban so-called conversion therapy, more than three years after first promising ITV News that the practice would be outlawed. 

A six week consultation will invite views on ending coercive attempts to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity, unless they have given informed consent. 

The government insists the ban would apply in all situations, including religious settings, where the majority of conversion therapy takes place. 

However, there will be huge debate over the definition of providing consent.

The government says this exemption will not apply to under 18s, who will be protected by the law in all circumstances. 

The detailed consultation document says that physical forms of conversion therapy, such as rape, are already covered by other laws. 

But it states that the government intends to extend the law to ban what it calls "talking conversion therapy".

Announcing the consultation, the Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, said, "There should be no place for the abhorrent practice of coercive conversion therapy in our society.

"As we built back better from the pandemic, I want everyone to be able to love who they want and be themselves.

"Today's announcement sets out how we will ban an archaic practice that has no place in modern life."

Equalities Minister Liz Truss said: "There should be no place for the abhorrent practice of coercive conversion therapy in our society." Credit: PA

Senior minister George Eustice told ITV News the government sees the practice as "objectionable" and is seeking to ban it, however he did accept there may be exemptions.

In 2018, ITV News went undercover at Winners Chapel, where a pastor told our reporter that the devil had made him gay and offered him intensive prayer. 

I have been assured by government sources that this sort of religious practice would be included in the scope of the proposed ban. 

As well as facing a criminal conviction, those found guilty of practicing conversion therapy would have to forfeit any profits they made.

They could also be sacked if they hold a senior position in a charity, a sanction which would apply to many religious leaders. 

Watch ITV News' report undercover report from 2018 where a pastor told our reporter 'the devil had made him gay'

Protection Orders will also be used to safeguard potential victims from being put through conversion therapy. 

Campaigners are concerned, however, by the loophole which would allow conversion therapy where an individual has explicitly consented to it.

Other harmful practices which the government has recently outlawed, such a female genital mutilation, do not include this clause. 

I understand that some civil servants in the Equalities Office have also raised concerns with ministers about this loophole.

Last year ITV News exclusively revealed the majority of the public supported a ban.

We spoke to 'Tom' who said he was left with 'no real hope' after going to group therapy sessions to try and change his sexuality

How an individual could demonstrate their consent is not clear, but I understand that the government intends for anyone offering conversion therapy to have to outline the potential harm involved, including the fact that there is no conclusive evidence that the practice works. 

Only those who have had the risks explained to them beforehand would then be considered to have consented. 

In reality, this is a grey area which is likely to be the subject of intense debate during the consultation, as the government tries to appease both LGBT+ campaigners and religious organisations. 

Jayne Ozanne, who resigned as an equalities advisor to the government earlier this year in protest at the lack of progress on banning conversion therapy, said: "While I welcome the launch of the government's consultation on conversion therapy, and the fact that it proposes both criminal and civil remedies to ban conversion therapy, I am deeply concerned about the loophole it creates by allowing adults to consent to these harmful and degrading practices. 

"The consultation document makes little mention of the harm that religious practices are known to cause, nor does it recognise that its own research has shown that these form the majority of such practices in the UK."

Jayne Ozanne spoke to ITV News in March after she announced her resignation as equalities advisor

Conservative MPs who’ve been campaigning for a ban have also raised concerns.

Conservative backbencher Alicia Kearns said: "Love is not a pathology, and it doesn’t need treating. Today’s proposals will protect LGBTQ+ people from bigotry and quackery packaged up by sinister charlatans to snare and profit off the vulnerable.

"I remain unconvinced that anyone can consent to such an abusive practice, and will look closely at the proposed ban to ensure that victims and survivors get the protections they need and deserve."

However, religious groups which have opposed an outright ban on all forms of conversion therapy believe the consultation also protects their freedoms. 

The Evangelical Alliance said: "We welcome this consultation in which the government is looking to honour its two commitments - to end coercive and abusive behaviour and to safeguard spiritual support for those who want it.

"Our concern is that some campaigners will push to see every day Christian practices such as prayer and pastoral care criminalised."

Privately the government admits that the consultation is likely to involve a fierce debate over the detail. 

Any law won’t be published until next spring, when it will then begin a journey through Parliament.