The Government has been under growing pressure to ban conversion therapy. The British Psychological Society defines this as “therapy that assumes certain sexual orientations or gender identities are inferior to others, and seeks to change or suppress them on that basis.” It is widely and historically recognised as a traumatic practice that can lead to depression and increase the risk of suicide among people offered such “treatments”.

What’s the Government’s position on conversion therapy?

In 2018, Theresa May’s government proposed to ban “gay conversion therapies” in England by using legislation if necessary. But this has not happened yet. Earlier this month, three of the Government’s LGBT advisers resigned from their posts, citing the inaction on conversion therapy as one reason for this.

In 2020 Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister, said that enacting a ban was a “very complex issue” and Boris Johnson, who later called the practice “absolutely abhorrent”, also said it was “technically complex”. ConservativeHome has tried to highlight what these complexities might be, and the existing rules, below:

What is the current law on conversion therapy?

Currently, all major UK therapy professional bodies and the NHS reject conversion therapy. But it is an unlicensed practice, meaning that self-appointed “therapists” can offer a wide range of “therapies” to “cure” their patients. Shockingly, when the National LGBT Survey asked people in 2019 what conversion therapy they’d been offered, the answers ranged “from pseudo-psychological treatments to, in extreme cases, surgical interventions and ‘corrective’ rape.”

What is the law elsewhere on conversion therapy?

The practice is illegal in Switzerland and parts of Australia, Canada and the US. To give an example of what one policy looks like, take Germany, which last year banned “gay conversion therapy” for under-18s. It means that minors cannot take part in medical interventions aimed at changing or suppressing their sexual orientation or gender identity. Anyone who offers the service can face up to a year in prison or a €30,000 (£26,268) fine, and parents and legal guardians can also be punished for pushing their children towards conversion therapy.

What do UK campaigners want?

A petition that was signed by over 250,000 people last year sets out some ideas for change. It reads:

“I would like the Government to [make]:

  • running conversion therapy in the UK a criminal offence
  • forcing people to attend said conversion therapies a criminal offence
  • sending people abroad in order to try to convert them a criminal offence
  • protect individuals from conversion therapy”.
Why has the ban been called “very complex”?

One big challenge for the Government is how it defines “conversion therapy”. For instance, some people might take this to be shorthand for “gay conversion therapy”, but some campaigners want it also to include “gender identity”. There are debates about how far the definition should go, and whether including gender identity could mean, for instance, a counsellor exploring whether a child wants to change gender was seen as trying to “suppress” or “cure” their identity.

Scope matters too

Badenoch also said in 2020 that “there are a wide range of practices which may fall within [the] scope” of conversion therapy. For example, the Evangelical Alliance, which represents 3,500 evangelical churches, has written to the Prime Minister, warning that “An expansive definition of conversion therapy, and a ban along such lines, would place church leaders at risk of prosecution when they preach on biblical texts relating to marriage and sexuality.”

The Government will want to protect religious freedom. However, it is interesting to note the National LGBT Survey found that faith organisations were by far the most likely group to conduct a form of conversion therapy (51 per cent). Other responses included healthcare provider or medical professional (19 per cent), parent, guardian or other family member (16 per cent) and “prefer not to say” with 11 per cent of the vote.

Other campaign groups

Another complication is that there are other groups that may have concerns about the “conversion” of other identities. Take Applied Behaviour Analysis, which some practitioners advocate for children with Autism. Others criticise the approach and call it a type of “conversion therapy”, as it tries to condition a child through behavioural techniques to show less symptoms of autism (something we accept people are born with). Would the Government find itself being asked to ban these types of therapies too?

On a more general point

One thing that seems clear is that the UK’s therapy industry is a bit of a free for all. Last year, a BBC investigation found that there are no laws against anyone operating as a psychotherapist, therapist or counsellor in the UK, merely recommendations that these “therapists” should do a set amount of training. So perhaps the Government thinks it’s time for a bigger rethink about the industry. Either way, these are some of the broader areas that it will have to navigate.