3 lessons from the historic ‘conversion therapy’ bill debate

15 February 2024

Public Policy Researcher Dr Carys Moseley comments on the recent ‘conversion therapy’ debate in the House of Lords

Last Friday’s debate in the House of Lords on Baroness Burt’s bill to ban ‘conversion therapy’ was a historic first.

This was the first time in British history that more politicians in Parliament opposed a conversion therapy ban than supported one. This was also an international first, as this has never previously happened elsewhere either.

During the debate, peers also strongly criticised the current Scottish Government consultation on ‘Ending conversion practices in Scotland’, to which Christian Concern encourages people to respond.

What can we learn from this unusual event? And what does it mean for another private member’s bill on the same topic, scheduled for its second reading in the House of Commons on 1 March?

29 peers opposed the bill with only 15 supporting it

Fifty peers were scheduled to speak in the debate. A slim majority of twenty-nine peers opposed Baroness Burt’s bill. This is as astonishing as it is unexpected, particularly because this bill has little chance of becoming law at this stage. Only fifteen peers supported the bill. The rest did not take sides unequivocally. Nevertheless, the debate was clearly won by those opposed to it.

Lord Forsyth was so concerned about its implications that he argued the House should vote against it, even though there is a convention of not voting on Lords’ private member’s bills at second reading.

Wide-ranging concerns reflect public unease

The debate went on for much longer than might be expected. I have to admit that when I started watching it around 10 in the morning, I thought it would be over by coffee time. My reason for thinking that was that Parliamentary debates about the topic have usually consisted of supporters repeating clichés from Stonewall, mouthing the word ‘abhorrent’, twisting their own personal life histories to pretend they ‘underwent conversion therapy’, and generally engaging in back-slapping.

Instead a real debate unfolded, and before I knew it, it was 12:30. Only half of the fifty members scheduled to speak had spoken by then. The fact that so many were queuing up reflects widespread public unease about its provisions.

Liberal Democrat peers at odds with their own party

Particularly interesting politically was the strong criticism made of the Bill by several Liberal Democrat Members. This was very embarrassing both for the Liberal Democrats, who are fully committed to a ban, and to Baroness Burt herself, who is a Liberal Democrat peer.

Political parties are unlikely to whip their peers to vote a certain way on a private member’s bill, given the low likelihood of it becoming law. This means that the forthcoming committee stage is the right time for dissidents in all the parties represented in the Lords to speak up.

Baroness Burt admits bill was not well drafted

At the very end of the debate, Baroness Burt stood up to make closing remarks:

“I accept that this Bill is not well drafted. It was intentionally general, but it now needs a Committee stage to put it right.”

Saying it was ‘intentionally general’ is disingenuous, given that Baroness Burt sneaked in police powers through the back door. The House of Lords Library briefing on the bill quoted a letter she wrote to its staff saying the police would be able to assess the intentions of therapists working with teenagers with gender dysphoria, to ensure they were not engaged in ‘the practice of “conversion therapy”’.

The truth is very simple: Baroness Burt was caught out by her colleagues, and next time the floor will be open to all members of the House of Lords to unpick the proposals further.

So what lessons can we learn from this extraordinary day?

Lesson 1. Don’t neglect private member’s bills

Taking a broad view of Friday’s debate, the number one lesson is that we should never neglect private member’s bills. Just because they are unlikely to become law doesn’t mean asking parliamentarians to show up and debate is a waste of time.

Parliamentarians need to take every opportunity to debate this topic, as an ideological consensus has held sway among them for too long.

Lesson 2. Show politicians the problems with legislation

Members of the House of Lords, like the House of Commons, are there not only to debate but to do so in order to legislate. It is much more difficult to change an existing bad law than to prevent one being passed in the first place. Rehearsals such as private member’s bill debates are very valuable for breaking the mould on a stigmatised topic like this one.

Lord Morrow’s words on Friday morning are apposite here:

“It is impossible not to be moved by some of the personal stories we have heard in this debate, although I note that those emotive stories now come from both sides of the question. As legislators, we have to move on from the emotion of stories to the hard realities of what we want the law to actually do.”

Christian Concern has published a legal opinion by international law expert Roger Kiska, explaining how any conversion therapy ban bill would infringe human rights.

Lesson 3: Widespread publicity matters

Again, because a private member’s bill is only marginally likely to become law, the temptation is to think that publicising opposition to it is somewhat optional, and that we can just wait to see if and when the government tables its promised bill. The truth is we don’t know what the government is up to, and Keir Starmer supports a ‘full’ conversion therapy ban should Labour get into power at the next general election. Banning conversion therapy is likely to become a general election issue.

Publicising in the press the reasons for opposing this bill specifically as part of our general opposition to conversion therapy ban bills connected with the real-world political debate. Our advice to selected members of the House of Lords helped shapes some of the speeches on Friday that were key in advancing the debate.

Onto the next stage – a committee of the whole House of Lords

There is a convention that the House of Lords never votes on the second reading of a private member’s bill. This means that the bill is now headed for a committee; in fact, it will be in a committee of the whole House at a date yet to be announced. All members of the House of Lords will be allowed to consider it.

This means that we have a major opportunity to shape the public debate on banning conversion therapy in the coming weeks and months ahead. Let’s make sure we make the best of this and the forthcoming Commons bill as well.

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