New ‘conversion practices’ bill risks policing conversations

29 February 2024

Public Policy Researcher Dr Carys Moseley critiques the latest attempt in Parliament to ban ‘conversion practices’, also known as ‘conversion therapy’

This Friday, 1 March, a new private member’s bill on banning conversion practices is due for its second reading in the House of Commons.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour MP for Brighton, has tabled the bill. Once again, this bill intends to criminalise certain types of consensual conversations.

Sneaky new tactic: Pre-publication of multiple successive bill drafts

Lloyd Russell-Moyle has introduced a sneaky new tactic into the political war over conversion therapy/practices. He has published several drafts of the bill in succession on his own website before publishing the official final version on the House of Commons website. His website has a feedback form for the public to contact him about the bill.

Version 4 of the bill was published on Monday 12 February. Version 7 was published on 23 February and is the final version, available also on the House of Commons bill page. The tactic has made it more difficult for opponents of a ban to produce legal advice and bill briefings in time for MPs.

The bill’s definition of conversion practices

Section 4 of the bill provides a definition of conversion practices:

“‘conversion practice’ means a course of conduct or activity, the predetermined purpose and intent of which is to change someone’s sexual orientation or to change a person to or from being transgender, including to suppress a sexual orientation or transgender identity so that the orientation or identity no longer exists in full or in part.”

The Explanatory Notes say that ‘conversion practices’ have to be ‘a planned activity and cannot include one off or ad hoc actions by a person. Whilst this appears to be a concession to critics, it of course still means that the police would be able to be involved in determining what counts as a one off or ad hoc action.

The same warning applies to the Notes’ interpretation of “the predetermined purpose and intent”. They say that this refers not to ‘an immediate intent’ but rather ‘a predetermined outcome must have been intended before the course of conduct of activity started.’ This means that courses and events, as opposed to pastoral responses to initial conversations by church members, are captured.

The bill targets buying and selling of books and resources

Section 1 of the bill says this:

“An offence is committed if a person—

(a) offers, undertakes or takes payment for conversion practices, or

(b) offers, provides or takes payments for materials, advice or guides to

conduct conversion practices,

(c) advertises, or takes payment for advertising, conversion practices.”

The Explanatory Notes to the bill state that section 1(b) targets people who develop ‘do it yourself guides or materials’. This attack on self-help harks back to ITV’s undercover infiltration of a Christian self-help group for men in 2018.

It would also include all buying and selling of books, pamphlets, resources, videos, DVDs, etc. anywhere and everywhere in the UK, including online. This targeting was already foreshadowed by the campaign to ban ex-gay books from Amazon back in 2019.

Targeting advertising of conversion practices

The Explanatory Notes then say that section 1(c) aims to ‘ensure carriers of advertisements are not taking payments for such advertisements’. This means that a potentially wide range of outlets would be captured by this clause, and have to amend their policies to prevent themselves from being criminalised.

Alicia Kearns, the Conservative MP who introduced the bill on behalf of Lloyd-Russell Moyle in December 2023, targeted advertising aimed at children a year ago. In January 2023 she tabled an amendment to the Online Safety Bill stating:

“content which advertises or promotes the practice of so-called conversion practices of LGBTQ+ individuals must be considered as harmful for the purposes of this section.”

This amendment was not adopted.

Targeting ‘advertising’ has precedent in Malta

Malta shows where we are headed unless this campaigning is defeated. In Malta, ex-gay Christian Matthew Grech is on trial for ‘advertising conversion practices’ during an online interview he gave in April 2022. This was due to discussing the topic of therapy for unwanted same-sex attraction and his own Christian testimony. In January 2023, just before his trial began, the government of Malta rushed through an amendment stretching the meaning of ‘advertising’ in its 2016 law criminalising conversion practices. Gabi Calleja, former co-ordinator of the Malta Gay Rights Movement, told the Maltese press that the amendment was brought because the originally ambiguous definition of advertising had led to the law ‘allowing for [the] promotion [of conversion practices] through word of mouth.’

It isn’t hard to see that the target here was Matthew Grech’s many interviews with the Maltese press along with church ministry in Malta. In other words, consensual conversations about sexuality and gender issues. The coincidence between the amendments by the Maltese government and Alicia Kearns on the meaning of advertising conversion practices requires us to compare closely the situation in the UK and Malta respectively.

Are people really free to express religious beliefs?

Section 2(a) has this to say about expressing religious beliefs:

“(2) No offence is committed under this section where—

a person expresses a religious or other belief, provided that it is not directed to an individual as part of a conversion practice,

a person expresses to an individual their disapproval of, or acceptance

of, that person’s sexual orientation or transgender identity or lack thereof.”

In other words, you may not express a religious or other belief if it is deemed by the authorities to be part of ‘a conversion practice’. As almost any action can be ‘a practice’, the definition risks being stretched to suit specific instances.

Bias towards ‘affirmation’ means consent defence is denied

Section 2(e) says that no offence is committed in the following instances:

“a person is, other than as part of a conversion practice, facilitating or

offering support to a person who is—

(i) exploring or questioning their sexual orientation or transgender

identity or lack thereof, or

(ii) seeking to develop coping skills in relation to their sexual

orientation or transgender identity or lack thereof.”

The important thing here is that whilst exploratory therapy appears to be exempt from criminalisation, therapy or religious pastoral care that has as its goal leaving behind same-sex sexual orientation or transgender identity would be criminalised. This is even in cases where the church member or client consented to such a course of action. Although this is never said on the face of the bill or in the Explanatory Notes, the net result is that there is no defence of consent for alleged ‘conversion practices’.

Criminalisation of setting goals in healthcare

This bill would criminalise the setting of goals in healthcare.

Section 2c says no offence is committed where

“(c) a health practitioner takes an action in the course of providing a health service, provided that—

(i) the health practitioner complies with regulatory and professional standards and considers in their reasonable professional judgement that it is appropriate to take that action, and

(ii) there was no predetermined outcome in terms of sexual orientation or transgender identity or lack of it at the start of any course of treatment.”

This clearly concerns people who are members of professional bodies for mental or physical healthcare. The prohibition on a ‘predetermined outcome’ echoes the ethos of the current professional ban on conversion therapy (the MOU). This amounts to the criminalisation of setting goals for therapy helping people diminish same-sex attraction or unhappiness regarding membership of their own sex.

Are parents really free to care for their children?

Section 2f appears to provide parents with reassurance that they will not be criminalised for caring properly for their children. The bill says no offence is committed when:

“(f) a person is exercising parental responsibility for a child—

(i) in England and Wales, under the Children Act 1989,

(ii) in Scotland, under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995,

(iii) in Northern Ireland, under the Children (Northern Ireland)

Order 1995.”

It’s not clear that we can trust this exemption. The reason is that no age limit is given in the bill as far as defining who is a recipient of conversion practices. The bill undermines parental responsibility for children insofar as it criminalises any practice that has as its goal ‘change’ or ‘suppression’ of same-sex sexual orientation or transgender identity. Even a practice such as enforcing sex-based dress codes could be captured under ‘suppression’. This is because parents telling their son not to wear a skirt to school, or preventing him from going to school if he wears a skirt, could count as ‘suppression’ of transgender identity.

There is another reason we can’t trust this exemption in the bill. Neither sexual orientation nor transgender identity are mentioned on the face of the laws referred to in section 2(f). However, activists have a tendency to draft guidelines for existing parliamentary laws such as the ones listed above, which reinterpret them radically to be applied as if they have fixed notions of sexual orientation and transgender identity in mind. This is exactly what activists have done with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a UN treaty which the UK has signed and ratified.

Undermining existing freedoms in overseas countries

Section 2 of the bill targets work overseas. It is entitled “Offence of assisting a non-UK person to conduct conversion practice.”

“An offence is committed if a person aids, abets, counsels, or procures another

person who is not in the United Kingdom to offer, undertake or take payment

for a conversion practice outside the United Kingdom and—

(a) it is done in relation to a United Kingdom national or United Kingdom

resident, and

(b) it would, if done by such a person, constitute an offence under section 1.

(2) Proceedings for an offence committed under this section may be taken, and

the offence may for incidental purposes be treated as having been committed,

at any place in the United Kingdom in which this Act is in force.”

This means that the bill would criminalise foreign citizens conducting conversion practices upon a UK citizen or resident whilst they are abroad. In other words, it aims to criminalise foreign citizens working in their own countries.

Of all the bill’s provisions, this is one of the most questionable in legal terms as the UK cannot control what foreign citizens do in their own countries. Part of the aim here must be to undermine the defence that the person receiving ‘conversion practices’ had consented to doing so.

MPs should not allow the police to assess our words

Both this bill and the previous bill in the Lords were tabled by prominent and active Humanists. It is evident that they are closely co-ordinated. Baroness Burt’s extremely short bill sneaked in police assessment of therapists’ and others’ intentions through the back door. Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s bill introduces a list of exceptions which is deceptive insofar as it comes across as making concessions to opponents. However, in reality these exceptions necessarily mean the police would become much more involved in determining which conversations and words fall foul of the criminal law.

As support for such a ban has tended to come from MPs more than Lords, this sinister bill with totalitarian implications needs to be strongly refuted line-by-line this Friday.

No new laws are needed. Physical actions done in the name of ‘conversion therapy’ are already illegal. Any new law would criminalise certain types of consensual conversations.

For a briefing and further information on why we oppose any ban on ‘conversion practices’ see:

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