Politics

Government ban on ‘inhumane’ conversion practices must avoid loopholes, report says


Boris Johnson’s proposed ban on “inhumane” conversion practices must avoid exemptions for religious settings and “consenting” adults, a major report has warned.

Signed by leading lawyers, LGBT+ campaigners and cross-party MPs, it urges swift and immediate action from the government after repeated delays, to avoid further lives being damaged and lost.

The Conservative MP Crispin Blunt said the delays risked undermining ministers’ “good intentions”, insisting: “Further government prevarication is no longer defensible”.

Theresa May first vowed to eradicate so-called “conversion therapy”, a discredited practice which seeks to suppress an individual’s sexual or gender identity, over three years ago — a pledge Mr Johnson also committed too.

In the summer, ministers said they would begin a consultation on the issue in September on the issue before introducing legislation to Parliament, but it is now not expected until at least the end of October.

Probing how ministers can legislate to ban the practice, the report demands that government must avoid loopholes, after the prime minister was accused of doing so in April.

The Cooper report — named after the human rights barrister Jonathan Cooper who died while producing the document — recommends a hybrid approach to banning the practice, using both criminal and civil law.

It urges ministers to define “conversion therapy” and suggests, instead, the term “conversion practices” be used, “as they are far from therapeutic and often occur in a religious or cultural setting, not just a medical one”.

Jayne Ozanne, a former government LGBT+ adviser whose foundation commissioned the work, said: “Whilst there have been many who have sought to muddy the water and question whether it is possible to define ‘conversion therapy’, the forum is clear that is should related to ‘any practice that attempts to suppress, ‘cure’ or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity”.

Practices, the report adds, can include exorcisms, pseudo-scientific counselling sessions, corrective rape, threatened with forced marriage, being prayed over as a form of “healing” and other forms of physical and verbal abuse.

It suggests that an exemption for religious conversion practices, such as prayer for the purpose of “suppressing, curing, or changing their sexual orientation or gender identity, would undermine the efficacy of the prohibition”.

And it adds: “There can be no exemption of ‘consenting’ adults who seek out conversion practices despite the harm involved.

“This is because the pressure and imbalance of power involved mean that such ‘consent’ cannot be truly free or autonomously exercised. Allowing these to continue would put a significant number of vulnerable people at risk”.

In correspondence with the Evangelical Alliance — representing 3,500 churches across Britain — earlier this year, Mr Johnson reiterated the pledge contained in the Queen’s Speech to “end the scourge” of the discredited practice.

However, in comments criticised by campaigners, he said: “We will continue to allow appropriate pastoral support (including prayer), in churches and other religious settings, in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender activity.”

The prime minister added: “I do not want to see clergy and church members criminalised for normal non-coercive activity”.

One of the signatories of the report, the Conservative MP Mr Blunt said: “The continued delay casts doubt over the government’s good intentions and Global Britain’s leadership on LGBT rights.

“These recommendations can and should be implemented without delay, for whilst we wait countless lives are being impacted as it implies the UK thinks it is alright to try and ‘fix’ anyone’s sexuality and gender identity.

“This distinguished legal forum, reinforced by cross-party consensus from politicians closely engaged on this issue, have delivered a recommended solution that can bring immediate protection to those threatened by conversion practices and prosecution of perpetrators if necessary. Further government prevarication is no longer defensible”.

The CEO of the LGBT+ charity Stonewall, who described the practice as “barbaric”, added: “It has been more than three years since the government committed to ban conversion therapy, and now the Cooper report has laid out how this can be done.

“There the government must take these recommendations on board and publish their consultation without further delay.”

A government equality hub spokesperson said: “As this report acknowledges, the government is fully committed to introducing a ban which protects people and stamps out conversion therapy in this country.

“We are engaging with victims and stakeholders as part of this process and we will shortly be launching a consultation seeking views on our plans”.

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