The government has backtracked just hours after making a U-turn on plans to introduce a new law to ban conversion therapy.
Theresa May had initially promised in 2018 the practice, which attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, would be outlawed – and her successor Boris Johnson also said it would be.
But early on Thursday evening, a government spokesman told Sky News that ministers will not ban the practice but will instead review how existing law can be used more effectively to prevent conversion therapy, which is outlawed in several other countries.
However, about three and a half hours later, a Downing Street spokesman told Sky News the government will in fact ban conversion therapy.
But it will only ban gay conversion therapy, not trans conversion therapy.
Some Conservatives have voiced concerns that banning trans conversion therapy would mean parents could not support children who are questioning their gender identity.
What is conversion therapy?
Also called cure therapy or reparative therapy, conversion therapy refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or suppress a person’s gender identity.
Therapies and prayer can be used, while more extreme forms can include “exorcisms, physical violence and food deprivation”, Jayne Ozanne, a former government equality adviser said.
LGBT charity Stonewall says conversion therapy is based on an assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or trans is a mental illness that can be “cured”.
The NHS and other professional bodies have warned all forms of conversion therapy are “unethical and potentially harmful”.
Double U-turn comes a day after minister’s commitment
A Downing Street briefing paper entitled “conversion therapy handling plan”, seen by ITV News on Thursday, said: “The PM has agreed we should not move forward with legislation to ban LGBT conversion therapy.”
The briefing warns of a “noisy backlash from LGBT groups and some parliamentarians when we announce we do not intend to proceed” – and the LGBT sector will see it “as a signal the government is uninterested in LGBT issues”.
And it recommended announcing the U-turn as part of this year’s Queen’s Speech in early May to reduce “the risk of looking like we have singled out an LGBT issue”.
Just a day before the double U-turn equalities minister Mike Freer told MPs the government was “wholly committed” to legislating to ban conversion therapy.
Mr Freer would possibly resign along with the PM’s special envoy on LGBT issues, Lord Herbert, the briefing saying they would not ban conversion therapy says.
What had the government promised?
In last May’s Queen’s Speech, the government promised to bring forward legislation to ban conversion therapy.
“We will ban conversion therapy to prevent these aborrent practices which can cause mental and physical harm,” vowed the government.
“People should be free to be themselves in the UK. The ban will eliminate coercive practices which cause mental and physical harm to individuals.
“We will ensure the action we take to stop this practice is proportionate and effective and does not have unintended consequences.”
‘Terrible betrayal of a whole community’
Before the government announced it would be banning gay conversion therapy there was much outrage, including from actor Stephen Fry.
He tweeted: “Just when I thought my contempt for this disgusting government couldn’t sink lower. A curse upon the whole lying, stinking lot of them.”
Labor MP Chris Bryant, who is gay, said: “This is a terrible betrayal of a promise and of a whole community.
“So-called conversion therapists pray on tender hearts and do immeasurable harm.”
Tory MPs have also expressed their anger, with Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton, saying that she “stood for election to ban conversion therapy”.
“If we do not bring in this legislation, people will lose lives,” she added.
Caroline Nokes, who asked the government yesterday to confirm legislation was being brought in on conversion therapy, tweeted: “If conversion therapy was ‘abhorrent’ to the government in December why on the eve of April Fool’s Day is it apparently rowing back on a commitment to end it? “
But some on the right of the Tory Party have campaigned against banning conversion therapy, as they argue it could mean children who are questioning their gender could transition without parents allowed to query their decision.
Former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost called the government a decision to scrap a ban “courageous”.
“It would have been a hugely controversial legislative and process minefield which it’s just not necessary to get into the moment,” he tweeted.