Atkins says Labour conversion therapy ban could lead to unintended consequences

Labour plans to ban conversion therapy would risk stopping parents, teachers and therapists from “comforting and counselling” children and adults “in gender distress”, the Health Secretary has said.

In its manifesto published earlier this month, Labour promised a “full trans-inclusive ban on conversion practices”, branding conversion therapy “abuse”.

But Conservative Victoria Atkins said while conversion therapy in the context of sexuality “is dreadful and must be stopped”, there must be “thoughtful conversation” on whether any further legislation is needed.

She stated care must be taken not to criminalise “those who are doing their best to support people with gender distress”.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, she said: “Today it has seeped out that Labour not only wants to introduce self ID by stealth, but also wants to stop parents, teachers and therapists from comforting and counselling children and adults who are in gender distress.”

She added that this is “ripe territory for the law of unintended consequences”.

A ban on conversion therapy, which aims to suppress or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, was first promised in 2018, by former Conservative prime minister Theresa May.

It was later downgraded to not include transgender people by Boris Johnson but the Conservative Government under Rishi Sunak said in January 2023 that it would ban conversion therapy for “everyone”, including transgender people.

The Conservative manifesto said while it deems conversion therapy to be “abhorrent”, legislation around such practices “is a very complex issue, with existing criminal law already offering robust protections”.

The Tory party said it is “right that we take more time before reaching a final judgment on additional legislation in this area”.

Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds has acknowledged a “distinction” between conversion practices and counselling.

He told Times Radio: “Of course, there is a distinction between conversion practices and legitimate talking therapies, counselling, support, say, between teachers and pupils or religious leaders and worshippers, or parents and children.

“Of course it’s really important the legislation captures that.”

Dr Hilary Cass holding iPad showing cover of the Independent Review of Gender Identity Services for Children and Young People (The Cass Review)
Dr Hilary Cass speaking about the publication of the Independent Review of Gender Identity Services for Children and Young People (The Cass Review) in April (Yui Mok/PA)

Dr Hilary Cass, whose report into NHS gender services for children was published earlier this year, has previously described legislating on conversion therapy as a “really difficult conundrum”.

In conversation with the Royal Society of Medicine in April, she said conversion practices “are dangerous and completely unacceptable” but that the key question is someone’s intent.

She said: “The real problem in legislating is that those who are carrying out perfectly appropriate psychological support for young people or just helping them explore their gender identity are now really frightened about being accused of conversion therapy.”

She added that “even if somebody would go through a legal challenge and come out exonerated, nobody wants to be the test case”.

Ms Atkins accused Sir Keir Starmer of having been “all over the place” on issues around gender and rights and said he struggles “to define what a woman is”.

The British Psychological Society said legislation for a ban on conversion therapy should be brought forward by the next government, but must be “clear that it will not prevent ethical forms of therapy, which are non-directive and non-judgmental”.

The organisation added: “To avoid professionals’ concerns about criminalisation, the incoming government must make an explicit distinction between so called ‘conversion therapy’ and normal ethical practice.”

At the weekend the Labour leader defended his party’s track record, after author JK Rowling, a former donor, claimed the party had “abandoned women”.

Ms Atkins referred to an incident in 2021, when Sir Keir described comments by Labour MP Rosie Duffield that only women have a cervix as “something that shouldn’t be said and were not right”.

The Health Secretary also criticised Sir Keir for “rather than listening to women in his own party he chooses to quote his predecessor, Tony Blair – a man – when it comes to understanding what a woman is”.

In a televised debate last week, the Labour leader said he agreed with Sir Tony Blair, saying “biologically, a woman is with a vagina and a man is with a penis”.

Sir Keir has said he wants a “reset of politics” to ensure all debate is done “with respect for the views of everybody involved”.

Asked by a reporter how she would respond to anyone who accuses the Tories of starting culture wars when they make statements on gender issues, Ms Atkins insisted: “Any talk of culture wars, that is what the left does to shut down debate.”

She said Labour wants to “dilute women’s rights further through their plans to introduce self-identification by the back door”.

She said: “Currently someone who wants to change their legal sex has to live in their acquired gender for at least two years before their application is scrutinised by a panel made up of medical practitioners and qualified legal members. Labour want to abolish this panel and the safeguards it represents.”

Labour’s manifesto has vowed to “modernise, simplify, and reform the intrusive and outdated gender recognition law to a new process”.

It stated: “We will remove indignities for trans people who deserve recognition and acceptance; whilst retaining the need for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a specialist doctor, enabling access to the healthcare pathway.”

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