Meeting date: Tuesday, March 15, 2022
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 15 March 2022
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19 Update, Fisheries Management, Conversion Practices, Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework, Business Motion, Decision Time, Marie Curie Great Daffodil Appeal 2022
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Covid-19 Update
- Fisheries Management
- Conversion Practices
- Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- Marie Curie Great Daffodil Appeal 2022
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-03597, in the name of Joe FitzPatrick, on behalf of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, on ending conversion practices.
I invite members who want to speak to press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible, or to put R in the chat function.15:35
As convener of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I am grateful for the opportunity to open the debate and to set out the findings of our report on petition PE1817, “End Conversion Therapy”.
The terms “conversion therapy” and “conversion practices” are used interchangeably in the report to reflect the wording that the petitioners and witnesses used. However, the committee’s preference is to use the term “conversion practices”. We consider that term to be more accurate. The word “therapy” typically suggests a benefit, whereas the evidence that we heard was clear: there is nothing beneficial about so-called conversion therapy for the individuals who are subjected to it.
The committee heard that current protective legislation is insufficient to prevent harm. Our report makes it clear that
“conversion practices are abhorrent and are not acceptable in Scotland. They should be banned.”
PE1817 was lodged in August 2020 and referred to the session 5 Equalities and Human Rights Committee, which indicated in its legacy report that the petition should be given consideration by its successor committee. Our committee agreed to undertake an inquiry into the issues that the petition raised. We launched a call for views, which ran from 6 July to 13 August 2021. We received about 1,400 responses, predominantly from individuals. We held eight evidence sessions, in addition to which we held private informal sessions with individuals who had experienced conversion practices.
On behalf of the committee, I thank everyone who gave evidence in writing and orally. In particular, I thank the individuals who provided testimony of their experiences as victims and survivors of conversion practices. It took immense courage to recount those experiences. Committee members found the testimonies harrowing but invaluable to our work.
A key issue that was identified during our evidence taking and on which there was broad agreement, including from people who support a ban and people who express concerns about a ban, was the need for a clear definition of “conversion therapy” or “conversion practices”. The terms are generally understood to refer to practices that demonstrate
“an assumption that any particular sexual orientation or gender identity is inherently preferable to another, and ... attempt to bring about a change of sexual orientation or gender identity or seek to suppress an individual’s expression of sexual orientation or gender identity on that basis.”
“recommends that the definition used in the Report on Conversion Therapy by the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, should be adopted”.
It is also anxious to ensure that, similar to the approach in legislation to protect victims of domestic abuse and female genital mutilation, the definition of “conversion practices” in forthcoming legislation
“makes it clear that consent to such practices can never be informed and should not be available as a defence to those who undertake such practices.“
The majority of the religious organisations from which we heard are in favour of a ban on conversion practices. The committee said that
“It agrees that legislation should not pose any restrictions on ordinary religious teaching or the right of people to take part in prayer or pastoral care to discuss, explore or come to terms with their identity in a non-judgmental and non-directive way.”
However, we noted that we
“heard evidence that most conversion practices take place within a religious setting including in the form of ‘talking therapy’ which is used with the intention to ‘correct’ sexuality or gender. The Committee believes and recommends that such practices should fall within a ban.”
The committee also heard from many survivors of conversion practices persuasive evidence that their faith is part of their identity, and that they have felt that they have been forced to choose between faith and their sexual orientation or gender identity, which can have a devastating impact. The committee believes that
“it is vital to involve religious and community leaders as a Bill progresses, and that education and awareness is crucial to promote acceptance of diversity.”
We recommend that the Scottish Government
“engages with a wide range of faith and belief organisations in order both to protect LGBT people”
and address concerns around protecting religious freedom. The committee agrees that
“there is no conflict in protecting religious freedom and preventing harm by putting a ban in place.”
“notes that the majority of healthcare bodies in the UK have signed the Memorandum of Understanding”,
which is a joint document that has been signed by health, counselling and psychotherapy organisations, including NHS Scotland, which aims to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK. One witness told us that they were aware of a “limited number of instances” of alleged conversion practices in medical settings and that they wish to see a ban on that, where there is an intention to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity.
The committee agrees that affirmative therapies,
“where individuals are seeking support and a space to explore their identity”
in a non-directive setting, and where no set or preferred outcome is intended, should be protected under the ban. We heard evidence, however, that there is some confusion and misunderstanding around the term “affirmative therapy”. It would be helpful for clarity on that to be provided to the medical profession, counselling services and wider society.
Concerns were expressed to the committee about the rights of parents to bring up their children in a way that is consistent with their moral and religious beliefs. The committee believes that
“there is a clear distinction to be made between parents having the right to bring up their children in line with their morals and values and having the directed intent to change their child’s sexuality, or gender identity.”
The committee agrees that
“any proposals should not pose restrictions on parents or schools to provide a safe space for discussion and exploration but should prohibit harmful practices which attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including trans identities.”
The UK Government has indicated that it plans to publish draft legislation in the spring of this year, which would cover England and Wales. The committee agrees that
“Scotland should not wait for UK legislation to be brought forward and considers that, within the powers available to the Scottish Government and Parliament, Scotland-specific legislation be brought forward as soon as possible.”
The committee welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce legislation by the end of 2023, and the establishment of the expert advisory group to inform and develop policy. We recognise that
“work will be necessary to ensure the development of cross-border frameworks”
and we call on the UK Government
“to work with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament on a ban.”
The committee agrees that prospective legislation should set out a fully comprehensive ban on conversion practices and should
“cover sexual orientation and gender identity, including trans identities.”
“cover adults and children in all settings without exception and include”
so-called consensual conversion practices. The committee also recommends that a ban should include
“a ban on advertising and promotion of conversion practices.”
The committee also
“heard strongly expressed views that legislation alone will not be sufficient to address conversion practices and that non-legislative measures will also be necessary to protect and support victims.”
The committee heard a broad range of suggestions for supported measures that could complement legislation. Paragraphs 154 to 157 of our report set some of those out in detail.
The committee further
“noted concerns around how enforcement of a ban could be effective and believes that consideration should be given to how this role could be fulfilled by a public body to ensure investigation, enforcement and accountability”
are possible. The committee is keen to ensure that time is not wasted gathering identical evidence from the same victims as it heard from during its private evidence sessions, because that might have the unintended consequence of retraumatising victims. We therefore ask the Scottish Government to work with the committee in that regard.
“is mindful of the volume of evidence that is already available, including the written and oral evidence it has received”,
and we consider that it is important to introduce legislation promptly. In our report, we stated that we would welcome discussions with the Scottish Government on working together to introduce a ban “as quickly as possible.” I welcome the minister’s letter of 10 March, offering to progress discussions with the committee on next steps, and I look forward to that further engagement.
On behalf of the committee, I thank the minister and her officials for the detailed response that they have provided to each of our recommendations, and for the assurance that the recommendations will be progressed through the work of the expert advisory group.
I highlight once more the impact of the sessions that we held with individuals who have experienced conversion practices. Although the formal written and oral evidence that we received helped our consideration of the actions that are being called for in the petition, it was the testimony of each of those individuals that really impressed on us the need for legislation to be introduced as soon as possible.
That the Parliament notes the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s 1st Report, 2022, (Session 6), Report on Petition PE1817: End Conversion Therapy (SP Paper 88).
I gently remind any member who wants to participate in the debate that they need to press their request-to-speak button.15:45
I am delighted to open for the Government in today’s debate on the report on the petition to end conversion therapy. I will be clear from the outset that it is essential that we act now to end conversion practices in Scotland. As we have heard, those practices are harmful, discriminatory and have no place in our society.
There is no credible evidence to suggest that conversion practices can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. There is, however, very clear evidence of the serious harm that they cause, and there is evidence that they are still taking place today. I want to end conversion practices once and for all, and to ensure that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is safe from such practices in Scotland and free to be themselves.
The debate is taking place as a result of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s report on the petition to end conversion therapy. I welcome the report, which was published on 25 January, and have written to the convener, Joe FitzPatrick, noting my appreciation for the committee’s detailed and sensitive work in this space. I addressed how the Scottish Government will approach the committee’s findings as we push forward, with determination, to end the practices.
We hope to work closely with the committee to progress our approach to a ban and will consider how we can best do that together. I assure the committee’s convener and members that I am keen to do that.
The committee’s findings—in particular, the accounts from survivors and people with lived experience of these terrible practices—form a cornerstone of our understanding of conversion practices in Scotland. I thank the people who gave evidence to the committee, especially those who shared their experience of conversion practices. Their bravery in stepping forward and telling their stories is not only vitally important but admirable and courageous. They will help us to reshape the future and I thank them for that.
As we have heard, the committee noted that many of the religious organisations that it heard from are in favour of a ban on conversion therapy practices, although views are varied, of course. It is therefore important that we always make it clear that the measures are not about restricting religious teaching or preaching. Does the minister agree that, in seeking to end the demonstrably harmful effects of the so-called therapies that we are talking about, it is important that we get representation from a broad range of religious and other organisations, in order to achieve the best possible legislation?
I can give you the time back, minister.
There are a number of points in my speech that will address Alasdair Allan’s questions and, I hope, reassure him. We recognise the existing legal protections of the rights to freedom of religion, expression and a private and family life, among others. The expert advisory group will explore how legislation can best protect and support people who need that, while ensuring that freedoms are safeguarded. I will come on to that after explaining a little bit about the group and who will be on it.
As members know, the establishment of the expert advisory group on banning conversion practices was announced last November by the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government as a means to inform our approach to banning conversion practices as far as possible within devolved competence.
We want the membership of the group to be as intersectional and representative as possible, while ensuring a focus on actions and outcomes, given the pace at which it will be working. It will be a short-term working group, after all. Therefore, the membership includes individuals who are experts in their field from LGBTI organisations, faith and belief organisations and their communities, the mental health profession, the legal profession, human rights organisations and academia. Importantly, the group will include members who have personal experience of conversion practices.
On timings for the expert advisory group, we plan to convene its first meeting at the end of this month. The short-life group will work until the summer, when it will report its findings and recommendations to the Scottish Government.
Following that, we will begin a process of public consultation that will run until autumn. A bill team will then be set up to work towards introducing legislation by the end of 2023.
Our expert group will work at pace. As I have said, it will consider all the relevant evidence that is currently available, including the committee’s response, the UK Government’s consultation responses and other existing research, to ensure that these harmful practices are banned.
One of the questions that we have been asked, and which has been asked in the committee inquiry, is on definition. There are a lot of questions around that. A key aspect for consideration by the expert group will be determining what practices should be prohibited. I agree with the committee that clarity is needed on what would be encompassed by a legislative ban. That must be crystal clear for organisations and individuals so that they understand their responsibilities and protections.
Will the minister set out how she sees the expert group working with the evidence that has been gathered by the committee?
Most definitely. Some of the work that we will do with the expert group will allow it to work out how it wants to take that forward. We will set out at the first meeting the terms of reference and the work that it wants to do. There is a lot of work there. We are keen for the group not to duplicate work, because the committee has done a huge piece of work that I have described as the cornerstone of our approach going forward. There are a lot of academic studies on the subject as well.
The group was in the process of issuing invitations. A lot of people had to give a bit of thought to joining the group, so we want to make sure that they are all in place, then I will be able to announce who is on it. The breadth and depth of the group will show that it will be able to respond to those challenges and come up with ideas to fix them and resolutions.
A ban will bring an end to the abhorrent practices that seek to “correct” sexual orientation and gender identity. That view is echoed by the memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK, which supports positive practices that assist individuals as they explore and accept their gender identity and sexual orientation at their own pace. The expert group will explore what that means in full, taking into account established definitions from organisations such as the United Nations and considering definitions from foreign jurisdictions. I hope that that answers Pam Duncan-Glancy’s question about the areas that we will explore.
I turn to faith and belief, because I know that there are a lot of concerns and that issues and questions have been raised on the matter. I want to be clear that, while we build our understanding of how we can best protect and support those who are experiencing these horrendous practices, we must be mindful that freedoms—including freedoms of speech, religion and belief—are safeguarded. The Scottish Government welcomes and acknowledges the importance of engaging with faith and belief organisations, which is why the expert group’s membership includes faith and belief representatives.
It is very important that religious and faith groups are involved in the process, because they have the right to have their say on the issue. What views will be taken from the expert group about what will be achieved, and how will that be managed? It is a delicate situation to balance.
Minister, can you begin winding up, please?
I absolutely agree with Alexander Stewart that it is a delicate situation to balance, and we are very mindful of and sensitive to that. We are taking a lead from the committee’s sensitive and balanced work on the issue.
It is clear that there are concerns and that there are potential impacts on religious freedom, but we will ensure that those are considered extremely carefully and sensitively. However, we are certain that the advancement of LGBTI rights and protections through ending conversion practices does not mean a regression of religious freedoms. We are mindful of the existing legal protections of the right to freedom of religion and expression, among others.
As was highlighted by Jen Ang of JustRight Scotland when giving evidence to the committee, it is essential that we nurture and promote safe spaces in religious communities and support appropriate pastoral care, because, for some, a religious setting is where they would best be able to access a non-judgmental and supportive environment in which to explore their gender identity and sexual orientation.
Will the member take an intervention?
I have taken a few interventions and I am just about finished. I am sorry. Maybe the member could intervene in my summing up.
I will make a quick point about healthcare. I want to ensure that mental health services, religious bodies and other professionals are properly supported to provide appropriate services to people who are seeking help and advice in relation to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Representatives from specialist healthcare services on the expert group will be able to share their views, including on the capacity building that is needed in the sector. We also need to provide the necessary curriculum updates and training to provide support for mental health professionals to enable them to do their jobs effectively and with confidence. A holistic approach is needed.
In concluding, I welcome the committee’s suggestions on non-legislative measures that need to be brought forward to protect and support victims, and I am glad that there is an acknowledgment that significant resource and planning would be required to do so. The expert group will consider those suggestions and investigate further what possible protections and support could be offered to victims and survivors.
Minister, you do now need to be—
I want to be absolutely clear that conversion practices have no place in Scotland, and I welcome hearing members’ views on the committee’s report and the measures that we need to take to push forward with ending those abhorrent practices.
I am afraid that we are slightly behind the clock now, so interventions will have to be incorporated into the time for speeches.15:55
I am grateful for the opportunity to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, and I welcome the fact that the issue has been given parliamentary time this afternoon. I am sure that that view is shared by other members of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee.
The case for introducing a ban on conversion practices has been one of the key bodies of work that the committee has focused on in this parliamentary session. I thank the many individuals, charities and campaign groups that provided evidence to the committee on the issue. In particular, I want to talk about the individuals who were willing to share their experiences of conversion practices. Those experiences were hard to hear, and sharing them was hard for those individuals to do. I remember clearly that one survivor of the practices described conversion therapy as “horrendous” and “threatening”, and that he spoke of how badly his mental health had suffered because of it—it almost drove him to a nervous breakdown.
It will, no doubt, have been difficult to provide such personal testimonies of trauma, which are very important. We received some very trying testimonies. As I have said, it was not easy for witnesses to give us those testimonies, but I give them full respect for their attitude and their courage in bringing them to the committee and ensuring that we heard first hand how they had been treated and how the abhorrent practices took place. The Conservatives are therefore clear that we need to look forward to a ban on conversion practices.
Much of the evidence that the committee heard points to a comprehensive approach to a ban being preferable. Some medical professionals, for example, spoke about the possibility of a less comprehensive ban resulting in loopholes, which would cause concerns. It is clear that any proposed ban should mirror existing bans on acts such as female genital mutilation, in that it is not considered possible to provide legal consent to those practices.
Although I would welcome a comprehensive ban on the practices, it is perhaps disappointing that progress to get here has been a bit slow. I acknowledge that the Scottish Government has established an advisory group, and I am delighted that we have had some clarity on where we are with that, as it was announced back in November, and we are now in March. That has taken some time, but I am delighted that the minister has clarified what will happen.
Our committee report makes it clear that the Scottish Government should not wait for the UK Government to act before introducing legislation. We have now received confirmation that the UK Government ban will apply to England and Wales only. Despite that, it is important that we talk about the possibility of cross-border frameworks, which will no doubt be important. The UK Minister for Equalities, Mike Freer, has given assurances that the UK Government will work constructively with the Scottish Government in implementing the ban on conversion practices and therapy. Given that a truly comprehensive ban will include criminalisation of any practices falling within the definition of conversion therapy, it is very important that legislation in the devolved areas is clear.
The time to act is now, not later, and further steps need to be taken to ensure that that is the case. Given the consensus that a ban on the practices is needed, we should ensure that we move forward at pace. I look forward to seeing that happening.
There are already international examples of where such a ban has been put in place and is working. We know that 13 countries have already introduced a ban in some form, and I welcome the Government’s statement that it will consider existing examples of good practice. Scotland wants to ensure that it has the same opportunity to set an example, so it is important that, as we go forward, regardless of what is happening with the UK Government’s legislative process, the Scottish Government does everything possible within its capabilities to ensure that we can look forward to banning the practice.
I am pleased that Parliament has given us the opportunity to debate the issue today, because it is vitally important that we send a very strong message from the chamber to the individuals and organisations involved that we will not accept what has been the practice in the past. We want to ensure that there is a constructive debate on the whole topic, and it is therefore good to see that there is cross-party consensus on banning this abhorrent practice. It is vitally important that the ban is effective, comprehensive and timeous in what it is trying to achieve.
As we move forward, I and the other committee members stand ready to scrutinise the Government’s progress on the issue and to ensure that any forthcoming ban meets every one of the criteria that we have set out. That is important, because we said to the individuals who gave evidence that we would take on board their views and opinions in order to protect individuals in the future, and a ban will certainly do that.16:01
After many months of committee work on this issue and on developing the report that is before Parliament, I am pleased to lead the debate for Scottish Labour today. I pay tribute to the hard work of Blair Anderson and Tristan Gray, who brought the petition on conversion practice to the Parliament and who both spoke powerfully in front of the committee on the need for a full and comprehensive ban on conversion practices. Their motivation, persistence and dedication to ending these hateful practices in Scotland is the reason why we are here today discussing the report, and I hope that we will be discussing real legislative changes in the not-too-distant future.
I share my deepest thank you with Blair and other survivors of conversion practice for their bravery in sharing their stories with the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, which reinforced to us the horror of what can happen, and is happening, in the absence of legislation. When we talk about conversion practice, we may think that it happens in faraway countries or in places that we associate with regressive equalities and human rights laws—in cults, perhaps, or in vehemently hardline religious settings. That is why hearing from survivors has been so important, because the reality is that it is happening here in Scotland, and the reality of where it takes place and how it manifests is far more complex. For example, Blair’s experience happened at the hands of his parents, in his own family home. Another testimony that I heard spoke of conversion practice that took place over several years in an evangelical setting, by people whom the survivor described as having
“Some of the biggest hearts I’d ever encountered.”
These things are happening in small places close to home, which, as Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us, is exactly where our human rights begin. This issue is about human rights—that is why it matters and why it is incumbent on us to act. For people out there who are living through that trauma right now, things are moving slowly and not at the pace that is required to prevent what is in effect a process of torture. We cannot tolerate that. The committee has heard a wealth of evidence on the practices that continue to take place in Scotland and, as a country that prides itself on its progressive values, we would fail in our duty to act if we held off any longer. I am pleased to hear the commitment from the minister today that we will move apace.
The Scottish Government has previously argued that it must wait and see what the UK Government legislation that is due to come forward in this area looks like before it introduces its own legislation. In that respect, the evidence that I have seen from the UK Government so far worries me. The Prime Minister himself has spoken of “gay conversion therapy”, suggesting that, although a ban might come, it would not be the full and comprehensive ban that we need. I make it clear that any legislation must include all non-affirmative forms of therapy for trans people, too. We heard in our evidence sessions that trans people are likely to be those in the LGBT+ community who are at most risk from such practices. It is crucial, therefore, that a ban ensures that they are protected and that it applies to both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Looking to international best practice, I note that the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021 in Victoria, Australia, sets out three criteria to define conversion therapy: that the conduct is directly targeted, that it has taken place on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation or of their gender identity, and that the conduct has a predetermined outcome to change a person’s behaviour.
My vision of a full and comprehensive ban, informed by much of the evidence that our committee heard, would have to go at least as far as that to be a worthy piece of legislation that ensures that the abhorrent conversion practices that fulfil those criteria are prohibited and criminalised. I am clear that a ban in that framework must protect affirmative approaches and alleviate concerns that medical or religious professionals could be punished for offering therapy like that. The committee heard that affirmative therapy
“is about holding the space for the individual to find out who they are and ensuring that they can come to that decision themselves”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 14 September 2021; c 5.]
in a supportive way. That, I believe, is crucial, as it outlines the clear difference between those vital supportive conversations, which allow people to grow and develop themselves, and the practices that we would be seeking to ban—practices that force someone down a particular route.
For the future legislation to deliver on its aims, there must be no room for loopholes or exemptions. It must be comprehensive and watertight. The UK Government legislation is likely to fall short in that respect. So far, there has been a worrying indication that the UK Government believes that consent to conversion practice is possible. Allowing manoeuvre or interpretation in that area would allow for consent to be used as a defence. Survivors have been clear: “consent” is a misnomer, a red herring and a completely misleading use of terminology. As Blair Anderson so strongly put it, people “cannot consent” to being tortured or abused.
We have closed such loopholes in legislation before in the laws banning female genital mutilation and forced marriage. We can and must do it again. In this case, as we move forward with what I hope will be a concrete piece of legislation in the coming period, we must do the same here.
We have no time to lose on this. I urge colleagues across the chamber to act with impatience and to act here, in this place, to end conversion practices as soon as possible.16:06
The Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee has done some excellent work, and Joe FitzPatrick delivered his speech with passion and care. The committee’s report is good, sensitive and thorough. The whole Parliament should be grateful, as this is a committee doing its work at its best.
A survey of 108,000 LGBT+ people in the UK showed that nearly one in 13 have been offered, or have been compelled to receive, conversion therapy or practice—“therapy” in their mind; “practice” in ours. That number rose to one in seven among transgender people. I agree with Joe FitzPatrick on this: I think that the word “therapy” is incredibly misleading and extremely inaccurate. Such practices are not a benefit, so they are not a therapy. The author and sociologist DaShanne Stokes said:
“It’s not conversion ‘therapy’, it’s conversion brainwashing.”
We should say what we mean.
Some of those who facilitate this practice do so out of a misguided idea that they are somehow helping, but the evidence is to the contrary, and it is abundantly clear. Those who have suffered through it have spoken of the negative effects on their lives and the trauma that it has left them with.
The mental health charity Mind has said that this practice
“can cause a great deal of psychological distress”,
often leading to long-term
“feelings of isolation and low self-esteem.”
As a result, far too many people are left to struggle with anxiety and depression, which in some cases results in self-harm and even suicide.
People coming to this therapy are often at a vulnerable point in their lives. Just when they are most in need of a space to share their thoughts and feelings openly and freely, they are being met with judgment and ignorance. People are being let down. As Pam Duncan-Glancy said, the situation is urgent.
Any practice that seeks to suppress or change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is a harmful practice, and it is quite baffling why that is still happening in Scotland. I therefore support the committee on the adoption of the UN definition.
My party has a proud tradition of fostering diversity and championing the rights of the individual to privacy and autonomy. We believe that people should be able to live their lives as they see fit, unencumbered and without intrusion. Those principles are crucial to the protection of LGBT+ orientations and identities, which is why we believe that conversion practices should be banned entirely. As is shown in the committee’s report, six countries and 20 US states have already enforced a ban, so what are we waiting for?
I was pleased with the minister’s response and the constructive engagement between her and the committee. That bodes well for getting this right. I do not think that we should wait for UK legislation. We have done that before, but we should just crack on with it. We should bring forward legislation now to rid ourselves of such practices.
I will finish with the words of Carolyn, a trans woman in her 70s who has written of the impact that the practice still has on her life years later:
“Whenever I remembered the treatment I’d had, I would start physically shaking. In that sense you could say that the therapy ‘worked’, in that it affected my body. But, in terms of my mind, and my thoughts, it only made me hate myself more.
It was only when I retired early—aged 55—that I felt I could live openly as myself. And while things got so much better, I’d still have flashbacks from my conversion therapy sessions 40 years later.”
For Carolyn and so many others, let us just get this done.
We move to the open debate.16:11
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate, which has, so far, been very consensual across the chamber. As a member of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I associate myself with the words of the convener: there should be little argument about whether conversion practices should end in Scotland. Such practices are abhorrent, cause undue harm and trauma, and have absolutely no place in today’s Scotland.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment, as outlined by the minister, to introduce legislation to ban conversion practices by 2023. The UK Government’s proposals do not go far enough in protecting people in Scotland, so we need to do what we can in this chamber.
The committee has heard extensive and, often, emotional and harrowing testimonies from those who have survived conversion practices in one form or another. Other members have already spoken eloquently about those testimonies. Like them, I put on record my thanks to those individuals, because I know that it could not have been easy for them. I hope that what they told us will shape legislation that will protect others.
As others have done, I encourage the Government and, ultimately, the advisory group not to duplicate the work that we have done, because we do not want people to have to share their stories again and potentially relive their trauma. The minister has already acknowledged that issue.
It is important that the advisory group takes into account, as the committee did, international examples of best practice, such as in Victoria, in Australia, as Pam Duncan-Glancy mentioned. We can learn from those jurisdictions because, as we have heard, things could perhaps have been done differently and they are now looking to make changes. If there are international examples of best practice, we can look to them.
Unfortunately, the truth is that such practices very much still exist in Scotland. In 2018, the UK Government’s national LGBT survey found that 5 per cent of LGBTQ+ people had been offered but did not proceed with conversion therapy and that a further 2 per cent had undergone conversion therapy.
As we know, the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is safe from such horrendous conversion practices in Scotland. As the minister said, there is absolutely no credible evidence that the practices even work. However, it is not about whether they work; at its core, the notion that we can change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is simply wrong.
Practices that encourage suppression and denial are also wrong and, ultimately, cause individuals great harm, as we have heard. They impact people’s mental health in a multitude of ways. Being LGBTI is not a choice, so we cannot treat it as such.
I am pleased that the committee’s report takes the view that the definition of conversion practices in any proposed legislation should make it clear that there is no such thing as informed consent to such practices, and that that cannot be used as a defence by those carrying them out. Pam Duncan-Glancy quoted one of the committee’s witnesses, who said that
“people cannot consent to torture.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 7 September 2021; c 8.]
Evidence shows that those who are said to consent are actually coerced and do so under significant pressure from others.
It is also important to highlight the point that most faith leaders support a ban on conversion practices, as that is the area of most discussion. Legislation should not restrict ordinary religious teaching or the right of people to take part in any prayer or pastoral care to discuss, explore or come to terms with their identity in a non-judgmental and non-directive way. In fact, the committee heard evidence that, for many survivors of conversion practices, their faith was and is a big part of their identity. They have often felt forced to choose between faith and their sexual orientation or gender identity. That is clearly wrong and should not happen.
Some of the faith leaders who had concerns about a ban on conversion therapy shared their views that the practice was abhorrent, but their concerns were about the technicalities of how it might be banned.
I am afraid that you need to conclude now, Mr MacGregor.
Thanks, Presiding Officer.
It has been a short debate and there is more that I could have said. I welcome the committee’s report and the Government’s response to it. I look forward to a day when the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy is banned.16:16
As we have already heard from voices around the chamber, there is consensus among MSPs on banning conversion practices in Scotland. Should a ban on conversion therapy be voted through, Scotland would follow 13 other countries worldwide that have already banned the practice, including Brazil, Norway, Switzerland and several regions of Spain.
I share the view of many MSPs that conversion therapy—or, as it is sometimes referred to, “gay cure therapy”—is wrong and has no place in modern-day society. Therefore, it is upsetting to learn that, as Fulton MacGregor highlighted, as recently as 2018, the national LGBT survey found that around 5 per cent of LGBT respondents had been offered conversion therapy
“to ‘cure’ them of being LGBT”.
Being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is not an illness. People within the LGBT community have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they should be able to love who they want and be comfortable in their own skin.
In preparation for the debate, I read statements from conversion therapy survivors such as Justin Beck, who realised that he was attracted to men and turned to his place of worship for guidance. He put himself forward for conversion therapy and was left emotionally traumatised by the experience, which he described as “enforced repression”. Justin is, of course, only one example of many individuals who have been subjected to conversion therapy. We must continue to listen to people who have endured such practices to ensure that the Parliament finally implements the ban.
The persecution of LGBT people has a horrific and dark history, and we must continue to consider and debate ways to help and support members of that community. One way to do that would be to consign conversion therapy to the history books during this session of Parliament.
In October 2021, the UK Government announced that it would consult on proposals to implement a legislative ban on conversion therapy across England and Wales. The proposed bill would criminalise talking conversion therapy, thus preventing any non-consensual attempt to convince or coerce a gay person to be straight or vice versa. My understanding is that the Scottish Government has taken a different approach to banning conversion therapy, as is its right as a devolved Administration. Discussions have taken place between the UK and Scottish Governments to ensure consistency in the approach to that important issue.
It is also welcome that, after hearing robust evidence from the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, the Government has set up an advisory group to investigate how to implement the ban in Scotland. I acknowledge the minister’s comments on religious freedoms and the concerns that religious groups have raised. It is a delicate situation, and I hope that the advisory group will continue to consider and engage with all views on conversion therapy as we move forward.
As my colleague Alexander Stewart rightly highlighted, it now falls on the Scottish Government to ensure that progress is made to prevent yet more LGBT people facing the humiliating and mentally traumatising practice of conversion therapy. However, as the group will not meet until the end of the month, we still need reassurance from the Scottish Government—the minister has given some of that already—that the matter will be treated with the urgency, care and respect that it deserves, especially as this issue was first raised with the Scottish Parliament in 2020 through a petition that secured more than 5,000 signatures. We are now two years down the road. Survivors and campaigners will be eager to see the ban put in place as soon as possible.
There is overwhelming support across the Parliament and throughout our communities to end conversion therapy practices. Therefore, I join calls from across the chamber to introduce the bill as quickly as possible and to ban conversion therapy in Scotland.16:20
I shall certainly never forget the work that the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee has done on the report over the past few months. It was not only my first substantial piece of work as an MSP and committee member, but is vital in making progress towards become a more inclusive society. Mostly, however, I will remember the work because of the evidence that I heard during our sessions.
I thank everybody who came and gave evidence to the committee, especially those who shared their lived experience. In particular, I mention the End Conversion Therapy Scotland campaign, which has worked tirelessly to ensure that the harmful practice comes to an end here, in Scotland.
I know that there are some out there who believe that LGBT conversion practices will rectify sexual or gender identity, but to rectify something insinuates that it needs fixed. Generations of LGBT people have been made to feel less than, or that there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are, simply for being same-sex attracted or discovering that their gender identity does not correspond with the assumed gender that they were assigned at birth. In that regard, the only thing that is wrong is how societies across the world inflict harm on LGBT people simply for existing.
To get an idea of how unreasonable conversion practices are, I ask members to imagine a world in which cis-gendered straight people were made to undergo methods to change their sexual orientation and gender identity, and instructed to alter their heterosexual or cis-gendered lifestyle.
The psychological torture of lesbian women, gay men, bisexual and trans people cannot continue. Just as cis-gendered straight people are left to live out their lives in peace, with their sexual orientation and gender identity never being brought into question, it is time to leave LGBT people in peace, without intervention.
Not only must conversion practices in Scotland come to an end, but all of us in the chamber today, as role models, public figures and lawmakers, must take responsibility for embodying that change in our day-to-day lives by calling out bigotry where we see it, offering support to those who need it and standing shoulder to shoulder against all forms of abuse.
During one of the committee’s evidence sessions on conversion practices, we heard from two people in a closed meeting. After that session, I broke down; I was in my office with my face in my hands. It was extremely hard to hear of the practical methods of torture in reality and the psychological harm that we as a society have inflicted on so many. The torment that had been endured by an individual I had just spoken with was cruel and torturous. The entire time, I could not stop thinking about how unnecessary that woman’s experience was; it happened simply because she is trans. What she had needed more than anything was love, support and acceptance; instead, she endured torment and abuse in the form of gaslighting. The stigma and outdated pressures that forced that situation to happen are, thankfully, now not seen as acceptable.
Many in society now support a ban. As colleagues have said today, many medical and psychology professionals, regulatory bodies such as the British Medical Association, and most faith leaders support a ban. I am delighted that the hard-working campaigners have been heard and that the voices of those with lived experience have been listened to. I am also delighted to see the work that the Government is doing to progress a ban on those practices. However, we must take that as one part of the many that are required to eradicate any notion that being LGBTQIA+ is anything but okay.
We must move to acknowledge that being cis gendered and heterosexual is not the default setting for a human being. Not only should we not discriminate against someone based on their sexuality or gender identity, we should actively welcome and embrace into our culture here, in Scotland, the many varied and wonderful people who make up our country.16:25
I am pleased to contribute to this extremely important committee debate and to follow powerful speeches by colleagues across the chamber.
I also pay tribute to colleagues in the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee for their work thus far in investigating and reporting on conversion practices and for the report’s recommendation of a comprehensive legal ban. As a substitute member of the committee, I have had a little insight into the power of testimony that has been offered by witnesses, particularly from those who have suffered the pain of so-called conversion therapy.
It is also right that we pay tribute to the petitioners, to End Conversion Therapy Scotland and to the many organisations that have supported them and the committee’s work.
Conversion practices are dangerous and cruel, and they cause lasting damage to those who experience them. They are in violation of fundamental human rights and, as Amnesty International points out, they are
“inherently humiliating, demeaning and discriminatory”.
Evidence shows that the majority of conversion practices are carried out in a faith setting. As a person of faith, I find that horrifying and, as a gay person, I have found that terrifying. I am fortunate that I have never had to experience what survivors bravely spoke about to the committee. As a survivor from Glasgow described,
“I’m not sure I could ever put into enough words the effect it has had on my life. I mean, it has nearly cost me my life on several occasions because I could not cope with who I was—who I am. I feel robbed of joy, of safety, of self-worth, of opportunity, of who I actually am, and who I should have been, free to explore and live my life. So much of what I went on to experience, and how I have struggled to navigate through life has stemmed from this.”
That is hard to contemplate, because joy, safety and self-worth are fundamental to our very existence.
Although I have never directly experienced conversion practices, as a Christian, I have had some encounters that I believe can lead to those practices being employed. I have been told that being LGBT+ is a sinful choice for which conversion is required and that there is something intrinsically disordered about LGBT+ people. I have been held to different standards to my heterosexual peers. When I was young, someone at church wrote to my dad to out me, in the expectation that he would do something about the incompatibility of my faith and my sexuality. I was lucky—in response, my family has shown me only love and affirmation, but not everyone is so fortunate.
As we have heard already, 7 per cent of LGBT+ people in Scotland have undergone or been offered so-called conversion therapy, including 10 per cent of trans people. We know from evidence that that is often as part of family pressure.
I was particularly pleased to be at the committee on the day that Jayne Ozanne of the Ozanne Foundation gave compelling evidence in that regard, and I have been heartened to see the committee find that the majority of religious organisations are opposed to conversion therapy and support a ban. On an international level, I particularly praise the work of Father James Martin SJ and Dr Mary McAleese, former president of the Republic of Ireland, for their work, which has had a profound impact on me and my faith.
Today is another step towards ending conversion practices in Scotland, but we now need a bill for a comprehensive ban. I note what the minister has said with regard to that and I associate myself with the comments of colleagues on the need for urgency. However, legislation alone is not enough. We need resources and support services for victims and survivors, as well as a comprehensive awareness campaign on the unacceptability of conversion practice.
For now, for LGBT+ people of all faiths and none, I finish with a quote:
“I am fearfully and wonderfully made”
and so are you.16:28
Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I welcome the committee report and I am also happy to support a ban. We should start with what we all agree on, and I hope that we are all against any attempts to force people to change what they are, and also against any use of beating or other types of violence.
However, there is likely to be some disagreement about the definitions and terms that are being used. For example, in many religious circles, conversion is seen as a positive word. It means turning around and is good if someone is turning away from something bad, such as alcohol or drug abuse. One of the best-known conversions was that of St Paul, who turned from persecuting Christian believers to becoming one himself, and most people would see that as positive.
We also need to draw a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual activity. The main thrust of Bible teaching is about activity. For example, the Bible teaches that sexual relationships should be within marriage, although there is also teaching against attitudes such as lust. Whereas society and our legal set-up allows multiple sexual relationships, Christian teaching encourages sexual relations with only one person and only within marriage.
We can, I presume, accept that a religion or a club or association should be free to have its own teaching above and beyond the law of the land, whether that be a dress code in a bowling club or nightclub or teaching about alcohol or sex in a religious setting. If a Christian leader engages in a sexual relationship outside marriage, as I know has happened recently with a prominent church leader in Canada, that person would be expected to stand down and to repent their wrong actions, despite no Canadian law having been broken.
As convener of the cross-party group on freedom of religion or belief, I urge Parliament to be careful about interfering too much with religious beliefs and practices. That certainly applies to the practice of prayer, which is primarily about a person’s relationship with God. I accept—and Jesus himself taught—that prayer can be abused and can end up being more about speaking to people than about speaking to God. However, at its heart, prayer is about an intimate relationship with God and includes bringing problems to him and asking for his wisdom in dealing with them. Only God knows our hearts, our true intentions and our deepest thoughts, so the state must be wary of interfering in someone’s relationship with God through prayer, whether that be an individual praying, two people praying together, or prayer in a group setting.
Self-control is another aspect. In the New Testament, there are nine great values, which are known as the fruits of the Holy Spirit. They include love, joy and peace. One of those is self-control. Therefore, Christian teaching and prayer would not so much be about right or wrong sexual orientation. If that is what someone is, that must, to a large extent, be accepted.
However, the need for self-control and choosing not to put your thoughts or desires into action is key. I might have a natural desire to eat the attractive food that I see. Many of us are tempted to eat too much chocolate or to drink too much alcohol. That is where self-control comes in. We sometimes need to say, “No” to ourselves. Following on from that, any repentance and prayer would be focused on wrong activities, rather than on wrong orientation. It was wrong to drink so much alcohol: how can I change? It was wrong for me to have sex with various people: how can I change?
I am broadly happy to support a ban on conversion practices, but on the condition that we are careful about definitions in the legislation and that we do not attempt to interfere in freedom of religion or belief.16:33
I thank the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee for its work in gathering evidence and compiling the report into ending conversion practices in Scotland. I thank campaigners, the witnesses who gave evidence and all those who have written to their MSPs to express support for decisive action.
When we see significant moments of progress for LGBTQ+ people, such as the repeal of section 28 or the bringing in of marriage equality, it can be all too easy to think that the job is done and the fight for equality is won. It can be easy to forget all those who have been left behind or forgotten in those moments, and those whose stories we never get to hear.
By definition, conversion therapy is silencing. It tells LGBTQ+ people that who they truly are must be shut up and hidden away, that they are broken and need to be fixed, that they are sick and must be cured, and that they are wrong and should be converted.
I hope that we can all speak today with one voice and without reservation or hesitation to all of Scotland’s LGBTQ+ people and especially to those who are not yet able to say this aloud for themselves. You are not broken. You are not sick. You are not wrong. You do not need to be fixed, cured or converted, because who you are is perfect. We will protect you from those who would try to change you.
Although we have seen progress on LGBTQ+ equality in Scotland during the lifetime of the Parliament, in recent years we have also seen a deeply concerning rise in transphobia in Scottish public life, and especially online. At the heart of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is hatred and fear of those who are different—of those whose sexual and gender diversity goes against what has often been considered to be the norm. Conversion therapy puts that hatred and fear into practice. It tells people—and often forces people—to shut up, deny themselves and go back into the closet.
One of the most common concerns that I have seen in public debate in recent months is about the impact of a ban on conversion therapy on trans people, and especially young trans people. Some people seem to be concerned that a ban on conversion therapy will criminalise parents who are trying to support children who are struggling with their sexuality or gender identity, or that we will be complicit in forcing confused young people to be trans. That is not true.
The idea that there is a big conspiracy or agenda to turn young people trans is a lie that is designed to scaremonger. It is one that we have heard before against cis lesbians, gay and bi people in the debates around section 28 and equal marriage. It is designed to stir up fear and anxiety about those who are different. What was true then is still true now: LGBTQ+ people are not trying to turn people’s children gay or trans. They are trying to build a world where gay or trans children are safe, loved and accepted.
I am grateful to the committee for spelling out so clearly in its report the reality of affirming care and what it means for young people. It does not mean that anyone will try to turn someone into something that they are not. It means that people who are struggling with their sexuality or gender identity will be given a safe and accepting space in which to come to terms with who they truly are, without prejudice or pressure.
I hope that, one day soon, we will be not just debating conversion practices but passing legislation that ends them for good. Scotland’s young people deserve a country in which they can grow up to be who they truly are, and that requires a conversion therapy ban that protects all of Scotland’s LGBTQ+ people.16:37
Presiding Officer, as the first out parliamentarian to represent the Highlands and Islands, the issue is very close to my heart and it strikes very close to home. As you represent part of the region, I know that you, too, understand how important greater acceptance of LGBTQI neighbours is, particularly in rural and island communities.
The implication of conversion therapy is that my sexuality and the sexualities and gender identities of many of my friends and others in the community are wrong or something that should or could be “fixed”, and that is offensive to me. As my colleague Mr FitzPatrick outlined in his opening remarks, “therapy” is an inaccurate way of describing conversion practices. A member of my team told me today that the word “therapy” derives from the Greek word for healing. Conversion practices are just the opposite, because they inflict severe pain and suffering, resulting in long-lasting psychological and physical damage.
As someone with mental health issues brought on by trauma, it is disgusting to me that this is something that anyone would wish to debate. Anyone who feels that there is any defence for openly stating that anyone should be legally free to cause harm—and we know that conversion therapy does cause real harm—to someone else because of something that they cannot choose or control should be deeply ashamed of themselves.
I echo the important point that other members have made, that many people of faith firmly believe in ending conversion practices and supporting LGBTQI people. Like many members, I have been contacted by some who are concerned that an end to conversion practices will infringe on their right to religion. I respect people’s rights to have a religion and to hold personal beliefs, and I respect that religion often influences those beliefs. Attending Scripture Union and being part of a religious community had a huge impact on the development of my moral compass and my world views.
What I do not respect are views that I do not consider to be deserving of respect—namely, views that I and people like me are not worthy of respect because of who we are, that we should not have a right to bodily autonomy or that our human right not to be subjected to torture or degrading treatment should not be upheld. I do not respect hate and I do not respect the use of religion as a shield for bigotry.
I was taught Christianity by some of the kindest people that I have ever known, who taught me to accept and forgive and that it was not for me to pass judgment on others. This is not a matter of freedom of religion. Homophobia and transphobia are not religions. The violence of psychologically tormenting LGBTQ people is not a protected belief. The right to hate others has nothing to do with the Christianity that I know.
Self-control is an admirable virtue only when the thing that someone is trying to control is inherently wrong. Being a queer person is not wrong; it is beautiful. No queer person should be told to control themselves. I suggest that those who feel the need to try to control and change others, to the point that they want to intervene in their human rights, should show some self-control and consider whether it is their place to judge, or to decide that someone else’s behaviour or sexual orientation is something to be fixed. People are gay. People are trans. Get over it.
I will finish by directly addressing my colleagues in the Scottish National Party and all those who share my aim to create a better Scotland. We are rightly proud of Scotland’s historic record on LGBTQI rights. Such a basis for the Scotland of the future makes me so hopeful about the future of our country. We cannot allow ourselves to slip or to slow down in our determination to make the country the best that it can be. We must follow the example of France and Canada and ban conversion practices in Scotland for good.16:41
I thank the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee for its report, and I thank the minister for the commitment that she has given today. As a gay man, I say at the outset that the process of coming out and coming to terms with sexuality is not simple. Different people take very different routes on the same journey. For some, coming to terms with being gay will be a straightforward step. However, for others, the path that they take will be far more difficult to travel. Many will engage the support of family or friends, and some might seek counselling. However, that should never involve counselling to find a cure, and it should never involve coercion, because there is no illness to treat and no abnormality to be normalised.
Arguing against people being gay in Scotland is like arguing against the Scottish weather. The young gay men and women who walk past—or into—the Parliament every day are as much a part of the natural fabric of Scotland as the drizzle that falls on them all too frequently. Trying to influence the weather would prove futile and ineffective; so, too, would seeking to influence people’s sexuality—even though, in the past, the state, the law, religion and, sometimes, the medical profession have tried to do so. Since then—thankfully—society has changed. However, the views of some have not.
People have a right to believe different things. We cannot and should not legislate against that. However, we need to legislate to protect people from its consequences. That is what we are debating.
Conversion practices are dangerous, especially—albeit not only—if coercion is involved. They can damage mental health and scar people’s lives irreparably, as Willie Rennie said. They rely on discredited practices that have for decades been rejected by medical and mental health professionals. However, sadly, such practices are not uncommon. As we have heard, 5 per cent of respondents to the national LGBT survey in 2017 said that they had been offered conversion or reparative therapy and a further 2 per cent had undergone such therapy.
A ban on conversion therapy is overdue. I welcome the minister’s commitment, and I hope that the Government will move swiftly. For any individual or organisation to try to change or suppress someone’s sexuality is fundamentally wrong. However, not all agree. I looked closely at the words of the Christian Institute, which warned that laws on conversion therapy could put at risk
“prayer, preaching, parenting and pastoral care”.
I will look with interest at how its opposition will be sustained—particularly as I hope that the legislation will carefully address and protect religious freedoms.
I welcome the committee’s report and I understand the need for urgency, but I hope that the safeguards that we put in place will be broadly aligned across the UK. I therefore hope that this Parliament will look closely at the recommendations by and the laws that come forward from the UK Government, which will apply in England and Wales. If we determine that that legislation does not go far enough, we, in this Parliament, can legislate in that regard.
The words of conversion practice survivors influenced the committee’s report. I thank those brave individuals and the groups involved for opening up and sharing their stories.
Today, the advertisements that we see on television often feature lesbian and gay couples. Being gay no longer requires a person to tell lies or feel guilty or abnormal. Nobody should feel the need to change who they are, and nobody should pressure them into doing so. I look forward to the UK joining other progressive nations in introducing a comprehensive ban on conversion practices.
We move to the closing speeches.16:45
I welcome the debate that has taken place today, and I am pleased that there is cross-party support for legislation to be introduced at pace for a comprehensive ban on conversion practices. I particularly welcome the minister’s commitment to end the practices soon.
I thank my committee colleagues for the passion and fervour that they have brought to scrutinising the issue. I am proud to associate myself with their words today. I thank Joe FitzPatrick, in particular, for steering us through the work and for setting out the importance of the difference between therapy and practice. I agree with him, Willie Rennie, Emma Roddick and others that such practices are of no benefit and therefore cannot be considered to be therapy.
I strongly welcome Gillian Mackay’s words that LGBT people are not wrong and do not need to be converted. I also thank her for clarifying what the ban will and will not do in relation to trans people. I also thank the committee’s convener for setting out the committee’s strong support for a comprehensive ban.
I note comments that have been made to acknowledge the concerns that some religious organisations have raised about potential conflict. I will address some of those concerns. I state clearly that undermining religious relationships and support is not at all what legislation would seek to do. Many people spoke to the committee about the need to ensure that they can live how they are and embrace their faith. The legislation would seek to create the best environment in which religion could remain a positive influence in people’s lives.
Although much evidence of conversion practice has shown that it often takes place in religious settings, it cannot be ignored that religion remains a strong factor in many people’s lives and that, for those whose sexual orientation or gender identity does not marry up to their religious views of themselves or those around them, it is an incredibly difficult situation to feel that there is a need to choose between the two things. My colleague Paul O’Kane said that it is “horrifying” to have to make that choice. We must protect belief by supporting people to continue to express it, as well as protecting LGBT people’s rights to be who they are. I thank my committee colleagues, including the convener, for setting out that the committee shares that view.
I often speak in the chamber about my commitment to human rights. We should all share that commitment, and I know that many of my colleagues in all parties do. I offer reassurance that human rights, including protection from torture and abuse, that legislation seeks to protect do not and should not contradict each other. In this case, I am equally committed to protecting article 9 under the Human Rights Act 1998, which is on protecting freedom of thought and religion.
It is poignant to note that, far too often in recent times, the human rights of different groups have been weaponised and held up as direct contradictions to one another. That is not how human rights work. They are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and it is only when they are treated as such that they can be truly enjoyed.
I recognise the Scottish Government’s intentions and I welcome the minister’s commitment to progress a ban as soon as possible and follow many other countries in doing so, as Meghan Gallacher noted.
I also welcome the minister’s commitment to use the committee’s evidence as a cornerstone of the Government’s approach. The evidence that the committee heard and the report that it has produced are comprehensive and detailed. Probing for further evidence, particularly from those with lived experience, could retraumatise people. My colleague Karen Adam has spoken passionately about the impact that that evidence had on us as third parties listening to it. Imagine how hard it is to live and relive that.
Like Fulton MacGregor and Alexander Stewart, I understand the need to work with the expert group to refine the legislation, but I urge that it does not duplicate or delay work.
I suggest gently to my colleague Craig Hoy that we should not wait to see whether the UK Government’s legislation goes far enough. Vic Valentine from the Scottish Trans Alliance told the committee that we have the powers to act now without waiting for the UK Government to act. They said:
“the bulk of the legislative aspect is about the criminal ban, and that would be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 14 September 2021; c 7.]
This Parliament has been bold and progressive before—in fact, we are being bold right now in taking forward progressive legislation on other issues. We can and will be bold again.
Let us not wait any longer. All five Holyrood parties committed in their election manifestos to a ban on conversion practices. That commitment has been reiterated in the chamber today. The will is here and the motivation is here. Let us have legislation and consign conversion practices to the history books once and for all.16:49
I am grateful for the opportunity to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. As a member of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I begin, as my committee colleagues did, by expressing my gratitude to the witnesses for sharing their traumatic experiences of conversion practices. I echo what Pam Duncan-Glancy said about the bravery of survivors. Their bravery will go a long way in preventing conversion practices and protecting and supporting individuals who have been, are being or could be subjected to such practices.
We heard from Karen Adam and Willie Rennie how conversion practices can cause great psychological stress and long-term harm. We heard that such practices are cruel and torturous, and Paul O’Kane said that they are dangerous and cruel and leave long-lasting damage.
The witness testimonies that the committee heard were heart-wrenching and in some cases horrifying. One witness said:
“it can totally strip away all the good bits of you and leave you desolate and completely isolated.”
The witness said that, twice, when he was in his darkest moments, he went to the Forth bridge and looked over the edge.
The Scottish Conservatives believe that conversion practices are shocking and unacceptable. We therefore whole-heartedly support an effective and comprehensive ban on conversion practices. As Fulton MacGregor and Joe FitzPatrick said, such practices are not acceptable and have no place in Scotland. Conversion practices should be banned.
I appreciate that creating robust legislation can be time consuming. However, as we heard from my colleague Alexander Stewart, a ban itself and subsequent criminalisation are devolved matters. We would therefore like the Scottish Government to make more timely progress on legislation. It was welcome to hear from the minister that the Government will work with the committee through the expert group. It is essential that we act now, as conversion practices are harmful.
Throughout the consultation, I wanted to grasp how conversion practices affect minority groups. The consensus is that conversion therapy presents in many different settings and manifestations, which depend on factors such as background, ethnicity and religion. We established that there is a deep need to connect with people who are often unreachable by mainstream services. Third sector organisations such as Hidayah LGBTQI+, which are tailored to people in honour-based cultures, will be key to reaching and supporting individuals.
The committee heard that, in many cases, victims are LGBT individuals of faith, which is why striking a balance between freedom of religion and banning conversion practices is so important. Many individuals seek comfort, understanding and hope from religious settings, and we do not seek to discourage pastors or individuals from building such relationships.
We therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to work alongside religious and community leaders to ensure that religious settings still feel confident in their ability to provide care for LGBT individuals of faith, while ensuring that the law is robust enough to prevent conversion practices. John Mason said that the state needs to be very wary when people are attending just to pray.
Many members, including Emma Roddick and Gillian Mackay, talked about the importance of having the right definition, as the right definition is not always used.
Despite legislation being in place to prevent domestic abuse, domestic abuse still happens. Despite legislation being in place to stop FGM, FGM still happens. Conversion practices often take place underground and behind closed doors, so, if a ban is to be truly effective in stamping out conversion therapy, effective whistleblowing and oversight mechanisms must be in place. Such mechanisms must be implemented prior to legislation being passed.
During committee proceedings, I asked who should be responsible for such oversight and whether that should be a public body or a third sector organisation. I ask the Scottish Government to consider that at this stage.
We have heard many thoughtful contributions from across the chamber. My colleague Craig Hoy raised the importance of working co-operatively across the UK to ensure consistency in safeguards against conversion practices. As my colleague Meghan Gallacher rightly stated, we have the opportunity now to consign conversion practices to the history books.
I will round off by repeating some of my remarks. First, the Scottish Conservatives fully support a ban on conversion practices and are committed to working in a cross-party way to ensure that the legislation is effective and works for everyone—especially those who have been let down. Secondly, while legislation is being developed, mechanisms such as support services, third sector organisations and mainstream services can be actioned. Last but not least, education and awareness are key to the effectiveness of legislation, and any information campaign should be targeted and detailed.16:56
I thank everyone for their thought-provoking and detailed contributions. Like other members, including Karen Adam, Alexander Stewart, Pam Duncan-Glancy, Pam Gosal, Meghan Gallacher, Willie Rennie and Fulton MacGregor, I thank the people who gave their testimony to the committee. We can never express our gratitude enough to people who have been through such an horrendous situation for helping to inform us in our work and move it forward. We must always be mindful of the impact that providing such testimony has on those individuals.
I want to make a point about religious freedom. We know there are concerns about the potential impact on religious freedoms, which will be considered carefully as we go forward. My door and my ears are wide open to hear any support, understanding or ideas from across the chamber.
We will consider all Pam Gosal’s points. She brings a different dynamic to our schedule of work, and we will get back to her on how we can respond to her points.
The urgency of a ban has been mentioned, as has the issue of sensitivity. I hope that we have got the balance right, although I have no doubt that members will tell me differently. Our work with the committee will help to inform that, too.
Many members know that we need to take the necessary steps, both legislative and non-legislative, to end conversion practices in Scotland. Like Gillian Mackay and Emma Roddick, I send a message to our LGBTI community: you are valued, you are not broken and you do not need fixed. We are absolutely clear that these abhorrent, harmful and discriminatory practices have no place in our society. As Meghan Gallacher told us, 13 other countries have already taken the step of implementing a ban. We will look at all those examples to learn and understand and to get our law right for the people of Scotland.
We will take into consideration the recommendations of the expert advisory group and our human rights obligations, which will inform our views on the steps that are needed to ban conversion practices. I understand the concerns expressed by Willie Rennie, Emma Roddick and others about the use of the term “therapy”. That is why we have changed the language that we use to “practices”. We need to make that absolutely clear. Many members, as a result of being witness to that testimony and those experiences, have reminded us how important the ban is.
By the end of 2023, we will introduce legislation within our devolved powers to bring in a ban that is as comprehensive as possible. That commitment was set out in our most recent programme for government, and it is mirrored in the Bute house agreement. I look forward to seeing the advice from the expert advisory group and others, and we will build on the recommendations from the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee.
Can the minister provide an assurance that different religious groups will be part of the expert group, including black and minority ethnic religious groups?
Pam Gosal and I took part in the international women’s day event at the Parliament, where we pre-empted each other on everything. The next line in my speech is on exactly that.
We want to ensure that everyone’s voice, including those in relation to all intersections such as race, faith and other communities, is expressed. I took a note of Pam Gosal’s point—she is absolutely right that those intersections are incredibly important. Hearing as many voices as possible is important, which is why, following the work of the expert advisory group, the Scottish Government will begin a full public consultation period that will run right through the autumn.
I say to John Mason that I hear him on the need for clarity on definitions and the delicate balance that must be struck. We are very clear about that.
It is clear that we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that we build a Scotland in which everyone feels safe to be themselves. The UK Government is taking forward measures for England and Wales only. We are committed to legislating separately in Scotland to ensure that we have the right measures that fit with what Scotland needs. Like Pam Duncan-Glancy and Fulton MacGregor, I believe that the UK Government’s proposals do not go far enough to offer the protections that we want. However, I am keen to work with the UK Government and others to ensure that we get it right for Scotland.
Collectively, we must get it right, and I am sure that all members in the chamber agree that we want to be on the right side of history and end these damaging practices once and for all. As we move forward with this extremely important work, I want us all to continue to think about why the ban is so important.
As was expressed most eloquently by Paul O’Kane, the protection of people who have experienced these insidious practices should be at the heart of everything that we do. We must build the necessary legislative measures to stop such practices in their tracks and ensure that the appropriate resources and support are in place for people who need help.
In response to Craig Hoy’s eloquent speech, I note that we might not be able to change the weather in Scotland, but we can certainly make it impossible for the practices to ever take place again, so that future generations will know that this chapter of Scotland’s history is closed .
As Karen Adam, Gillian Mackay and Emma Roddick reminded us, being LGBTI is not a choice.
As Fulton MacGregor said, it is the responsibility of us all to challenge discrimination against LGBTI people in Scotland, whether in the mainstream media, on social media or in community settings. It is essential that we preserve and promote a society in which people feel accepted and able to explore their sexuality and gender identity without feeling pressure to suppress or change who they are.
I am delighted to see the cross-party support and consensus in the debate. I sincerely believe that we will reach our goals, and I am sure that all members in the chamber will play their part in achieving a ban on conversion practices in Scotland once and for all.17:02
I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee. I thank Joe FitzPatrick and all my fellow committee members for their thoughtful work on the issue and for their speeches in the debate.
I am grateful to all the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee in person, virtually or in writing. In particular, I give special thanks to the victims and survivors who shared their experiences of conversion practices with us. Their stories were harrowing to hear and we recognise the courage that that took.
The committee can be rightfully proud of the inquiry that led to the report that the committee has published, the production of which clerks and others so expertly supported. It is significant that the committee unanimously agreed that conversion practices are abhorrent and not acceptable in Scotland, and that they should be banned. I am pleased that, from their speeches, colleagues around the chamber concur, and I thank Willie Rennie and other members for their kind words about the work of the committee.
There are a couple of issues that I want to highlight, especially given the correspondence that I and, I am sure, all other MSPs have received since the publication of the committee report. I am grateful to all the people who have written to us to express their thoughts and concerns about the impact of a conversion therapy ban, particularly on other rights such as those relating to religion and belief.
As a committee, we were conscious throughout the evidence-gathering process about the need to hear as wide a variety of perspectives as possible, including those of faith leaders, advocacy groups and national health service chaplains. A clear majority of religious organisations that we heard from are in favour of a ban on conversion practices.
We are of the view that legislation should not pose any restrictions on ordinary religious teaching or interfere in the right of people to take part in prayer or pastoral care to discuss, explore or come to terms with their identity in a non-judgmental and non-directive way. At the same time, it should be recognised that, in a significant number of cases, conversion therapy is conducted in religious settings and often through the medium of prayer. Paul O’Kane described being both horrified and terrified by that. I agree, and I thank him for his powerful contribution.
We do not want to ban prayer; we want to ban conversion practices in whatever form. A significant number of faith and rights experts agree with us on that, as do most faith leaders. The Global Interfaith Commission on LGBT+ Lives has had almost 2,000 signatories to its declaration, which called for an end to violence against LGBTQI+ people and a global ban on conversion therapy. Signatories include 14 archbishops, 78 bishops, 100 rabbis and various religious leaders from the Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religions.
Indeed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, says that
“banning such discredited, ineffective, and unsafe practices that misguidedly try to change or suppress people’s sexual orientation and gender is not a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief under international law.”
We welcome that clarity that there is no conflict between freedom of religion or belief and the protection of the rights of LGBTQI+ people. I hope that that gives some comfort to Alasdair Allan and John Mason, and to any others who have potential concerns in that area.
In case the member thinks that I have concerns, I should make it clear that I said that I consider these so-called therapies to be unacceptable and harmful.
I heard that very clearly. I just noted Dr Allan’s intervention on one of the earlier speeches.
We are reassured by what we have heard today, which is that Parliament will work with faith communities and organisations to ensure that, in protecting LGBTQI+ people from conversion practices, the legislation will not impinge on people’s right to practise their faith and beliefs.
I want to echo something that we heard repeatedly from survivors. Often, when someone goes through conversion practices, including through prayer, it is not their faith or belief that motivates them. We heard that people who go through, or who are pressured or advised to go through, conversion practices often do so because of external pressure. Even when someone volunteers for or “consents” to conversion practices, they are often in environments where they are coerced into doing so or it is expected of them.
Some of the most common responses to the question why someone would try to change their sexual orientation are that they believed that their desires were sinful; they were ashamed of their desires; their religious leader disapproved; their friends or family disapproved; and they believed that being anything other than straight was not acceptable in their culture.
We must protect Scotland’s LGBTQI+ people from conversion practices in all forms, wherever and however those practices take place. That may mean protecting them from the coercion, pressure or force of people around them—people who love them or who are in positions of power and who would try to change the unchangeable and tell them that they are wrong for being who they are. I thank Craig Hoy, Karen Adam and Emma Roddick for their passionate words and such clear articulations of that point. Psychological torture is not acceptable.
That is why it is so important that when legislating for a comprehensive ban we make it clear that consent to such practices can never be informed and should not be available as a defence in relation to conversion practices, as Pam Duncan-Glancy, Alexander Stewart and others have stated. We also need to ensure that the legislation that is introduced is appropriately enforced, as Pam Gosal and others noted.
I will pick up on another key issue. The committee is clear that legislation alone will not be enough to address conversion practices. We need non-legislative measures, too, to protect and support victims and survivors. Such measures should include, but not necessarily be limited to, education and awareness raising across different parts of society, mental health support services for people who have experienced conversion practices, a helpline and a whistleblowing mechanism. We should also consider a separate and distinct reporting mechanism for children.
The minister outlined the process that will be undertaken by the expert advisory group. I thank her for that and for the Scottish Government’s responses to the committee’s recommendations. However, I stress—as others have done—that we need to move swiftly now. We must act to bring forward a comprehensive ban via a process that does not retraumatise victims and survivors who have already told their stories, and which does not duplicate the work that the committee has already undertaken. I know that the committee is keen to work closely on that with the Scottish Government. Anything that we can do to shorten the timescale that the minister outlined would be most welcome.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions this afternoon and for their passion, conviction and commitment to getting a ban enforced.
I want to speak directly to all LGBTQI+ people by repeating Gillian Mackay’s powerful words. You are not broken. You are not sick. You are not wrong. You do not need to be fixed, cured or converted, because who you are is perfect. We will protect you from those who would try to change you.
Let us make good on those words and act.
That concludes the debate on ending conversion practices.
Before we move on to the next item of business, I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.