Labour MP Geraint Davies: Only regulation can stop gay conversion therapy

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Writing for, Labour MP Geraint Davies says Health Minister Norman Lamb is completely wrong to rule out the statutory regulation of psychotherapists in order to guard against gay-to-straight conversion therapy.

It’s been four years since we first learned that some counsellors in Britain were offering ‘cures’ for people’s sexual orientation. These professional therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors were exposed as providing so-called conversion therapy, with some sessions even paid for by taxpayers and offered on the NHS.

In the four years since we’ve heard story after story of men and women who have undergone this so-called treatment and the hurt and the harm that they’ve experienced as a result.

No one has been ‘cured,’ and how could they when being gay is not an illness, but many LGBT people have been left isolated, depressed, and some even suicidal, having been abused by practitioners who should never be able to call themselves professional therapists, let alone be treating vulnerable patients on the NHS.

But they can. And the government has done nothing in the last four years to change that. In fact it’s resisted repeated calls from myself, other MPs and LGBT campaigners to take this problem seriously and ban conversion therapy for good.

That’s why today’s recognition from Health Minister Norman Lamb that conversion therapy is abhorrent is completely inadequate when in the same piece he expressly rules out doing anything meaningful about it.

His strong words, however well-intentioned, won’t stop rouge practitioners from offering these so-called cures, nor will they prevent the serious psychological harm that these therapies do to LGBT people.

And a single letter to the head of NHS England won’t solve the problem either. It’s all very well for the Minister to highlight the inappropriateness of wasting taxpayers’ money on conversion therapy, but new research has found that many Clinical Commissioning Groups – the bodies that actually deliver NHS treatments – are regularly using unaccredited therapists, exactly the kind of rogue practitioners who offer discredited treatments like conversion therapy.

What we really need is a statutory register of therapists and counsellors, where anyone found to be offering this damaging so-called treatment would be struck off and banned from practice for a good. That’s what I’ve proposed in my Counsellors and Psychotherapists (Regulation) Bill which is currently going before Parliament, because it’s a scandal that just anyone can set themselves up a therapist without any oversight or training. And it’s this loophole that’s allowing conversion therapists to abuse LGBT patients and to get away with it.

But so far the government has refused to back my bill. Instead they’ve proposed a voluntary system, where therapists can sign-up to become accredited with a professional body, but only if they choose to do so.

To see just how ineffective this system is, take the case of Lesley Pilkington, the conversion therapist exposed in Patrick Strudwick’s undercover investigation. She was kicked out of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy for attempting to cure Patrick and for suggesting that being gay was the product of sexual abuse.

But rather than being banned from practice for good, as she would be under the system that I propose, she just went on to join another professional body – the Association of Christian Counsellors – who only recently kicked her out for the same reason.

In truth the weakness of this voluntary system is evident from the title – it’s voluntary, and instead of being found out and struck off, conversion therapists like Lesley Pilkington end up on this merry-go-round of joining and then leaving professional bodies as they constantly try to evade detection. The system isn’t fit for purpose, and it doesn’t stop dangerous conversion therapists from attempting to cure gay people.

Only statutory regulation can prevent conversion therapists from putting vulnerable people at risk. It’s time for the government to realise this and to act to prevent this abuse.

Geraint Davies is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Swansea West.