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Equality and Human Rights Commission Widely Criticised for Statements on Conversion Therapy and Gender Recognition

On Wednesday the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) received widespread criticism after it published responses to Scotland’s planned reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and the Government’s planned conversion therapy ban. The responses have been denounced by LGBT+ organisations and activists alike, with both felt to be trans-excluding.

Conversion Therapy

There has already been much delay to proposals for a ban on conversion therapy since the Government signalled that it would look into a ban more than four years ago. In December 2021, the Government extended the consultation on the proposed ban in a move considered by many activists to be appeasing religious groups who are opposed to the legislation.

Much of the debate around the bill centres around the potential presence of exemptions for religious practices, and whether the draft legislation will allow for conversion practices with ‘informed consent’. LGBT+ organisations have been campaigning for a comprehensive ban in which neither loophole exists, however in response to this the EHRC suggested that religious leaders should be free to ‘encourage refraining from certain types of sexual activity.’ Conversion therapy is most common in religious settings and as such, if this were to make it into the bill, a religious exemption would fail to cover most instances of conversion therapy. Similarly, while the Cooper Report found that no practice as coercive as conversion therapy could ever be freely consented to, the EHRC suggested that informed consent would be an important provision of the legislation.

The EHRC also raised concerns around the inclusion of trans people in the ban, suggesting that such a ban be delayed even further such that more research could be done, in spite of the fact that research shows that trans people are most likely to be the victims of conversion therapy within the LGBT+ community. Jayne Ozanne, a victim of conversion therapy herself and a prominent campaigner commented that the ECHR “appears to recommend prioritising the rights of those who want to continue practising conversion therapy over the rights of those most at risk from it.”

The impact of the response on the legislation will become clearer in due course, however it is clearly a step in the wrong direction for legislation that has already been held up for a very long time. The slow progression of UK legislation was put in even harsher light yesterday, as France’s conversion therapy ban was passed unanimously by the National Assembly with impressive speed.

Scotland and the Gender Recognition Act

While similar proposals in England and Wales have been ditched, Scottish ministers currently hope to reform the GRA to make it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. However, in a further statement, the EHRC also expressed concern about the upcoming amendments, particularly on issues including “the collection and use of data, participation and drug testing in competitive sport, measures to address barriers facing women, and practices within the criminal justice system, inter alia.”  

This move to exclude trans people from improved rights and protections was criticised by many, with Stonewall commenting that “[the EHRC] appears to focus on pleasing a noisy minority of anti-trans activists, rather than promoting human rights for all LGBTQ+ people.”

What is next for the EHRC?

Following the two statements, many in the LGBT+ community have been asking whether the ECHR remains fit for purpose, with Stonewall and the LGBT Foundation calling on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) to review the EHRC.

Echoing these calls, former MP and member of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Ben Howlett commented “as the person who led the scrutiny process for the appointment of the previous EHRC Chair, I am deeply concerned about the ongoing politicisation of the Commission. As a UN-accredited National Human Rights Institution, there is clear evidence that the EHRC is in breach of the ‘Paris Principles’. These principles include the commitment to promote and protect all human rights and to contribute towards a world where everyone, everywhere fully enjoys their rights. I therefore join growing calls for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions to review the EHRC. I hope an urgent review will help to protect the rights of trans people in the UK, not further erode them.”

Were a review to occur, it could spell disaster for the Government. As the Government prepares for the UK to host the Safe to be Me conference (a global LGBT+ conference) this summer, the prospect of UNHCHR and GANHRI downgrading the UK would look very bad indeed.

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