Social Workers Union and Scottish Association of Social Work respond to call for views on end Conversion Therapy Petition

SASW - The professional association for social work and social workers | SWU - Social Workers Union

The Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee issued a call for views on a petition to End Conversion Therapy. The Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW) and the Social Workers Union (SWU) submitted the following response:

1) What are your views on the action called for in the petition?

The Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW) is part of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) which is the largest professional body for social workers in the UK. BASW UK has 21,000 members employed in frontline, management, academic and research positions in all care settings. There are over 10,000 registered social workers in Scotland, around 1,500 of whom are SASW members. This comprises of staff working in local government and the independent sector, across health and social care, education, children and families, justice services, as well as a growing number of independent practitioners.

SASW’s key aims are:

  • Improved professional support, recognition, and rights at work for social workers
  • Better social work for the benefit of people who need our services
  • A fairer society

The Social Workers Union (SWU) is the only UK trade union for, and run by, qualified and registered social workers. SWU is an organisational member of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and a member of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). SWU is one of the fastest growing unions in Europe with almost 15,000 members across the UK.

SWU’s mission is to improve the terms and conditions of social workers, fight for better resources for the people who use these services and support the principles of human rights and social justice worldwide.

SASW and SWU support the call for a comprehensive ban on all forms of conversion therapy on the basis of sexuality or gender identity in Scotland, and we ask the Scottish Government to consider this as a matter of urgency. The practice, in any form, is harmful both physically and psychologically. SASW is concerned about the mental health of people, for all children, young people, and adults exposed or potentially exposed to conversion therapy. It is worth noting that a ban is popular among those who have undergone conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy has already been banned in Switzerland, parts of Australia, Canada and US. In Northern Ireland in April this year politicians passed a motion calling for a ban. The Welsh Government published a LGBTQ+ Action Plan this month that seeks to ban all aspects of conversion therapy within their current powers and seek the devolution of any necessary additional powers to allow them to achieve this.

The Scottish Government has stated that it does not support the practice of conversion therapy and has described it as unethical and harmful with no place for it within Scotland. They have advised that they are working with the UK government to develop proposals to implement a ban. Westminster has pledged to end conversion therapy across the UK but has not yet taken any decisive action. Recently some members of the UK government’s LGBT advisory panel quit, voicing concern that action is not being taken quickly enough. We support the call for the Scottish Government to use devolved powers to enact a ban in Scotland without waiting for Westminster.

Scotland is world leading in terms of progressive policy and legislation, for example in domestic abuse so it is surprising, concerning and deeply disheartening that we are lagging behind the international community on such an antiquated and damaging practice. It is essential that steps are taken now to end the practice within the scope of devolved competency – waiting for the UK government who have only made a pledge does not go far enough.  We believe decisive action is possible in Scotland now.

Taking this position is in keeping with BASW’s Code of Ethics, which advocates for the promotion of human dignity and well-being, the right to self-determination, respect for diversity, and the responsibility of social workers to challenge oppression on any basis.

2) What action would you like to see the Scottish Government take, within the powers available to it?

SASW would like to see the Scottish Government implement a ban on the promotion or provision of conversion therapy by any individual or organisation in Scotland, and this should include arranging for a person to go abroad to undergo such treatment.

Along with the ban SASW would like to see increased training and awareness amongst all staff in health and social care settings – including social work – in both the public and private sector. Many people appear unaware that the practice of conversion therapy still exists in Scotland, and increased awareness can help identify when someone is at risk of undergoing treatment or if they are a survivor and potentially in need of support.

Training and awareness raising activities should include religious and community leaders, who are cited frequently by conversion therapy survivors as proponents of conversion therapy. Education and support will help community, faith, and religious leaders across Scotland to raise awareness and educate their communities. Intervention at this grassroots level is likely to be more effective than legislation alone.

We support calls by End Conversion Therapy for the government to provide outreach and support for survivors and communities affected by conversion therapy. Information leaflets must be provided in all languages and available to communities to explain the ban and leaflets for those who seek refuge from such practices too.

The physical and psychological harm and impact of conversion therapy must be recognised and referenced in the Scottish suicide prevention plan.

There is a risk that introduction of a criminal offence may drive conversion therapy underground. Such has been the case with female genital mutilation (FGM) in England and Wales. Those promoting FGM often promptly modify practices to avoid detection and may remove victims from the UK to undergo conversion therapy elsewhere.  Legislation on FGM took years to develop and close loopholes.  There have been very few criminal convictions to date. This effect must be avoided, and any loopholes considered from the offset to avoid lack of detection and further harm.

A route to criminal conviction where conversion therapy is taken outside of the UK must be clearly established and clear and safe resources where individuals of all ages can seek support and receive emergency help. These must be clear within the health, education, and social care sector.

The legal definition of conversion therapy must be broad enough to encompass all existing practices. Survivors report experiencing physical and sexual violence during gender identity conversion therapy including verbal abuse, beatings, forced feeding or food deprivation, corrective rape and forced nudity.  Criminal sentences must reflect the impact on victims and be seen to promoter deterrence.

A criminal offence should also include those who ‘assist’ in any situation and not be focussed only on the performer of conversion therapy.

Data on conversion therapy must be collected and analysed. This will support any analysis of the introduction of legislation. It will also provide valuable data about communities that continue to practice conversion therapy and help to identify individuals at risk of such harm. This may support health and social work to provide targeted interventions to safeguard those individuals or communities who are at most risk.

Further research in this area is needed and this must not be over-represented by white individuals, as is the case to date, but a diverse range of people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Appropriate funding must be made available for this work, including community outreach and education

3) Do you have suggestions on how the Committee can take forward its consideration of the petition?

SASW and SWU strongly recommend that the voices of those who have survived conversion therapy are fully included in any decision making surrounding a ban and the provision of support. The Committee should also hear from those with legal expertise in other areas of reform around harmful practices such as FGM and gender-based violence.

We ask the Committee to work in collaboration with services (often charitable organisations and non-governmental organisations) who support survivors to ensure a better understanding of their needs.

Collaboration should also take place with social workers, health practitioners and education workers so that they are empowered to be able to identify and support those at risk of conversion therapy and ensure they are aware of channels to challenge such practices and those who carry it out. This is likely to lead to building and developing a more robust and effective system nationally to safeguard future victims of any conversion therapy.

Specialist safeguarding training must be made available to all police, health, and social care services.

Working with the Police, Crown Prosecution Service and the Justice Directorate will be necessary to ensure processes are in place to secure convictions and send a clear message to deter communities from such practices.