Maya Forstater: A conversion therapy ban threatens to leave unhappy children medicalised, sterilised and left with impaired sexual function

29 Nov

Maya Forstater is co-founder of Sex Matters.

Why is talking therapy being conflated with torture?

“Conversion therapy” is a term used for barbaric acts of abuse, such as electric shocks, starvation, chemical castration and corrective rape, intended to change or supress a person’s sexual orientation,. The UN Independent Expert on the topic has called for a global ban, citing “beatings, rape, electrocution, forced medication, isolation and confinement, forced nudity, verbal offense and humiliation.”

“Gay conversion is torture; the UK must ban it” say campaigners, and the Government has responded with a proposal to legislate and a rushed, six week consultation. But is there any evidence that these acts of violence are taking place in the UK?

Is there any evidence of physical acts of conversion therapy in the UK?

Police reports say no. Sex Matters has seen the responses to Freedom of Information requests for details of arrest or detention for electrocution or ‘corrective rape’ in the last five years from 24 police forces. All reported that there had been no such arrests or detention in that period.

Responses from Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, Humberside Police, Leicestershire Constabulary, Metropolitan Police Service, Northumbria Police, Staffordshire Police, Bedfordshire Police, Derbyshire Constabulary, Suffolk Constabulary, Cheshire Constabulary, City of London Police, Cleveland Police, Dorset Police, Hertfordshire Constabulary, Norfolk Constabulary, North Yorkshire Police, Northamptonshire Police, South Yorkshire Police, Warwickshire Police, Gwent Police, North Wales Police,  British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police and Port of Dover Police all stated this was not a crime they had seen.*

Press coverage says no. Nor have we been able to find any recent accounts of physical abuse in the name of conversion, undertaken in the UK, in the press.

International reports say no. There are no reports of abusive practices from the UK in the UN Independent Expert’s report. Research by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) does not cite any cases in the UK.

Campaigners rely on old case studies. The website of the campaign to ban conversion therapy features one heart wrenching tale: “Carolyn’s story”, about aversion therapy “in a dark room and strapped to a wooden chair. Doctors gave me painful electric shocks while images of women were projected on the wall in the front of me.”

Another story that was reported in the media concerned “​​Chris” (not his real name). Chris spoke of similarly painful and distressing sessions.

But what happened to Carolyn and Chris took place 50 years ago.

What’s more, were the same attempted today, it would already be illegal. As the consultation document states: “no act of physical violence done in the name of conversion therapy is legal in this country”.

Bracketing therapy with torture serves to scare off discussion

The Government’s proposal includes making conversion an “aggravator” to existing crimes; offering an uplift on sentencing. However it is not clear why there is an urgent need to legislate to create a deterrent for a practice which appears to have long since died out.

The reason is one of salesmanship. The promoters of the ban have packaged torture together with talking therapy, and used condemnation of abhorrent gay conversion therapy to promote a much wider ban – that also takes in the treatment of children with gender dysphoria.

It is clever marketing. Everyone agrees that the kind of thing that Carolyn and Chris went through is barbaric and should be banned. Few will pay enough attention to notice it is already illegal.

In July 2020, in response to the petition to ban conversion therapy, the House of Commons petitions committee set up a survey to collect evidence about people’s experiences and tweeted “How does #conversiontherapy affect the #LGBT community? Should it be made illegal?”

It was an ordinary democratic act of collecting evidence and views  on a complex and little-understood topic. But it was met with a pile-on of outraged posts accusing the petitions committee of “encouraging debate about whether torturing LGBT+ children should be allowed”.

The committee retreated, issued a statement of apology and deleted the tweet, saying: “We apologise. Our intention was to provide a platform for people to share their opinion with the Petitions Committee, and inform its case to the Government. Clearly we misjudged this.”

A recent review of international published research, commissioned by the Government from Coventry University, confirmed there is no evidence on the prevalence or nature of conversion practices in the UK, and that there are no robust studies showing evidence of harm related to “gender identity conversion”.

The scare tactics aren’t working any more

In 2021, we’ve seen this manufactured offence-taking once too often.

With the Kathleen Stock affair shining a light on bullying in universities, the BBC standing up to Stonewall, and public bodies leaving its Diversity Champions programme, the environment feels different.

Organisations are starting to realise they can stand firm and do their jobs, even in the face of name-calling and hyperbolic accusations.  When we are warned off talking about something, we should pay particular attention to that something.

The thing we are being warned off talking about here is that, at the heart of the proposal to ban conversion therapy, is a plan to criminalise delivering talking therapies to under-18 year olds “with the intention of changing them from being transgender”.

This will mean that if children claim to be transgender, therapists who try to explore  possible alternative diagnoses or causes for their distress could be accused of attempting conversion and face criminal investigation.

Future young people such as Keira Bell – who at 15 was sure she was a boy, and was given puberty-blockers, testosterone and a double mastectomy before the age of 21 – will have even less chance of avoiding permanent damage to their bodies in the name of “affirmation” of their gender identities.

More gender non-conforming children will be rushed onto Lupron (previously given to sex offenders as chemical castration), and then onto cross-sex hormones (as given to Alan Turing as “treatment” for homosexuality). And parents, teachers, therapists, social workers who try to make space and time for them to grow up and accept their bodies will be threatened with prison and professional ruin.

The ban against the spectre of outdated “conversion therapy” threatens to advance a savage modern form of conversion by which unhappy children are told that they can literally change sex – with the result that they are medicalised, sterilised and left with impaired sexual function before they have a chance to find out whether they are gay.

It may be that the Government can legislate carefully and avoid this outcome. But that won’t happen if every time anyone so much as mentions complexity,  or asks for evidence of the hyperbolic claims made in support of the proposed ban, they are accused of defending torture.

*Freedom of Information Requests were submitted to 50 police forces in Febuary 2021 asking this question: Gay ‘conversion therapy’ is an attempt to use medical, psychological and social methods to ‘convert’ someone away from their innate sexual orientation against their will. This has included the use of barbaric aversive treatments like electroshocks or even ‘corrective’ rape. Please provide me with the number of people a) detained by your force and b) arrested in each of the calendar years from 2010 up to and including 2020 for using 1) electroshocks or corrective rape on a victim because they were/are gay. Twenty-four police forces provided information, all in the negative.

Clare Courtino: Why a new numeracy programme was the unsung hero of the Chancellor’s Budget

12 Nov

Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

From Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, to Alan Turing’s computation theory, to the Indian mathematician’s Srinivasa Ramanujan’s work at Cambridge on infinite series, Britain has long been home to the cutting edge of mathematics.

Much of the modern world is quietly underpinned by mathematical discoveries. Imaginary numbers – those mind-bending multiples of the square root of minus one – were initially dismissed as useless and fictitious creations when they were first explored in the 16th century. Fast-forward 400 years and they have fuelled real world advances from radios to electrical engineering. In fact, from aerospace, to cryptocurrencies, to MRI scanners, countless modern industries are reliant on different branches of mathematics.

However, nothing has brought home just how critical numbers are to informing life and death policy decisions like the pandemic. The nation has spent the last 18 months poring over the best charts, logarithmic models and health data ratios that Twitter can provide.

Scientific modellers have enjoyed new-found celebrity and ignominy based on their ability to predict the future, and Whitehall has been awash with advisers and officials with competing interpretations of the latest data. And whilst most of the country may not be quite as enthusiastic as me, amongst the nation there is a rising awareness that we need to get better with numbers.

Over eight million adults in England have numeracy skills lower than those expected of a nine-year-old. The charity National Numeracy estimates that this costs individuals up to £1,600 a year in lost earnings. That’s one of the reasons why, in a previous life, I helped to create a National Numeracy Day. I wanted to encourage a culture where we find someone saying ‘I can’t do numbers’ as concerning as someone saying ‘I can’t read’, and where we put the tools in place to make sure all adults are at ease when dealing with numbers, so that more opportunities are open to them.

I was therefore delighted at last week’s Budget when the Chancellor announced a new Britain-wide numeracy programme, Multiply. Backed by over half a billion pounds, Multiply will mean hundreds of thousands more adults a year will be able to get a Level 2 Maths qualification, and all adults will be able to access a new online numeracy platform, with over half a million adults benefitting from free personal tutoring.

This wasn’t one of the most widely reported measures in the Budget, but it is hard to overstate its potential. The benefits of Multiply will be felt not just by individuals, but also by employers who have for decades worried about a shortage of basic skills in the adult workforce.

Although, it’s not just basic numeracy where we lag our competitors. We fall short when it comes to maths and data skills too. We know that many jobs of the future will require these abilities, yet Britain ranked just 24th in global data proficiency rankings in 2020. This may partly be explained by the fact that only 25 per cent of our 17-year-olds study maths compared to 80 per cent of their peers in Northern Europe.

There is also a levelling up element to all of this. The North East, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber have the highest proportion of adults with poor numeracy in England. And whilst in London more than a third of students who get a C and above in GCSE maths go on to study Level 3 maths, this falls to one in five in the North East. We know that maths is a powerful tool for social mobility as it is one of the highest value-add courses for future earnings, therefore this uneven spread of maths skills may be adding to regional inequality.

Snoop Dog may have been on to something when he said “if you stop at general math, you’re only going to make general math money.” We are putting energy and resources into making sure our regional economies are prepared for the skills needed in the future. We should make sure that maths and data are part of these plans.

One measure introduced by the Government that has been widely seen to be helpful is the advanced maths premium, which provides funds for each pupil studying maths and further maths at A-level. The recent £3,000 salary boost the Government has put in place for maths teachers in the first five years of their careers is also a welcome incentive to attract more teachers.

But I believe thenew post-16 qualification, Core Maths, spearheaded by Michael Gove as Education Secretary and aimed at real-world problem solving and everyday statistics, could be the game changer. At the risk of becoming the most unpopular politician in the country, it may be time to look at whether Core Maths, or maths, should be made compulsory for all pupils post-16 and whether UCAS can do more to recognise Core Maths in its point systems too.

So, whether I’ve swayed you with Snoop Dogg – or if I can tempt you with a last-minute reminder that Bill Gates “took a lot of math classes in college” – improving our numbers and maths skills should remain high on this Government’s agenda, as it will be key to this country and its people’s future success.

Christian Wakeford: The number of pupils doing A-Level maths is fantastic – but higher education is not doing enough to support them

9 Aug

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South

All students receiving their A-Level results tomorrow deserve huge credit. It’s been another disrupted and difficult year for pupils.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that maths is set to be the most popular subject choice, just as it has been for the last few years. According to the interim figures from Ofqual, over 90,000 pupils will receive A-Level results in maths this week. (It’s a long way back to second place in the list of subjects – 68,000 sat psychology while biology takes bronze with 63,000 candidates).

This is good news for maths. But it brings with it certain issues. With so many school pupils sitting maths we must ensure that the pipeline in further and higher education is big enough to accommodate them. There are worrying signs of kinks in that pipeline.

Earlier this year Leicester University took the decision to close the pure maths group in its mathematics department. That prompted the founding, by the London Mathematical Society and others, of the Protect Pure Maths campaign. Its dual aims are to promote maths in general and to protect pure maths in particular, because that area of the subject seems most under threat at the moment.

Dr Nira Chamberlain, president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), is a vocal supporter of the campaign. He recently said, “To those who think we can have a better society by reducing pure mathematical activity, I say this: ‘All of mathematics is important, you cannot target one without hurting the other!’ When mathematics is strong the UK economy becomes stronger.”

That goes to the nub of the issue. The mathematical sciences contribute over £200 billion to the UK economy, that’s around 10 per cent of GDP. We need maths and mathematicians as we rebuild the economy.

But sometimes it can be tricky to see what pure maths in particular contributes. By its very nature pure maths is concerned with pursuing mathematical ideas for their own sake.

And yet without it our lives today would be very different. For example, the encryption that secures the contents of your mobile phone and which facilitated all those contactless transactions during the pandemic relies on principles from pure maths.

We don’t just carry pure maths in our pockets. It’s pure maths that underpins the safe and successful functioning of GPS satellites in space mapping the globe. Pure maths keeps us safe.

Alan Turing was studying a knotty problem in mathematical logic back in the 1930s. It appeared to have limited real world application. Yet when it came to cracking the Enigma code that pure maths work proved vital. And of course Turing’s work would ultimately hatch modern computers.

Today, government security and surveillance hub GCHQ is one of the nation’s largest employers of pure mathematicians. The Heilbronn Institute – a partnership between GCHQ and universities put out a statement on ‘the value of pure mathematics in security’ which boiled down to this line: “Pure mathematics is crucial in designing and analysing modern security protocols.”

Pure maths helps keep us well. For example, by making MRI scanners more efficient it has surely saved the lives of many patients. Maths in all its forms has been crucial to our response to Covid-19. From the graphs that we became accustomed to seeing at Downing Street briefings to modelling the spread of the disease, and more happily, the development and rollout of vaccines – a process in which this country and this government has led the world.

We can lead the world in maths too if we recognise the value of maths in all its forms and ensure maths departments remain not just viable but healthy.

Students acing A-Level maths today shouldn’t have to travel far from home if they don’t want to. There’s a danger that if some institutions make injudicious cuts then pure maths will become the preserve of certain universities while others will specialise in applied mathematics. Better to have maths departments where all strands of the subject can interact, infuse and enthuse each other spread throughout the country.

This government knows the value of maths. We’ve announced £300 million in additional funding for the subject. The details around that commitment should be forthcoming in the autumn. I hope it will be used to fund all branches of mathematics and that it will be provided in a sustainable way, to pay for students to complete courses over a number of years. That is the way to maintain our mathematical pipeline of excellence.

By doing so we give today’s pupils celebrating their success at maths A-Level the best opportunity to develop their knowledge and love of the subject. And we give the nation the best chance of reaping the rewards of that excellence in terms of the economy, opportunity and in finding the answers to questions we have even thought to ask yet and in being ready to face challenges currently unknown.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Cummings explains why it is safer to be a gambler than a bureaucrat

17 Mar

Anyone wondering why first Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson hired Dominic Cummings will find the answer in the latter’s performance this morning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

On such occasions it is usual for the witness to emit, as a defensive measure, thick clouds of politico-bureaucratic smoke, so dull and stifling that only those who have mastered the official language of Westminster and Whitehall can discern what, if anything, has been said.

Cummings is not like that. He loves freedom and hates bureaucracy. He may be wrong, but he is seldom unclear. As ConHome reported in 2014, in what appears to be the first profile of him ever published, “he prefers…not to beat about the bush”.

If one were a minister trying to hack one’s way through the Whitehall jungle, while not forgetting where one is actually trying to go, one would want Cummings at one’s side.

Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) remarked that about 90 per cent of scientists had voted to remain in the EU, and wondered whether this was because co-operation had become more important to them than science.

About 90 per cent of witnesses would have given us some platitudes about the necessity in science for cooperation.

Cummings instead remarked:

“scientists can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines. Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels, married with its appalling bureaucracy, in its insane decisions over the warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

He had begun by remarking on “the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy”, from which the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an organisation championed by Cummings, is supposed to liberate some of our scientists.

“Extreme freedom” is more important, Cummings contended, than money. He wants ARIA to be run by “a director and four trustees”, who have “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”.

It must not become part of the great network of committees, each with the power of veto or at least of intolerable delay, which circulate emails for months or years between each other before blocking original but unpredictable proposals and deciding to give the money to established, middle-aged scientists who already have well-funded laboratories.

A brilliant 21-year-old who might turn out to be a new Newton, Darwin or Turing is told, by the representatives of the present system: “You’re mad, of course we’re not funding you.”

Nobody could have predicted that within a short time Turing’s work would lead to computers and cracking the Enigma machine.

Cummings agreed with Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) that only an “existential crisis” tends to bring the “extreme freedom” which ARIA needs to enjoy.

In the early stages of the Covid crisis, Cummings remarked, the Vaccine Taskforce had to be given that freedom, because the Department of Health had been a “total disaster” in such fields as procurement.

Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West) wondered, “How do we avoid extreme freedom leading to extreme cronyism?”

Cummings replied that cronyism is rife in bureaucratic systems. He remarked that General Groves had run the Manhattan Project, handing out vast sums with no more than a handshake, and later investigation had shown the work was remarkably free of cronyism and corruption.

Katherine Fletcher (Con, South Ribble) suggested ARIA needs to have a high failure rate. Cummings replied: “Sure. You’re completely right. If it isn’t failing then it’s failing…it isn’t taking enough risks.”

He added that venture capital firms generally make their money “from a tiny number of successes”.

“Individuals have to be able to place bets,” he remarked. “Not committees.”

The Prime Minister is denounced, by his critics, as a gambler. Cummings today explained why being a gambler is safer than being a bureaucrat.

Michelle Donelan: The Government’s new Turing scheme will open up the world to British students

28 Dec

Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Universities.

When things become too familiar, it can be comfortable to sit back and enjoy their benefits, never stopping to consider whether the old, established parameters still meet the needs of the present day. The thought of losing it becomes a wrench. Even if what is being offered in exchange is clearly better, the original has acquired a totemic nature that goes far beyond its present value.

Such can be the only explanation for the cries of dismay from some quarters that greeted the news last week that the UK government would be establishing a new global Turing scheme for students, following our decision not to continue participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

I can understand why some people feel this way. Many prominent commentators, newsreaders or academics may have used Erasmus, or perhaps their children or friends did. It is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in. However, the simple reality is this: if anyone was creating a student exchange scheme for Britain today, would they really settle for Erasmus+?

Why would we wish to limit an exchange programme to the EU, when the fastest growing, most vibrant and dynamic countries are increasingly found in Asia and Africa – not to mention our old allies in North America, Australia and New Zealand? Some forward-thinking universities have already established exchange programmes, and even campuses, outside of Europe, and I commend them for that, but they deserve our full and whole-hearted support, not exclusion from the Government’s principal funded scheme.

It is also the case, unfortunately, that Erasmus’s benefits went overwhelmingly to students who were already advantaged. The language barrier meant that it was very hard for students not already studying a modern foreign language to take part, to flourish at their chosen university and get the most out of the academic experience. A 2006 study found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, 51 per cent were from families with a high or very high income.

In 2014-15, those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus at a rate 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap was widening. Of course, no-one would wish to prevent such students from studying abroad; but where Government support is concerned, surely it should be about ensuring all students have a fair and equal shot at studying abroad or going on an exchange.

That’s why the Government’s new Turing scheme will explicitly target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country. It will be backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, on apprenticeships, and in schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.

The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and will deliver greater value for money to taxpayers. And it will be named after one of our greatest British scientists: Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing and cryptography, a hero of the Second World War and who himself studied abroad as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton.

Of course, none of this is to decry Erasmus+: undoubtedly, those who took part in the scheme benefited from it. However, the fact is that it is simply too limiting for the global Britain that we aspire to. Of the hundred best universities in the world in the QS World Rankings, only twelve are in the EU. If we have stayed with Erasmus+ it would have cost several hundreds of millions of pounds to fund a similar number of exchanges, not have been global in nature and continued to deliver poor participation rates for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In the future, we will see young people from Bolsover and Bishop Auckland studying in the Ivy League; entrepreneurs from Dudley and Derbyshire learning from the dynamic economies of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and our best budding engineers from Hastings and Hartlepool inspired by world-leaders at MIT or the Indian Institute of Technology. The Turing scheme exemplifies the spirit of Brexit, opening up our opportunities, our hearts and our horizons to the whole world.