My Lords, this amendment, in my name and the names of my noble friend Lady Jolly and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, addresses an extremely serious issue that affects far more lives than noble Lords might have expected. Psychotherapists and counsellors are not in any way regulated by law. In opening a debate on this issue on
“The terms ‘counsellor’ and ‘therapist’ are not protected. All of us could call ourselves such”.
She also pointed out that there is
“no assurance of the level of training or competence … nor a redress system to access should something go wrong”.—[
We should all be clear that this amendment is not a criticism of the work undertaken by many straightforward, honest and understanding therapists and counsellors up and down the country, who are dedicated to helping their patients or clients address difficult issues in their lifw and get through particularly troubling periods. Nothing I say is intended to disparage their commitment or undermine their work. However, it is a tragic reality that a combination of this lack of regulation and the cruel techniques of coercive control adopted by some who offer so-called therapy and counselling services leads to many—mostly young—lives being, quite literally, ruined.
There is a pattern to these cases of abuse: charlatan therapists or counsellors secure clients—usually young and always troubled people—and proceed, over a period, to take over their life. Sadly, the typical case involves such so-called counsellors persuading their clients, quite without foundation in fact, that they have been dreadfully wronged or abused by their parents or families during their childhood. They generally implant entirely false memories in those clients. As the clients come to believe, under an insidious form of persuasion, that these false memories represent reality, they are led to blame their parents and families for all that has gone wrong in their life and all that troubles them. In this way, the clients involved are gradually alienated from their parents and families in a sinister process of coercive control.
The well-known and well-documented phenomenon of transference, originally explored by Sigmund Freud in the 1890s, plays its part in this sad process. It involves the clients projecting on to the therapist or counsellor feelings that they originally held towards a parent or other important figure in the client’s early life. The clients’ parents and other close family and friends are supplanted by the counsellor in the client’s affections by a learned dependence on them.
In our debate last March, I said that such clients are
“brainwashed by unscrupulous and controlling individuals. These charlatans play on their clients’ suffering, deluding them into a false belief in their treatment”—[
Everything that I have read and learned since that debate in relation to this issue and in preparing for this debate has strengthened my concern not only that that description was fair but that I underestimated the extent of the problem.
These issues have been widely recorded in the press and I will not detail them now, but I will repeat a question posed in the Daily Telegraph not long ago:
“What made two seemingly happy young women from loving homes sever all contact with their families and friends, renounce their inheritances and vanish into thin air?”
The journalist investigated how
“a self-styled ‘personal development coach’ digging for ‘forgotten’ childhood memories opened a door to catastrophe.”
The article went on to describe how a rogue counsellor had ruined two young lives in the way I have described, pointing out that there had been absolutely nothing the courts could do about it, given that the clients were adults—although they were young. The law offers no protection whatever for the victims of what is so clearly abuse by coercive control. The fact that such counsellors often charge their clients substantial fees, as the rogue counsellor did in those cases, only serves to make the matter worse.
Our amendment would introduce the following offence:
“Controlling or coercive behaviour by persons ... providing or purporting to provide psychotherapy or counselling services”.
The proposed offence is closely modelled on Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which covers “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”. The definition of coercive and controlling behaviour in that Act is mirrored in this amendment, and the definition of the required relationship for the Act is mirrored in Clauses 1 and 2.
As the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, who would have liked to speak today but is unable to do so, said when we debated this issue last March:
“Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act covers domestic abuse. The Government accept that individuals can be coercively controlled, and they have rightly made it illegal for a spouse, partner or parent to coercively control somebody with whom they have a relationship—that is an imprisonable offence. However, in the case of coercive control, the law does not apply equally to everyone. A person coercively controlling their daughter would be breaking the law, but the same person coercively controlling someone else’s daughter is not covered by the law. There does appear to be a gap in the law, so will the Government look into this?”—[Official Report, 2/3/20; col. 472.]
The logic of that question is inescapable. This amendment is directed to filling the gap identified by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. The gap has been filled by legislation in France, Luxembourg and Belgium. The French litigation broadly criminalises persistent or repeated pressure on a person which abuses a vulnerable person’s weakness or abuses a person in a state of psychological dependency resulting from serious or repeated pressure or techniques used to affect their judgment in a way which is seriously harmful.
I have been grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Astor of Hever, Lord Fairfax and Lord Dannatt, and my noble friend Lord Alderdice and others, who have not been able to speak tonight. Numbers of noble Lords have told me that they know families and young people who have fallen victim to the actions of charlatan psychotherapists who would be liable to be prosecuted for the new offence proposed by this amendment.
My hope is that the Government will agree to legislation reflecting this amendment and that it will be supplemented in the future by provisions requiring psychotherapists and counsellors to be licensed and regulated, with a register of qualified members, recognised qualifications and a clear statement of ethical standards. Meanwhile, serious cases where charlatan psychotherapists and counsellors are guilty of coercive control which is plainly abusive should be met by their prosecution for a criminal offence, as set out in this amendment. I beg to move.