Psychotherapists could be criminalised for treating children who want to be transgender under new laws banning conversion therapy, the Government has been warned.
Mental health professionals say that under new laws they could lose their licence or even face prison terms for exploring the reasons behind a child's belief that they were born in the wrong body.
A group of therapists are now calling on ministers to exclude professional treatments of gender dysphoria from the ban, which could be announced as early as next week.
A petition calling on the Government to "safeguard evidence-based therapy" in the new laws has received more than 7,600 signatures. If it reaches 10,000 minsters are required to provide a response.
It states: "We ask the Government not to criminalise essential, explorative therapy. Such well-meaning legislation might ironically deny vulnerable children the help they need."
The Government last night said that it would not comment on the contents of the policy but that it will be announced "shortly".
Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, has already pledged that the ban will extend to cover those in the trans community.
It has already faced criticism from religious groups, who say that it could criminalise church leaders.
Now further concerns are being raised by a number of medical professionals, including Dr David Bell - who blew the whistle on practices at the NHS’s Tavistock clinic - who warned it could be a Trojan horse for trans activists to put pressure on clinicians.
The petition was started by James Esses, co-founder of a group clinicians called the Thoughtful Therapists, who say that they "abhor" conversion therapy but the ban could have unintended consequences.
"It is our duty as therapists to explore feelings of gender dysphoria, including any underlying causes, especially when medical transitioning may be irreversible," said Mr Esses, a children’s counsellor and trainee psychotherapist.
"We are concerned that the criminalisation that many activist groups are calling for could mean that if we do anything other than affirm transitioning then we could lose our licence to practice and even end up in prison.
"We should never enter therapy with a client with a preconceived idea about the outcome. Mandating affirmation does exactly that."
He warned that other countries such as Australia and Canada have already introduced draconian legislation and if the Government follows suit "there is a real risk that those with gender dysphoria, in particular children who need the time and space to think things through, will not get the support they need".
He added: "Secondly, it will put therapists off even working in this area, for fear of being accused of transphobia. It will undermine the profession as well as our clients."
What is conversion therapy?
The accepted definition of conversion therapy - which traditionally focused exclusively on sexual orientation - was changed in 2017 when the NHS and other professional bodies signed a new memorandum that included "gender identity".
It has been widely interpreted as proposing an affirmative approach and it has led to psychotherapists saying that they avoid questioning children as young as six who come to them claiming they wanted to transition.
It is feared that memorandum will now underpin the new law on conversion therapy, which has been promised by the Government for a number of years and is rumoured will be included in the Queen’s Speech.
The Thoughtful Therapists are attempting to challenge the memorandum, warning that "affirming a client’s gender identity may have an irreversibly life-changing impact on that person".
In a letter to the Coalition Against Conversion Therapy, which produced the document, and to Ms Truss, they note that studies have found links between gender dysphoria and autism and other psychological issues that need to be explored.
They also note the growing number of people de-transitioning, adding: "We are working with a vulnerable group of young people with many unknowns and an extremely poor evidence base for significant medical interventions."
The British Psychological Society, a signatory to the memorandum, has responded publicly to the criticisms, saying: "Relevant professional associations are clear that identity exploration is an invaluable part of talking therapies. We've seen no evidence of anyone seeking to include ethical forms of therapy in a ban."
A Government Equality Hub Spokesperson said: "We have made clear that we will take action to stamp out conversion therapy in this country. We have engaged with a variety of stakeholders as part of this process and will bring forward proposals shortly."