The United Nations’ scrutiny of the UK government’s record on
putting children’s rights into practice has raised the question of
what is meant by “reasonable chastisement”.
Many social workers say that the concept, which is enshrined in
common law dating from 1860, sends out a dangerous message to
parents that it is acceptable to hit their children.
Now the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child seems to be backing
those professionals in a report that outlines the high prevalence
of violence, including sexual violence, against children within
families, in schools, institutions and the care system. It points
to growing levels of child neglect and voices alarm at the lack of
a co-ordinated strategy to reduce the problem. Smacking is a
The report highlights the fact that one to two children die every
week on average as a result of violence or neglect in the home, and
the government’s reluctance to ban physical punishment of
On smacking, the committee says it “deeply regrets that the
government persists in retaining the defence of ‘reasonable
chastisement’ in the punishment of childrenÉand that it has
taken no significant action towards ending all corporal punishment
of children in the family”.
The NSPCC is among the children’s organisations that believes that
the concept of “reasonable chastisement” allows some parents to hit
their offspring harshly and often with impunity.
An NSPCC survey of child protection professionals last December
found that seven in 10 social workers say that the existence of
“reasonable chastisement” sends a message to abusive and
potentially abusive parents that persistent and harsh physical
punishment is acceptable. The argument from children’s
organisations and child care professionals is that children should
have the same protection as adults.
NSPCC director Mary Marsh says: “The law of reasonable chastisement
is well passed its sell-by date. Our current law does not comply
with the principles and provisions of the UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child, which is the benchmark for how we should treat
children in the 21st century.”
The UN committee says that limiting rather than removing the
“reasonable chastisement” defence does not comply with the
principles and provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the
Child, “particularly since it constitutes a serious violation of
the dignity of the child. Moreover, it suggests that some forms of
corporal punishment are acceptable”. The committee recommends that
the government urgently removes that defence.
Cases that have appeared in court since the Human Rights Act’s
implementation are still being acquitted. “It is deeply
unsatisfactory that the government is doing nothing,” says Rachel
Hodgkin, spokesperson for the Children are Unbeatable! alliance,
which represents 350 organisations. She cites the case of a girl in
Scotland who was punched in the face by her father. He was cleared
after crying in the dock and apologising.
Children are legally protected from being hit in Germany, Finland,
Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Norway, Croatia, Cyprus, Latvia and
Israel. In Sweden, the first country to ban physical punishment in
1979, there have been just four child deaths as a result of
physical abuse in 15 years.
But can physical punishment and child deaths be linked? Young
people’s minister John Denham thinks not and believes such talk is
dangerous and diverts attention from those children most at
“The government is absolutely opposed to violence and abuse against
children,” he says. “The law only allows what is reasonable in
terms of the physical punishment of children – it does not permit
His outright dismissal of any link between the two disappointed
Carolyne Willow, joint national co-ordinator of the Children’s
Rights Alliance for England.
She says: “It is extremely depressing that the minister’s response
was to try to defend smacking. At the very least, he should have
made a pledge to the babies and children of our country to get the
committee’s strong recommendation seriously considered within
“We have to promote a culture of zero tolerance of violence towards
children just like the government does for women.”
Hodgkin believes child murders are an escalation of physical
punishment. She says: “If you have a society where it is against
the law to hit a child it is a help. It is easier to stop people
before it escalates.
“Look at cases such as Victoria Climbi’ and Lauren Wright, where
the person who killed them started by hitting them. So how does
John Denham have the nerve to say there is no connection? You could
almost say that the government is getting away with murder.”
The government’s recent backing of the National Family and
Parenting Institute campaign encouraging parents not to shout at
their children is “priceless”, says Hodgkin. “It’s slightly
ignoring the rather more urgent issue.”
Child care professionals saw a glimmer of hope in Scotland in April
when proposals were put forward in the Criminal Justice (Scotland)
Bill to ban smacking under-threes. Even though many felt the
proposal was flawed because it sent out a message that it was okay
to smack children older than three, they were disappointed when the
proposal was abandoned just five months later.
Why is the government so reluctant to relinquish the “reasonable
chastisement” defence despite the UN committee’s recommendation in
1995 and again this month that it does, as well as the same
recommendation by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights in May?
Hodgkin believes it is because the government is taking the
Denham’s response is that the government must keep in step with the
public: “Our policy reflects common sense views of the vast
majority of people. We recognise that parenting can be difficult
and the government wishes to avoid heavy-handed intrusion into
family life that will confuse and undermine parents.”
1 For more on Concluding Observations
of the Committee on the Rights of the Child go to www.unhchr.ch
Euro ruling fails to bring about change
In 1998 the European Court of Human Rights said the government had
failed to protect a young boy who had suffered “inhuman and
degrading treatment” after being beaten with a garden cane by
The man had been charged with actual bodily harm but acquitted in
1994 on the grounds of “reasonable chastisement”. The
boy took his case to Europe and won.
Child care professionals hoped this would force the
government’s hand to change the law. But the government said
the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into
force in October 2000, forced the courts to take into account
certain factors when considering whether the punishment amounted to
“reasonable chastisement”. These factors were the
nature and context of the treatment, its duration, its physical and
mental effects and, in some instances, the sex, age and state of
health of the victim.
But this does not go nearly far enough for child care professionals
– nor the UN committee.