It looks unlikely that the government will introduce an outright
ban on smacking. So where does the campaign against physical
punishment go from here, asks Linda Green
Hundreds of children took to the streets to voice their support
for the campaign to ban smacking earlier this month.
But an imminent victory for the campaign alliance is not on the
cards as the government began its consultation process on the
physical punishment of children by declaring it would not ban
With the consultation period on the government's Protecting
Children, Supporting Parents document now over, just how far might
ministers be prepared to go on this issue? The government was
forced into action after the A v UK case in 1998 when the European
Court of Human Rights ruled that the beating a young boy received
from his stepfather breached the European Human Rights Convention.
The stepfather had successfully used the defence of "reasonable
chastisement" in a British court.
But when launching the Department of Health's consultation
document in January, health minister John Hutton made it clear that
the government was interested in amending the law rather than
ending the "reasonable chastisement" defence altogether.
Leading lights in the Children are Unbeatable Alliance say the
campaign to ban smacking will continue.
Kate Harper, a development officer with Save the Children, one
of the alliance members, says: "We should talk to the government
and make clear our concerns that they have not gone far enough in
ensuring the protection of children and they have not gone far
enough to meet the European Court of Human Rights'
Harper believes the government should lead public opinion on the
issue. "When you look at the drink-driving ban, nobody supported
that but the law came in, there was a public awareness and
education campaign and now nobody ever says 'have one for the
road'. If you are really going to change something that is in our
culture you have to have a law to strengthen the education
proposals you are putting forward."
Marcus Roberts, editor of the Children's Legal Centre journal
Childright, believes the government's refusal even to consider a
total ban on physical punishment was a ploy to try and pacify the
pro-smacking lobby while keeping something in reserve for the
"Personally, I think that before the consultation started the
government had already decided to go a long way towards the
position of people who wanted to see a ban. In saying it was going
to do the very minimum and then consulting on doing a bit more I
suspect the government will claim it has been very responsive to
the representations it has had.
"But I do still think there's a serious danger that the
government is going to fall short of the requirements of the
European Convention on Human Rights. The boy in the A v UK case
hadn't suffered the sort of injuries that the government specifies
it's considering banning."
So exactly what concessions might the government make? The most
likely option is that the defence of "reasonable chastisement" may
be refused to anyone who has used an implement against a child or
hit it about the head. People charged with anything more serious
than common assault may also be precluded from using the
Gill Keep, head of policy at the National Family and Parenting
Institute, says: "We're pleased that the government recognised the
definition of reasonable chastisement needs to be redefined, but we
don't think they will ban the use of that as a defence.
"We think they are more likely to take a staged approach to
banning smacking and may well revisit it in a few years time to see
if public opinion has shifted.
There is no doubt that a perceived public backlash against any
state attempt to interfere in what goes on in people's own homes,
is uppermost in ministers' minds.
But there are indications that parents' views are changing.
Susan Littlemore, spokesperson for Parentline, says: "The very
optimistic thing in all of this is that we know from the parents
who call us that they don't want to use physical punishment but
they need some support to learn not to do it. We are quite hopeful
that there is a real way forward but practical measures are
The biggest danger to the government would seem to be that its
desire not to ruffle the feathers of middle England could see it
falling foul of the European courts again.