Smacks of violence

Although many countries in Europe have now
banned the physical punishment of children, the British government
claims a ban does not command widespread public support. A broad
alliance of charities, however, is in favour of change. Clare
Jerrom reports.

What do Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark,
Finland, Germany, Israel, Latvia, Norway and Sweden have in common?
They have all banned corporal punishment.

Large swathes of Europe are opting to ban
physical punishment of children, with many realising the long-term
effects that smacking can have. Germany is one of the latest,
implementing a ban in July 2000 (see panel).

Christine Bergmann, the German minister for
families, older people, women and young people, believes that
people who have experienced physical punishment in their childhood
may turn to violence themselves as an adult. “Corporal punishment
and causing emotional harm have no place in bringing up children,”
she explains. “They are degrading for children and often set off a
cycle of violence.”

However, British health minister Jacqui Smith
announced last year that there would be no ban in England and

“We do not believe that any further change to
the law at this time would be appropriate – it would neither
command widespread public support nor be capable of consistent
enforcement,” she said.

According to Smith, 70 per cent of the public
who responded to the government consultation Protecting
Children, Supporting Parents
wanted the law to remain as it
is. But nearly all the 300 organisations that responded were in
favour of change.

A group of prominent public figures criticised
the decision and sent an open letter to the health secretary Alan
Milburn urging a rethink on policy.

Children Are Unbeatable, an alliance of more
than 350 organisations, is campaigning for a change in the law.
Spokesperson Rachel Hodgkin said: “How can the government go on
defending a situation in which slapping another adult is a criminal
offence, but if the victim is a baby or a toddler it’s legal?”

The alliance, whose members include Save The
Children, the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, in January urged the government
to launch a multi-million pound campaign, similar to the
drink-driving campaign, to help parents achieve discipline without

Last month, the NSPCC accused the government
of being out of step with public opinion on the need for law
reform. A Mori poll, commissioned by the charity, claimed that 58
per cent of people in England and Wales would support a law reform,
if they could be sure that parents would not be prosecuted for
“trivial smacks”.

However, reforms elsewhere could mean that
children across Britain have different levels of protection,
particularly either side of the Scottish border. In September last
year, the Scottish executive announced proposals to ban physical
punishment of children up to three years old and a total ban of
blows with implements.

They were included in the Criminal Justice
white paper in December and a bill is expected in spring.

In Northern Ireland, the Office of Law Reform
launched a consultation on the physical punishment of children,
which ended in January, and reform proposals are expected

The issue has also been highlighted in Wales
recently by Christine Chapman during a short debate in which she
urged the National Assembly of Wales to “bring pressure to bear to
end the physical punishment of children”.

The UK law has been criticised by the European
Court of Human Rights. In 1998 it found that the human rights of a
young boy to “protection from inhuman or degrading punishment” had
been breached by his stepfather, who had repeatedly caned him. The
court found the UK government responsible because the law, which
allows “reasonable chastisement”, had been used by the stepfather.
He was found not guilty in an English court. The government was
ordered to pay £10,000 and the boy’s legal costs.

The government is required to accept European
Court judgements and agreed that the law should be changed to
protect children, but no amendments have yet been made.

Joint chairperson of parliament’s all-party
group on children, Hilton Dawson, recently visited Smith, wanting
“an end to the current state of law that dates back to Victorian
times and allows a loophole in which child abuse can remain”.

A simple change in the law would assist child
protection and child protection workers, and would help to underpin
cultural changes, he said.

Director of the NSPCC Mary Marsh said: “Our
government should be a reforming voice in Europe to modernise laws
to protect children equally, instead of clinging on to ideas of
treating children as second-class people.”

Children want smacking banned too. A Save the
Children report in Scotland found that 94 per cent of children said
there were ways parents could discipline children without resorting
to physical punishment.

Phil Taverner (see panel) was told by a young
girl: “It’s not fair – grown ups are more naughty than children but
nobody can smack them. And anyway, we’re just learning about life.
Being smacked doesn’t help us learn right from wrong – it just
makes us more rebellious.”

European bans in practice

Phil Taverner, area children’s services
manager at NSPCC Southampton, was the 2001 winner of the Isabel
Schwarz Travel Fellowship award and used the funding to visit
Germany and Austria, to learn how both countries implemented their

Travelling to Germany on the Eurostar,
Taverner watched a small French boy receive a “resounding slap” on
the legs. “Like a true coward, I said nothing. But I remember
thinking that within a couple of hours I would be in a country
where that sort of behaviour would simply not be accepted any more,
and experiencing a gut feeling of heading for some kind of
sanctuary from this sort of routine violence,” he said.

In Germany, Taverner visited a number of
children’s organisations as well as meeting the person who drafted
the country’s corporal punishment law to learn about the careful
wording, which covers hitting, pushing, pulling hair and tying a
child up.

The law was introduced in July 2000 and
opinion polls showed that the majority of parents opposed it, with
concerns that they would be criminalised. But it was written into
Civil Law to overcome prosecution fears and a national campaign was
run with the message “Help instead of punishment”.

It aims to raise awareness of children’s right
to be protected in the same way as adults, change public attitudes
to make violence towards children unacceptable and reduce child
abuse by giving professionals more confidence.

A simultaneous change in the law meant that
local authorities had to promote violence-free ways in which
families could raise children.

Taverner believes it is too early to evaluate
the ban, but parents’ attitudes are starting to change and no one
has been prosecuted under the new law. But Germany is a relatively
child-focused country, and encourages child participation in the

Austria implemented a ban in 1989 and Taverner
spoke to Dr Gabrielle Hausmann from childrens’ organisation
Kinderschutzzentrum. She claimed that it would take a generation to
see results, but that professionals gained huge confidence from
having clear legislation. She suggested that younger parents and
people in the city were more likely to oppose smacking, whereas in
the country old views die hard.

Taverner was also impressed by the creative
methods of promoting positive parenting, such as monthly magazines
offering advice on different stages in a child’s life and post
cards based on the human rights articles, written in child-friendly
language. He would like to see these introduced in Britain.

“What children learn from being smacked is
that it is okay to use force or violence to change someone else’s
behaviour, combined with a fear that if they are caught doing
something they will be hurt – usually by the person they love most
of all,” Taverner argues.

“The law has to catch up with the majority of
public opinion in order to provide children with legal safeguards,”
he concludes.

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