Private member’s bill set to force the issue of a parental smacking ban

A private member’s bill that would make it a criminal offence for
parents to smack their children may be put before parliament in the
autumn. In a free vote, MPs would then have a chance to bring about
a change in the law without putting political heat on the

David Hinchliffe, chairperson of the health select committee, has
already drafted a bill that would scrap the defence of “reasonable
chastisement” on which parents facing allegations of child abuse
can rely to escape prosecution or conviction.

He says: “I am quite happy to run with this bill – it would give
the government a way out because I would be taking the flak as an
individual backbencher rather than any being directed towards the

His promise comes days after calls from both the House of Commons
select committee he chairs and from the parliamentary joint
committee on human rights to remove the “reasonable chastisement”
defence from the statute books.

The health select committee’s response to the Victoria Climbi’
Report concludes that the defence is an anomaly because physical
punishment is no longer permitted in schools and, from this
September, child minders will no longer be able to smack children
in their care. The committee recommends that the government changes
the law in its green paper on children due this month.

At the same time, a report by the joint committee on human rights
reaches the same conclusions about the “reasonable chastisement”
clause in the Child and Young Persons Act 1933. In its report on
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the joint committee
says the UK government is out of step with many of its European

Keeping the defence in UK law breaches two articles of the
convention, the committee argues. It is calling on the government
to collect and analyse data on violence against children which
should include indicators on whether the defence of “reasonable
chastisement” is used in cases of child abuse that reach the

But despite this growing parliamentary pressure, prime minister
Tony Blair remains adamant that he has no intention of changing the
law to make it a criminal offence for parents to smack their
children. At a Downing Street press briefing the day the reports
were published, the prime minister’s official spokesperson
reiterated the government’s line.

“The government does not believe that criminalising parents is the
right way to deal with the issue,” he said. “In the government’s
view, most parents accept and understand that there is a clear
difference between discipline and abuse and when to draw the line
between them. The challenge for the government and other agencies
is knowing how to deal with cases where the line has been crossed.”

The green paper – which will be top of the agenda of children’s
minister Margaret Hodge – will outline how the government plans to
strengthen the protection of children, the spokesperson

But the official government line on “reasonable chastisement” is
not only out of step with international law and some backbench MPs;
it is also at odds with the views of leaders of the social care
profession who are urging the government to act on the
recommendations of the two parliamentary committee reports.

Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social
Workers, says the government’s refusal to change the law is
professionally embarrassing.

Last year, BASW petitioned the International Federation of Social
Workers to join a global treaty to eliminate the physical
punishment of children. “Social workers from other countries told
us then that they were not going to fight our battle for us. The
government’s position is an embarrassment to us,” he says.

Jane Held, social services director at Camden Council and joint
chairperson of the Association of Directors of Social Services’
children and families committee, also says the law is out of date
and should change.

Held insists that scrapping the “reasonable chastisement” defence
would not create more work for social workers. “The law as it
stands makes it legal to hit a child when it is illegal to hit an
adult. It is highly unlikely that a change in the law will result
in an increase in prosecutions because we are talking about
removing the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’, not introducing
an offence of ‘chastisement’.

“People have been arguing about this the wrong way round. We are
happy to give evidence to the government about this and will make
that position clear if the government chooses to go into a debate
on this. And, if asked, we will give information for a private
member’s bill.”

Children’s charity the NSPCC says the government’s reluctance to
change the law is disappointing.

Its policy adviser for health and family support, Lucy Thorpe,
says: “I think it is a great pity, especially when they have been
focusing so much on children and their needs. This is clearly
archaic legislation. The decision not to act on ‘reasonable
chastisement’ sends a confusing message to parents because they are
preventing childminders from smacking children. What they are
saying is that in different circumstances these children can be
treated in different ways.”

The NSPCC is also confident that making smacking a criminal offence
would not lead to a flood of prosecutions. “The majority of parents
are loving and caring and this will not be an issue for them. We
realise that there is this whole issue about the ‘nanny state’ but
the government can deal with fears about trivial incidents ending
up in courts by producing good guidelines for the Crown Prosecution
Service and the police to ensure that these kinds of cases don’t
get anywhere near the courts.

“In other countries where the law has been changed it has been a
very powerful lever to parents to think about how they treat their

Scotland is already ahead of the rest of the UK in the debate about
improving child protection. This autumn, under the new Criminal
Justice Act, shaking, blows to the head and the use of implements
against children of any age will become a criminal office. However,
earlier plans to use the bill to bring in a smacking ban for
under-threes were dropped last September because they lacked the
support of the public and MSPs.

However, there appears to be no lack of support among MPs in
Westminster. A Mori poll carried out on behalf of the NSPCC reveals
that 45 per cent of Westminster MPs support a change in the law to
protect children from assault. An early day motion calling for
parliament to support the conclusions of the two parliamentary
committees gathered 19 signatures in just three days.

One publicly dissenting voice from Westminster is that of
Conservative opposition health spokesperson Liam Fox, whose
comments give an indication of the kind of arguments the government
will have to face if it decides to change the law. “Outlawing
smacking would be an outrageous intrusion by the state into
parents’ legitimate rights and duties,” Fox says.

Tony Blair may be reluctant to bring the smacking debate to
Westminster and it may be left to influential and popular
backbenchers like Hinchliffe to take the lead. But, whatever the
catalyst, ADSS president David Behan is sure the time is right for
the arguments to be heard.

“This is a seminal moment in the future of children’s services in
this country – there is no doubt about that,” Behan says. “Getting
rid of ‘reasonable chastisement’ is not just a technical issue. The
larger debate is about how we value children in this country –
smacking is only one part of that debate and it is important that
these issues are debated.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.