January 18, 2000

We will circulate all Alliance supporters in the next week with a full analysis of the Consultation Document and some ideas about responses. The deadline for responding is April 21 2000 - but we think it is important to get a lot of responses in quite early.

The Consultation Document - “Protecting Children, Supporting Parents; A Consultation Document on the Physical Punishment of Children” is available on the Department of Health Web-site, www.doh.gov.uk.

Copies can be obtained from SC3C, Department of Health, Room 122, Wellington House, 133 - 135 Waterloo Road, LONDON SE1 8UG.

The Consultation Document is a missed opportunity. Given the Government’s acceptance that the law has to be changed to give children better protection, the only workable option is a clear ban. By leaving out that option, the document gives parents a confusing message which is dangerous for children.

While of course the Alliance is disappointed by the lack of leadership and the failure of the Government to put children’s interests first, we see this as just the beginning of a long debate. The process will end up in Parliament in a year or two, when MPs will be allowed a free vote on the law reform proposals (this is a constitutional tradition on such issues of conscience). We would hope by then to have convinced politicians that the only safe and just way forward is to give children the same protection as adults under the law on assault.

The Government’s central proposal - that courts should have to consider a checklist to decide whether physical punishment is “reasonable” - does absolutely nothing for children. It provides no protection for children, just lots of potential work for lawyers.

The judge and jury in the case that went to the European Human Rights Court considered all the factors in the proposed checklist - and still found the beating to be reasonable. The European Court judgment demands that the law provides “effective deterrence”. This proposal is certainly not an adequate response to the judgment.

Giving courts a checklist does nothing to stop abuse; it leaves parents in a state of dangerous confusion and undermines child protection.

The other proposals in the document - to ban serious assault, smacking on the head and use of implements - just illustrate the insult to children and the absurdity of trying to define how children can be hit. Imagine a consultation paper which made proposals like this about protection of women, or pets.

We know most parents regret smacking and want to move on to better, non-violent ways of discipline. The Government’s own poll found more than three quarters of respondents believing it should be illegal to smack under two year-olds - so why, at least, is it not proposing banning smacking of young children?

The Consultation Paper and the Department of Health press release do at least indicate some commitment to provide advice and support for parents in using other, more positive, forms of discipline. The Alliance aims to work with the Government on that. But anything less than a clear ban will undermine public education campaigns.

“The NSPCC is hugely disappointed that the Government’s paper rules out the option of giving children the same legal protection from assault as adults. Playing around with legal definitions of how and in what circumstances children can be hit is a recipe for confusion and fear for parents and keeps children at risk.

“The Government’s refusal to scrap the Victorian defence of “reasonable chastisement” fails children in the new millennium. It loses the opportunity to bring England in line with many European countries.

“The NSPCC with many other organisations and individuals will be urging the Government to give children the same legal protection from assault as adults and establish the principle that no child should be hit ever”.

“We believe that the Government has missed an opportunity to modernise an 1860s law and bring it into the 21st century”, said Paul Ennals, NCB’s Chief Executive. “We recognise the difficulty of legislating on what many regard as a private matter - but specifying how adults can and cannot legally smack children will only add confusion to the stress which many parents encounter. It fails to put across the message that hitting people is wrong.

“In countries like Sweden, the banning of physical punishment has prompted a sea change in public opinion, with parents exploring alternative ways of disciplining children. That is what we would like to see in this country, and we will continue to work towards that aim”.

“It is not possible to advise parents on what is a good and bad smack says Britain’s largest childcare charity. Barnardo’s says the law should be reformed to protect children, and parents should be supported in pursuing positive, non-violent means of discipline”.

“...The Government has frequently promoted human rights on the international stage; it is important to remember that our children are humans too and should be accorded these same human rights. Children are amongst the most vulnerable members of our society and yet they are currently offered less legal protection from assault than adults. This consultation is an opportunity to press for an end to all forms of physical punishment - a fitting aspiration for the 21st century.

“Save the Children believes that the only position the Government can take is to abolish physical punishment. Any such legislation must be accompanied by a national public education and awareness campaign, offering the provision of support facilities for parents to help them make the transition to “smack-free parenting””.

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