BBC News, January 18, 2000

Parliament struggles to find language that will both protect children from violence, but also protect those who use it against them
--Parents retain right to smack, hitting with objects could be banned

Children's rights groups have attacked the government for refusing to outlaw the smacking of children in England.

A new Department of Health consultation document contains measures which may eventually lead to a ban on hitting a child with an implement such as a cane or belt.

But the proposals stop short of banning "mild physical rebukes", saying the upbringing of children will remain a private matter for parents.

The issue is being reviewed separately by devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Health minister John Hutton told the BBC: "Parents in this country want the opportunity to be able to issue a mild rebuke to their children in the context of a loving, stable family relationship."

But despite Mr Hutton saying "the beating or smacking of babies is ineffective and in fact dangerous and should not take place", that too may still be allowed under the law.

The point of law the proposals are intended to clarify is how the defence of "reasonable chastisement" is defined, and when it can be used.

Currently, under common law dating back to 1861, any parent or guardian can use this defence if they are brought before the courts accused of physically harming a child.

Notoriously, a man who repeatedly beat his nine-year-old step-son with a 3ft cane, was acquitted by a jury because he used the defence of "reasonable chastisement".

The child's legal team then made an application to the European Commission of Human Rights.

They claimed the English court ruling had been in convention of article three of the convention, which states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment."

The commission ruled in their favour, and said that the defence of "reasonable chastisement" available to parents in the UK did not give adequate protection the child.

Mr Hutton said that although European law will be enforcable in the UK from 1 October this year, it was still important to clarify what was meant by "reasonable chastisement" and enshrine it in English law.

In effect of the new legislation will be to close a loophole in existing law which can allow abusive parents to evade conviction.

Ministers say that the overwhelming majority of parents know the difference between smacking and beating.

Radical change
Both Save the Children and pressure group Children are Unbeatable are among those calling for a more radical change in the law.

Last year Save the Children published guidelines advising parents how to admonish a child without resorting to violence.

Kate Harper, the charity's development officer, said children should legally be entitled to the same protection from assault as adults.

She said: "Our years of experience show that smacking doesn't work. It can have a very detrimental outcome on a child's development.

"We have carried out extensive consultations with children on smacking and found that children see no distinction between smacking, hitting, slapping and a whack.

"We also know from a recent survey that more than 50% of parents doubt whether smacking works at all."

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said that it would continue to press for child victims to have the same legal status in assault cases as adults.

A spokesman said: "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."

Physical punishment of children is banned in eight European countries.

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