Parents' right to smack their children would finally be abolished under a historic attempt to outlaw physical punishment within the home. The Government is expected to include new laws on protecting children from abuse in the Queen's Speech next week, in response to the death of Victoria Climbié, the little girl who was killed in London by her great-aunt after social workers missed glaring signs that she was in danger.
Labour MPs are planning to tack an amendment onto the Child Protection Bill which would outlaw parental smacking, following warnings that too many abusive parents cover up ill-treatment by insisting that bruises are the result of 'normal' discipline. They are optimistic that Ministers will allow a free vote on the issue.
'The abolition of a husband's right to beat his wife surely did something about the status of women in our society, and in the same way this is about another kind of domestic violence,' said David Hinchliffe, chair of the Commons Health Select Committee.
'In every single classroom in this country there will be at least one child getting hit [at home]. More than one child a week dies at the hands of a parent or carer. For me, this is unfinished business and I want to see this change through before I go,' he said.
Smacking has become a political hot potato, with Education Secretary Charles Clarke said to be privately sympathetic to reform, but Downing Street fearing an outcry over interfering in parents' behaviour. So far, every attempt by MPs to get it banned has failed.
Two years ago, the Department of Health ruled out a ban, insisting that most parents wanted the freedom to inflict discipline in any way they saw fit.
Subsequent attempts by the Scottish Executive to ban parents from hitting young children under two or from beating children with implements were torpedoed last year by Assembly members after a public outcry, while numerous attempts at Westminster to introduce Private Member's Bills banning smacking have run into the sand.
However, MPs have noted that corporal punishment in schools was originally abolished by a backbench amendment on a free vote, a device often used to nod through social changes - including the legalisation of abortion - which a Government finds too controversial to sign up to openly.
Hinchliffe was 'optimistic' Ministers would allow a free vote on smacking: one recent survey found a majority of Labour MPs would back a ban if given a free vote, making it overwhelmingly likely to be carried.
Although a study by the National Family and Parenting Institute last year found there was no evidence that mild slaps delivered within a loving relationship damaged a child, it concluded that physical punishment did not work in changing behaviour - and there was statistical evidence that parents who smacked were more likely to slide into more serious abuse.
More than 80 MPs of all parties have signed a Commons motion backing the move, while Lord Laming - the judge who held a landmark inquiry into the Climbié case - hinted strongly in evidence to Hinchliffe's committee that he was personally against parental smacking.
However, many parents may fear being hauled through the courts for a slap that had been delivered in the heat of the moment. Three-quarters of parents in one Department of Health survey admitted they had hit their children.
Hinchliffe will publish a presentation Bill - a device to raise the profile of an issue, but which does not bring a change in law - on Tuesday, calling for the abolition of the defence of 'reasonable chastisement', under which a parent can defend hitting a child by arguing it was proportionate discipline. But the real aim is to amend the Bill when it is introduced in the coming year.
The Child Protection Bill is one of several child-centred initiatives expected in the Queen's Speech - the Government's annual list of legislation that it expects to push through - and in its manifesto before the next general election.
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