Ministers agree to ban on parents smacking children
By Francis Elliott, Deputy Political Editor, June 20, 2004

UK - Ministers are preparing to help outlaw smacking in return for guarantees that parents are not prosecuted for giving children "a playful tap".

The Government is desperate to avoid defeat at the hands of a powerful cross-party alliance building behind moves for an outright smacking ban. The issue will come to a head in the next few weeks as parliament debates the Children Bill, instituting legislation recommended by the inquiry into the Victoria Climbié scandal.

Ministers are under pressure to restrict severely the defence of "reasonable chastisement" for those accused of assaulting children. Campaigners are confident that they can force through the change when the Bill is debated in the House of Lords.

An amendment effectively banning smacking, except in cases where it protects the child from danger or from hurting another child, could be put to a vote as early as tomorrow, although it is more likely to occur early next month. More than 100 peers, including Lord Healey, Lord Irvine and Lord Winston, as well as Lord Saatchi, chairman of the Conservative Party, are supporting the ban.

The Government has so far resisted allowing a free vote on the issue, insisting that if passed the measure would be unenforceable, criminalise parents and lead to a flood of prosecutions for trivial offences. However, ministers told The Independent on Sunday they were preparing to drop their objections in return for a new definition of "reasonable chastisement".

"We need to get to something that allows for the playful tap and other trivial forms of smacking. If we can get there, then we will allow a free vote," one minister said.

The search for a compromise has involved detailed discussions with social service and police chiefs, as well as the Crown Prosecution Service. Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, told a parliamentary committee last month he did not believe a change would lead to a flood of trivial actions.

He said: "Just as most minor assaults are not prosecuted, I suspect that most minor assaults against children would not be, either."

The Association of Directors of Social Services recently wrote to its members supporting the proposed change to the law. "We believe children can and should be disciplined and made subject to clear parental controls but that this can be achieved without inflicting violence."

However, the organisation did admit that the introduction of a smacking ban would have "resource implications".

The Government pulled back from a smacking ban four years ago after cabinet opposition led by David Blunkett, the then Secretary of State for Education. "At some point, we had to draw a line between parental and family decision and responsibility, and that of the state. We have to say the state is not responsible for everything," he said at the time.

However, laws giving children the same protection from assault as adults are now in place in 12 other European countries, including Germany and Sweden.

In Britain, a recent Mori poll, conducted for campaigners, suggested that 71 per cent of people would support a change in the law to give children equal protection to adults. [Emphasis added]

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