What do Maurice Saatchi and Denis Healey have in common? They are both members of the House of Lords and support giving children the same legal protection from assault adults enjoy. However, Lord Saatchi can vote for this vital reform, because the Conservatives will allow a free vote, while Lord Healey and Labour peers may be denied the right to follow their conscience.
The government still has time to do the right thing by removing the whip in the upcoming vote on this issue, just as it did over votes that finally abolished corporal punishment in all schools.
SIR WILLIAM UTTING
"...Children are small and fragile. There can be no greater injustice than affording them less protection from assault under the law than that given to bigger and stronger adults. I, and so many others, do not plead a special case for children. We argue simply for equal protection... Some talk of trying to define legally the ways in which children may be hit. What a disreputable idea that is."
Support for the anti-smacking clause is so strong among Labour peers - around 60 are signed up to the 'Children Are Unbeatable!' Alliance - that a free vote is now the only sensible solution.
It is puzzling that the government still seems to oppose equal protection from assault for children, particularly since this government is a champion of equality on so many other fronts and has done much to improve the lives of children. Furthermore, it is depressing to watch ministers try to conjure up a 'compromise' that simply does not exist.
Equality means equality - there can be no half measures. Either we keep the status quo of so-called reasonable chastisement, dating back to the 19th century, or we give children equal protection fit for the 21st. Some talk of trying to define legally the ways in which children may be hit. What a disreputable idea that is.
It is also sad to see ministers using the emotive sound bite of 'banning smacking' to characterise this reform. This is not the language of informed debate. Giving children equal protection under the law on assault bans 'smacking' them in the same way that 'smacking' an adult is banned. However, adults are seldom prosecuted for 'minor' assaults. The authorities would be as sensible - if not more so - where children were concerned. The Director of Public Prosecutions has endorsed this view. This serious matter of human rights and child protection must not be trivialised or scaremongered off the agenda.
The level of violence against children in the UK is intolerably high and is sanctioned by the law allowing 'reasonable chastisement'. How can we expect parents not to hit their children if the law says it is acceptable?
We have to make a fundamental break with the past. This can only happen if the law says it is wrong and unlawful to hit children, as it now does in at least 12 European countries, including Sweden and Germany. These reforms show that attitudes and behaviour can change.
Today, in Sweden, the first country to take action, people are scornful of physical punishment. Child deaths from assault are extremely rare. This is not a coincidence. We should have the humility to learn from others.
The painful truth of the maltreatment of Victoria Climbié, from whose tragic death the current Children Bill springs, is that it started with disciplinary slaps. This is a worrying fact given the prevalence of physical punishment in our homes. The last substantial study, commissioned by the Department of Health in the 1990s, found that most children are hit, many weekly or more, and around a third are punished 'severely'. Belts, canes and slippers are still used to hit a fifth of children, and most babies are 'smacked' before their first birthday. These are shocking statistics; but it is even more shocking that we haven't acted before now.
All elements of the modern multi-disciplinary child protection system support the proposed new clause to the Children Bill that would give children equal protection. I have never before seen such unity and common purpose among professionals working with children and families. It is not just all the children's charities, it is the social services directors, the health visitors, the midwives, the nurses and the police who want to right this long-standing wrong.
'Reasonable chastisement' leads to injustice in our courts and sends out a dangerous message to society about the acceptability of violence towards children. The professional consensus is that it has no place in the post-Children Bill child protection age.
Whatever peers, and ultimately MPs, decide in this parliamentary session, one thing is certain: we will have to modernise the law sooner or later to satisfy our human rights obligations under Council of Europe and United Nations treaties.
My plea to peers is to take this necessary step sooner rather than later. My plea to government is to allow peers to do so according to their conscience.
Children are small and fragile. There can be no greater injustice than affording them less protection from assault under the law than that given to bigger and stronger adults. I, and so many others, do not plead a special case for children. We argue simply for equal protection.
· Sir William Utting was the first Chief Inspector of Social Services for England
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