Howard gives his side a free vote to embarrass ministers
Michael Howard is to give Tories a free vote on whether to ban smacking, in a move calculated to embarrass the government into outlawing such punishment.
Ministers have so far resisted huge pressure from inside the Labour party for an outright ban, arguing that they do not want to criminalise harassed parents who deliver the occasional slap.
They will try to whip rebellious peers into line in a vote on smacking expected later this month, to the fury of many Labour campaigners.
The Tories oppose a ban, arguing it would interfere with parents' rights to discipline their own children. However, in a move to ramp up the pressure on ministers, their peers will now be allowed to vote as they like on the issue, as is traditional on issues of personal conscience.
Anti-smacking campaigners have tabled an amendment to the Children's Bill, now going through the House of Lords, which would outlaw any physical punishment by removing the ancient defence of 'reasonable chastisement', where parents can claim they hit a child only to enforce discipline. This could be voted on as soon as Tuesday.
'We are not in favour of changing the status quo on smacking,' said Tim Loughton, shadow children's minister. 'But this is a conscience issue and it's probably the best all round if it's allowed to be a free vote.'
He was privately sympathetic to arguments for a ban on smacking babies and using canes or slippers.
Labour peers are now demanding the same freedom from their own whips. 'The proposed reform is a serious matter of equality, human rights and child protection,' said Baroness Whitaker, who leads the campaign in the Lords. 'It is clearly a conscience issue. The government should therefore allow peers a free vote.'
She was backed by Sir William Utting, spokesman for the anti-smacking group Children Are Unbeatable and former chair of a ground-breaking inquiry into abuse in children's homes.
'Hitting children is as unacceptable as hitting anyone else, and the law should clearly say so,' Utting said.
Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, is still trying to negotiate a compromise which would outlaw the worst forms of physical punishment without making all smacking a crime.
He wants to target genuinely abusive parents, not those who simply lose their temper in a moment of stress. However, he has so far been unable to reach agreement.
'The Tories can do as they want, but frankly I would be surprised if many of their peers want to vote for a ban,' said one of his aides.
If the government is defeated in the Lords - as seems increasingly likely - the pressure will then be on in the Commons, where backbenchers led by Labour's David Hinchliffe will make a fresh attempt to force through a ban.
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