Lords told to back move allowing parents defence of 'reasonable punishment'
A last-ditch compromise to avoid an outright ban on smacking has been hatched by Labour peers in the Lords, but campaigners last night said it was doomed to failure because it still left children vulnerable to abuse. The government is keen to avoid the introducion of measures in the Children Bill that would outlaw even the most minor smacks by parents.
Peers vote on the bill tomorrow and supporters of an outright ban believe they already have more than 100 votes in the bag to support a clause sponsored by a group of anti-smacking peers and the Bishop of Portsmouth, which would give children the same protection from assault as adults.
A last-minute compromise amendment proposed by Lord Lester would allow parents the defence of 'reasonable punishment' in cases of common assault, the most minor assault charge, though not in the case of cruelty or grievous bodily harm.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said that ministers who did not want to see parents hauled through the courts for giving their children a slap on the leg for being naughty would support the compromise.
'We have to recognise that there is a difference between a giving your child a slap at the supermarket checkout and hauling them around the aisles by their hair.'
However, the compromise amendment is unlikely to persuade those who have been calling for a ban. Common assault is defined by the police and Crown Prosecution Service as the appropriate charge when injuries amount to no more than 'grazes, scratches, abrasions, minor bruisings and swellings, reddening of the skin, superficial cuts or a black eye'.
Adults are protected from all forms of assault except in self-defence and cannot argue that they have hit another adult as a punishment.
Britain is rare among European nations to allow smacking. In all, 12 European countries have imposed a total ban. The defence in English law of 'reasonable chastisement', which allows parents to hit their children as a punishment as long as they do not cause serious physical harm, dates back to 1860, when the physical chastisement of children was commonplace.
Claire Rayner, spokesperson for the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance, which has led the campaign for a ban since 1998 said: 'We urge peers to take a principled stand and make a historic step towards realising children's right to the same protection from assault that adults take for granted. Equal protection is the only just and workable way to clarify and modernise the law.
'Let's change the law properly, based on the principles of equality and human rights, rather than dreaming up ways children can continue to be hit.'
Tory peers have been given a free vote on the issue tomorrow and Liberal Democrat peers have been instructed to vote for the ban. But Labour peers will be under a three-line whip to vote for Lester's amendment and oppose outlawing smacking altogether.
The government will face serious embarrassment if, as expected, large numbers of peers defy the Labour whip and vote through a ban. It will then be forced to attempt a new compromise when the bill goes to the Commons later this year. There the Government will encounter an equally strong backbench movement to ban smacking led by Labour's David Hinchcliffe.
One of the bill's sponsors, Baroness Walmsley, said: 'So-called reasonable chastisement leads to injustice in our courtrooms and sends out a dangerous message about the acceptability of violence towards children across society. Assaulting a child is as unacceptable as assaulting an adult, and the law should clearly say so.'
The Children Bill was introduced after the Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, the eight-year-old who died after suffering months of torture and abuse at the hands of her aunt and a boyfriend. Systematic failings were discovered in the various agencies that came into contact with the little girl.
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