By Libby Brooks
The children’s commissioners of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are calling for a UK-wide change in the law after the Scottish government confirmed its support for a ban on smacking children.
Scotland is to become the first part of the UK to introduce an outright ban on the physical punishment of children, after the Scottish government said it would ensure that a member’s bill became law.
John Finnie, the justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, has proposed removing the defence of “justifiable assault” from Scottish law, giving children the same legal protection as adults.
Along with leading children’s charities, the children’s commissioners for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have welcomed the development but expressed concern that legal protection from assault could now vary depending on a young person’s location.
Calling for the law to be changed at UK level, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “The current legislation in England, which grants an exemption from the law on common assault to allow the physical punishment of children, is outdated. It should be updated to reflect what the vast majority of parents believe: that hitting children is wrong and that there are better and more effective ways of disciplining children and encouraging positive behaviour.”
The UK is one of only four EU countries that have not committed to legal reform over the physical punishment of children. According to section 58 of the ChildrenAct 2004, it is illegal for a parent or carer to smack their own child, except where it amounts to “reasonable chastisement”. Corporal punishment in schools was banned by the Westminster parliament in 1986.
Sally Holland, the children’s commissioner for Wales, expressed her disappointment that a legal defence for hitting children still existed throughout the UK. The defence of “reasonable chastisement”, which applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, mirrors the Scottish principle of “justifiable assault”. The Labour party in Wales made the removal of the defence a manifesto pledge in May’s Welsh assembly elections.
Holland said: “I’m delighted to hear today’s announcement from the Scottish government. I’m very pleased that the Welsh government has also committed to removing the defence; something that I think will accelerate a cultural change and will make more parents aware of the long-term damage of smacking.”
Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland’s commissioner for children and young people, said: “Assaults on children have never been right, and it is certainly not right now that protection from assault as a child may depend on where you live in the UK.”
She added: “I am confident that while Scotland may be the first in the UK to ban this, it most certainly won’t be the last. I will be doing everything in my power to make sure Northern Ireland follows suit in due course and combines legal reform with improved support for parents.”
Describing the current legal defence as “untenable”, Bruce Adamson, the children’s and young people’s commissioner for Scotland, said: “Across the political spectrum, there is recognition that this is not only an obligation in human rights law and the right thing to do, but it is something we should have done many years ago.
“Scotland has the potential to be the first country in the UK to bring about the legal change necessary to provide children with equal protection from assault. If we pride ourselves on being a progressive country, a country which values children and is committed to offering them the best outcomes in life, then we need to make sure that this legislative change happens at the very earliest opportunity.”
The NSPCC, which has long campaigned for a change in the law, also made the case for a UK-wide ban. A spokeswoman said: “Closing this loophole would bring Scotland in line with dozens of other countries and give children there equal protection under the law. We urge governments across the UK to do likewise, including in Westminster.”
Explaining the decision to support the member’s bill to give children equal protection from assault, a Scottish government spokesperson said: “Mr Finnie’s proposals are not a Scottish government bill; however, we will ensure the proposals become law. We believe physical punishment can have negative effects on children, which can last long after the physical pain has died away. We support positive parenting through, for example, funding for family support services.”
A three-month public consultation on Finnie’s proposed bill, which took place over the summer, received an overwhelmingly positive response from organisations and individuals, including the Scottish Police Federation, Unicef UK and the NSPCC.
The bill received a further boost as Scottish Labour said supporting it was “the right thing to do”. The party’s education spokesman, Iain Gray, said: “Labour MSPs have discussed John Finnie’s bill and do believe that the time has come to provide children with the same protection as adults under the law.”
A Scottish Conservative spokesman said the party would “consider the bill very carefully”, but added: “I4n general terms, however, we believe the current legislation which permits reasonable chastisement has worked well and that remains our current position.”