The Welsh Assembly Government has produced a consultation document asking for a public response (by 02.04.2018) to the proposal to ban the smacking of children by a parent, guardian or anyone in loco parentis. It has been launched by Huw Irranca-Davies, Minister for Children and Social Care.
Such a ban has been discussed in previous years, the last time in 2015. Despite warnings that amending the current legislation could result in criminalising normal parenting practices as well as ‘reasonable punishment’, Labour and Plaid Cymru included such a pledge in their 2016 manifestos. However, all five UKIP Assembly members are against the ban.
Mr Irranca-Davies’ concerns are children’s rights; that children have less protection than adults, and maintains that physical punishment is out of date, can have negative outcomes and is ineffective. He wants the Welsh Assembly Government to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC (Article 19) states that children should be protected ‘from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse…’ The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006) states that the U.K. should prohibit all forms of corporal punishment in the family, including through the repeal of all legal defences. It is such a legal defence that the Assembly wants to remove.
However, the Children Act 2004 narrowed the ‘reasonable punishment’ defence so that it could never be used in cases where actual bodily harm was caused, including bruise or reddening of the skin. The offence would then be of Common Assault, which can carry heavy penalties. Most people responding to various surveys believe the current laws are adequate and that smacking is NOT child abuse. A You Gov poll in Wales found 69% disagreeing with a ban and a Survation poll in 2012 that 78% of British parents have smacked their children. Parents have objected strongly to the notion that smacking is egregious or ineffective punishment.
Much research has been done, but this is ‘soft’ not hard science and is not conclusive.
In ‘Conclusion’ (P. 17) the document states:
- ‘Much of the research in this area finds that harsh discipline and corporal punishment increase the likelihood of disruptive behaviour’, but also…
- ‘ There is unlikely to be any research evidence that specifically shows the effect of a light and infrequent smacking as being harmful to children.’
‘However, irrespective of the degree of proof….this is a matter of protecting children’s rights.’ and ‘It is therefore also a matter of principle.’
Whether children have rights as opposed to being owed a parental ‘duty of care’ is a moot point. Of course they have rights as human beings but the ‘duty of care’ gives parents specific rights also. The issue is ‘What is the best way of disciplining a young child?’ The W.A.G. cannot answer that question because there is no definite answer that one type of discipline is more effective or safer than every other. Meanwhile parents, not the state, have the responsibility of rearing children and long may that continue.
To amend the law on the basis of principle without better evidence would be a huge over-reach that would subject parents to undue scrutiny and suspicion and risk criminalising loving parents who are doing their best to teach children right from wrong.
The U.N. Committee defines corporal punishment as ‘any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain and discomfort, however light.’ However, this definition conflates pain with injury and hurt with harm. It does not concede that pain can be mental as well as physical. It is also subjective and very difficult to measure scientifically.
Humiliation, threats, verbal abuse, being taken into care, can also be damaging. Instead of going by this UN criterion, the Welsh Assembly Government might do better to consider damage, not pain, as the violation to be proved. A child may be hurt by a slight smack on the wrist, but damaged? No. The claim is made that children should have the same legal protection as adults but children are not mini adults. Internationally- known psychologist Jordan Peterson, speaking about child discipline, says ‘minimum necessary force’ is NOT child abuse.
The document gives assurance that any action to protect a child would not be punishable. Even if it induces pain? The document does not say. So a parent who acted responsibly to protect a child might be charged with using ‘unreasonable force’ especially if the child screamed or was hurt. One of the concerns prompting this attempted change in legislation is that that mild punishment may escalate to serious… but by the same logic, kissing or cuddling a child may escalate to sexual abuse. No kisses or cuddles, then? We don’t ban sex because some men commit rape. It is illogical to ban smacking because some people take it too far, when there will be unintended consequences of over-reaction, over-investigation and injustice with attended unnecessary anguish and waste of resources.
Principles and diktats from the UN may be fine in theory, but the laws in the UK are well-thought-through, practical and proportionate. Evidence for change is not substantial enough. The Welsh Assembly Government has put in place various programmes to improve parenting practice, an excellent move. It has committed itself ‘to have due regard’ (P.6) to the UNCRC but we need not be ashamed of not implementing these U.N. ideals; they are based mainly on an ideology: that smacking,’ reasonable punishment/chastisement’ is a sin. It is not. ‘Our law ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.’