Committee backs smacking ban law but seeks assurances over support for parents

(Title Image: The Herald)

Children & Young People Committee
Stage 1 Report: Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) Bill (pdf)
Published: 6th August 2019

“Without exception….front line professionals have told us that this Bill will improve their ability to protect children living in Wales because it will make the law clear. We have been told that, as a result, this will help them better protect children. Professionals also told us that this Bill will make a significant difference because it provides a clear line for them and, importantly, a clear boundary that parents, children and the wider public can clearly understand.

 

“On balance, the majority of our Committee believes there is a strong argument that this Bill will reduce the risk of potential harm to children and young people.”
– Committee Chair, Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen)

Whilst being one of the shortest pieces of legislation introduced at the Senedd, this Bill is one of the most controversial. It proposes to shut a loophole in the law which provides adults with a defence when charged with assaulting a child if it was part of a punishment.

1. Arguments supporting a smacking ban

Here’s a summary of the arguments made and evidence submitted in support of the ban:

  • The Bill makes the law clearer – Most of the arguments in favour of the Bill making the law clearer came from legal, medical and social work professionals. The defence was said by the Crown Prosecution Service to create a legal grey area, while the British Association of Social Workers said an outright ban on physical punishment was “clear and unambiguous”.
  • If it’s wrong to hit adults, it’s wrong to hit children – Many individuals argued that children should have the same protection from assault as adults, though the Bill will still allow some physical interventions by parents (i.e. restraining or blocking) so it wouldn’t prevent parents from keeping their children safe. There was also a risk that children will copy adult behaviour and become physically abusive in adulthood. The Bill upholds the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, while the Youth Parliament voted 42-12 in favour of a ban.
  • Corporal punishment doesn’t work – Several organisations and clinical psychologists cited research that supports a view that corporal punishment was less effective than setting boundaries or using non-physical punishments (like grounding and denying treats or privileges).

2. Arguments against a smacking ban

A majority of individuals who responded to the Committee’s written consultation opposed the Bill while a majority of organisations supported it.

A section of opposition appears to have come from Christians, citing religious objections to a smacking ban as some biblical passages endorse corporal punishment to maintain discipline (i.e. Hebrews 12:7-11).

  • The law, as it is, is already clear – The “reasonable defence” clause already protects children from abuse or assault. Some opponents described the Bill as “virtue-signalling”, as the reasonable defence clause has rarely been used in Wales. Many opponents considered the Bill to be a waste of the Senedd’s time and could lead to an increase in malicious reporting.
  • “Smacking” isn’t child abuse – Opponents argued that smacking for disciplinary reasons was different from a straight-up assault or child abuse. Some argued that there was a false equivalence between children and adults as there was such a thing as parental responsibility and children aren’t autonomous.
  • State interference in family life – It was argued that legislating to control how parents raise their children was a slippery slope towards state interference in family life and the criminalisation of “good parents”. Ultimately, it should be for parents to decide how to discipline their children and a right to family life was protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.

3. Parents need to be fully aware of any future change in the law and properly supported

Representatives from the police, local government, social services and education were said to be satisfied with the levels of engagement they’ve had regarding the Bill. However, the Committee believes that there has to be a gap between the Bill receiving Royal Assent and the law coming into force for parents to be made properly aware of the change.

Hywel Dda health board and some third sector organisations called for a duty of raising awareness to be included on the face of the Bill (as happened in Scotland), but the Deputy Minister for Social Services, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), is currently minded not to do so. Figures in the report suggest the Welsh Government is willing to spend up to £2.7million on a six-year public information campaign.

It was also confirmed that anyone from England smacking their children in Wales would be subject to Welsh law – though divergence in law between different parts of the UK was already a reality, such as drink-driving limits which are much stricter in Scotland, while “ignorance of the law is no defence”.

4. The Senedd should support the general principles of the Bill

The Committee recognised there were strongly-held views on the issue, but they decided to prioritise the impact the Bill would have on children, not on parents – in line with the Senedd’s record of upholding children’s rights.

While the Committee collectively agreed that the Bill would reduce harm amongst children and the Senedd should approve it at Stage 1, the Committee weren’t unanimous in their support. Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) and Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) both opposed the recommendation.

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