Euro ruling may  curb parents’ legal right to punish

By Philip Johnston

Home Affairs Editor

A NATIONAL debate to establish limits on the parental discipline of children was launched by the Government last night after a boy caned by his stepfather won support for a human rights action in Europe.

The ruling means British laws may be changed to give children greater protection from excessive physical punishment by their parents, guardians or teachers.

This could make it easier to convict parents who use canes or other implements to beat their children. But it could also enshrine the right to smack in law. Paul Boateng, the health minister, said the Government did not intend to “get in the way of normal family life”. He said: “The overwhelming majority of parents know the difference between smacking and beating.”

But Mr Boateng said he intended to issue a consultation paper “to reach a wide consensus on the best way forward”. Campaigners said this would re-open the thorny issue of whether parents should hit their children at all.

The argument was revived by an interim finding from the European Commission of Human Rights which will be considered by the Court of Human Rights next year. It concluded unanimously that the boy – now 12, but eight at the time of the caning – had not been adequately protected by British law.

The stepfather was acquitted at Lincoln Crown Court in 1994 of inflicting actual bodily harm on the boy, who now lives with his natural father. The defence claimed that the child had only been beaten after repeated warnings about his behaviour, which included stealing from classmates. On one occasion the stepfather found him threatening his two-year-old brother with a knife.

When teachers noticed bruising on the child, the police charged the stepfather with assault. At his trial, he relied upon the common law defences of “lawful correction” and “reasonable chastisement”, which the jury accepted.

But the commission said the existence of this defence seriously reduced the protection of children from “degrading treatment or punishment” under the human rights convention which Britain has signed. However, the commission said the ruling did not mean that a state was obliged to introduce criminal laws against “any form of physical rebuke, however mild, by a parent of a child”.

Mr Boateng said: “It has nothing to do with parents who exert discipline by smacking their children when they misbehave. We respect that right.” But he conceded that the common law defence of “reasonable chastisement” should not be used to excuse degrading and harmful punishment inflicted on children. The law, he added, would be “clarified” to bring better protection.

Last night the boy’s 36-year-old stepfather called the commission’s ruling “ridiculous”. He added: “You can’t touch children nowadays. You have to be too soft. You can’t use the cane or the slipper or anything. No wonder there is so much crime.”

Campaigners seeking to end the smacking of children said the consultation proposed by Mr Boateng was a significant move. Peter Newell, the co-ordinator of End Physical Punishment Of Children, said: “The Government will recognise that the only way forward is to give children the same protection against assault that adults have.”

The Children’s Society said the Government could outlaw the use of implements, such as the slipper or cane, against children. This would have implications for the handful of private schools where caning, now forbidden in state schools, is still practised.