New laws to limit parents’ right to smack

By Sarah Hall and Lucy Ward

The government will today publish proposals to ban parents from smacking their children on the head or face, or from using belts or other implements to inflict physical punishment.

A consultation document, Protecting Children; Supporting Parents, will stop short of proposing a ban on smacking, but will recommend handing courts new powers to punish parents for hitting children.

Under the proposals, courts will be asked to decide what constitutes “reasonable chastisement”. They will be told to take four criteria into account, including whether implements — such as a slipper, cane, stick or belt — were used to hit the child. Courts will have to consider the age and sex of the child, the duration of the punishment and where on the body the child was hit.

Options in the document include banning all hitting of a child around the head and the use of implements.

A further option will be to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement in incidents which cause bruising or black eyes. The thrust of the document will be geared towards the courts, reflecting government fears of accusations of a nanny state seeking to march into parents’ living rooms.

A government source said last night: “There is no option under consideration of making smacking illegal — parents want to see the law tightened to protect children but they don’t want guidance on the minutiae of disciplining children. We have tried to draw a careful line between two extremes.”

A spokeswoman at the department of health said: “The whole document looks at where the child should be hit, questions whether or not a child should be hit with a particular implement and looks at the whole concept of ‘reasonable chastisement’ — how to define this and what constitutes ‘excessive force’.

“There’s no age limit mentioned anywhere at all.”

The plans, to be unveiled today by John Hutton, health minister, are the result of a 16-month consultation prompted by a European court of human rights ruling that British law on corporal punishment in the home failed to protect the rights of children.

The finding, based on the case of a nine-year-old boy caned with a three-foot pole by his stepfather, contradicted a law, dating from 1860, which allows parents to hit children if they claim they are practising “reasonable chastisement”. Juries frequently acquit parents who belt and cane their children: in the case of the nine-year-old, the stepfather was found not guilty of assault causing actual bodily harm.

After the judgment, in September 1998, the government was obliged to alter the law on the right to beat one’s children. But the then health minister, Paul Boateng, was adamant that there would be no ban on smacking, though eight other EU countries have such bans. “This government believes in parental discipline. Smacking has a place within that and our law will not change in order to outlaw it,” he said.

Children’s societies and anti-smacking campaigners are distressed that he has stuck by his pledge without even mooting a total ban as an option.

“Of course, these proposals are fantastic for children who are caned on their bottoms because this will prevent this, or for children who are beaten with hands elsewhere,” said Rachel Hodgkin, spokeswoman for the Children are Unbeatable campaign, spearheaded by Barnardo’s, the National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC, Save the Children, and the group Epoch (End Physical Punishment of Children).

“But it’s also disturbing that these proposals still give out the message that hitting a child is OK: what do children learn from that?”

The charities also pointed to statistics revealing that at least one child dies in Britain every week after being assaulted by an adult. In Sweden, where corporal punishment has been illegal for more than 20 years, four children have died from being beaten in this period.

But the shadow health secretary, Dr Liam Fox, attacked “Labour’s obsessive nannying”. “Smacking children to teach them the difference between right and wrong is often a necessary, if painful, task,” he said.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000


Corpun file 5058


BBC News Online, 18 January 2000

Head to Head: Should parents be allowed to smack?

To smack or not to smack. The issue of whether parents should have the right to physically chastise their children or not has raised its head again with the release of a new Department of Health consultation document.

Children are protected by law from harsh punishment and violent abuse by parents and others.

Further legislation to outlaw all physical correction of children in the home would criminalise parents who judge that a smack or threatened smack on the leg or bottom may be appropriate corrective punishment for specified misdemeanours.

This would open stable, loving families to an unprecedented state of intrusion and could mean the imprisonment of responsible, caring parents.

The Children are Unbeatable Alliance seeks to equate a smack with violent assault and consistently use words such as “hit” or “assault” when discussing parental smacking.

A corrective smack on the bottom from a responsible and loving parent is clearly different, both in degree and intention, from a fist in the face or blow on the chest or back.

Most parents would resent this manipulation of language. It also trivialises serious child abuse.

Family Education Trust welcomes the DoH decision to respect parents’ judgement on the appropriate disciplining of children. A number of prosecutions for parental smacking or restraint have been reported over the past year.

These have caused great distress to the families involved, especially the children. They have also wasted the time and resources of courts and social services, as well as public money, all of which is urgently needed to help seriously abused children.

There is however an argument against DoH proposals to criminalise parents who use a slipper or instrument other than the hand to smack their children. Some parents regard the hand as caring and healing.

A slipper or wooden spoon can be seen as an impartial instrument which marks a boundary.

It can be used as a warning when behaviour gets out of hand and, since such a warning is usually heeded, the child is corrected without chastisement.

Many parents who have the sanction of smacking, never smack their children. We believe that parents should be judged competent to make such decisions with their families without political interference.

Cornelia Oddie, Family Education Trust (Family and Youth Concern) 



As we enter the 21st Century it is surely extraordinary that we are arguing over how much we can hit our children – should parents only be allowed to hit children as long as they don’t leave bruising or cause injury to children’s eyes or brain?

Should parents be stopped from using canes or belts but allowed to use their open hands?

Should the fact that the child is a boy or a girl make a difference to how much a child gets hit?

These kind of questions simply miss the whole point of how we should be treating our children – in ways that show that we respect them, that are effective in teaching them the difference between right and wrong and that help to reduce the level of violence in society rather than contributing to it.

Hitting children does none of these things.

Save the Children argues that only a complete ban on smacking can:

  • Offer proper protection to children by giving an unambiguous signal to parents about what is permitted. Anything else leaves parents confused as to what might be ‘inside’ the law and what might be “outside”. Parents who find it difficult to understand the difference between a mild rebuke and a damaging beating, or who go too far, will feel that the law is on their side.
  • Anything less than a ban on smacking means many parents will continue to assume that hitting their children is their only option. In fact there are many other ways of disciplining children which are more effective and which teach children self discipline without hurting them.
  • Give children the same protection from assault as adults. Surely children – who are smaller and more vulnerable – should receive at least the same protection as adults? Yet without a ban on smacking we are saying that their human rights to be protected from violence count for less than adults.
  • Give children the right messages about the use of violence. No one wants children to grow up in a violent society but, inside the very place where they should be safest, we teach them that hurting someone is the answer to problems.


Judy Lister, UK director of Save the Children 


Corpun file 5034


Evening Standard, London, 18 January 2000

Poll: don’t ban smacking of children

The smacking of children should not be banned, according to a news poll held today.

More than 80% of respondents to the survey carried out by This Is London answered ‘no’ to the question: Should parents be banned from smacking their children?

This overwhelming support is a boost to the Government’s latest proposals for tightening the law relating to physical assaults on children.

Earlier today, it was revealed that parents who use a slipper on their children could face jail sentences under the proposals for a new law.

But ministers insisted they were not planning to outlaw smacking of youngsters by their parents.

A consultation paper published by the Department of Health puts forward a number of proposals for tightening the law relating to physical assaults on children.

The consultation was ordered after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that a British father who beat his son with a three-foot-long cane was guilty of assault and that English law had failed to protect the boy from “inhuman or degrading treatment”.

The man was acquitted in court after using the defence of “reasonable chastisement”.

The Victorian defence allows parents or those acting as parents to claim the assault was justified in order to discipline the child.

The Government has to modernise the law in order to comply with the European ruling on the case of the boy.

But Health Minister John Hutton said today that the government was considering going further than the minimum changes needed to comply with European law.

Among the proposals put forward are the outlawing of the use of any implement such as a slipper or came to beat youngsters.

Smacking a child round the head could also be made illegal, with parents facing jail sentences or fines if found guilty.

The document also suggests that the reasonable chastisement defence could only be used in cases of common assault rather than the more serious charges of actual or serious bodily harm.

The age of the child, the nature of the treatment and the duration of the punishment should also be taken into account, the document proposes.

Mr Hutton denied the proposals would imposed a “nanny state” on parents.

A Government survey last year found that 88% of parents thought they should have the right to smack their child – although only 2% thought they should be allowed to smack a child on the head and 4% thought it was acceptable to use implements to punish youngsters.

Mr Hutton said: “The vast majority of parents know the difference between a mild physical rebuke and an abusive assault which is dangerous to the welfare of the child.

“The European Court ruling made clear that English law isn’t properly protecting children from the risk of serious criminal assault and that is intolerable.

“However we don’t in any way wish this to be seen as a nanny state restricting the rights of parents.

“We would not outlaw smacking. We firmly believe in the rights of parents to make decisions about how they bring their children up.

“We believe in the right of parents to discipline their children and we are trying to do this in a way which won’t criminalise ordinary, decent, caring parents.”

Children’s charities have welcomed the proposals but some are calling for the Government to go further and outlaw all physical punishment on children.

A spokeswoman for Save the Children said: “Our years of experience in the field have shown that smacking doesn’t work and can have a very detrimental outcome on a child’s development.”