Europe steps up pressure to outlaw smacking

By John Carvel
Social Affairs Editor

The Council of Europe will deliver a ruling today on the human rights of children that will intensify pressure on the British government to introduce legislation banning smacking in the home.

Children’s charities were last night jubilant about a decision by the European Committee of Social Rights to uphold complaints against corporal punishment in Ireland, Greece and Belgium.

It will declare in Strasbourg that children in the three countries lack adequate protection from assault by parents, who can use the defence of “reasonable chastisement” to justify corporal punishment.

No complaint was made about the similar defence in Britain, if the smacking is not severe enough to cause cuts or bruises. Children’s charities were unable to refer cases because the government has not signed up to the Council of Europe’s complaints procedure.

But the committee has another procedure for reviewing member states’ progress in implementing the European social charter. Ministers are braced for a reprimand next month about Britain’s failure to protect its 13 million children from assaults that could mean prosecution if committed on an adult.

The committee has already criticised nine European countries including France and Spain for failure to ban corporal punishment, fuelling pressure for reform.

It will confirm today supreme court judgments in Italy and Portugal which prohibited corporal punishment. They increased the number of countries to introduce a ban to 16 of the 46 member states.

Peter Clarke, the children’s commissioner for Wales and president of the European Network of Children’s Ombudspeople, said: “These decisions are a big step towards fulfilling the right of all Europe’s children to equal protection from being hit. They underline the human rights obligations of states in the region – including the UK – to prohibit all corporal punishment in the family.”

Proposals to ban corporal punishment in Britain were defeated in the Commons in November, despite a revolt by 47 Labour MPs. Margaret Hodge, then children’s minister, said a full ban would “criminalise most parents”.

She backed a compromise, proposed by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester, allowing parents to inflict “reasonable chastisement” as long as it did not leave visible marks.

The umbrella group Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance said Ireland, Greece and Belgium were expected to comply with the Council of Europe’s recommendation shortly.