Ban smacking in England and Northern Ireland, doctors say

By John Mercury April 17, 2024

Smacking children should be banned throughout the UK as current laws are “unjust and dangerously vague” – making it harder to identify when youngsters are being abused, children’s doctors have said.

In a report, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is urging ministers in England and Northern Ireland to follow the lead of Wales, where lawmakers banned any type of corporal punishment including smacking, hitting, slapping and shaking in March 2022.

A similar ban has been in place in Scotland since November 2020.

Professor Andrew Rowland, a consultant paediatrician and RCPCH officer for child protection, said: “The laws around physical punishment as they stand are unjust and dangerously vague.

“They create a grey area in which some forms of physical punishment may be lawful, and some are not.”

He said he was “regularly faced with situations where it is alleged that physical punishment has been used against a child” but that the “vague nature of the laws make it extremely challenging” to talk to families about what the rules are and therefore more difficult to talk about the best interests of their children.

“This lack of legislative clarity can even add an extra layer of complexity when trying to identify cases of child abuse,” he said.

Prof Rowland said society’s views on punishment had changed over time, with a majority of adults agreeing that physical punishment of children was unacceptable.

He added “there must be no grey areas when it comes to safeguarding children” and changing the laws in England and Northern Ireland “will give us absolute clarity”.

Bess Herbert, advocacy specialist at international campaigning organisation End Corporal Punishment, said: “I hope that England and Northern Ireland will soon join the ever-growing number of countries that have taken this fundamental step in protecting children, upholding their rights, and supporting healthy and positive child raising.”

The NSPCC’s Joanna Barrett said children in England and Northern Ireland “continue to be exposed to a legal loophole that can undermine their basic right to protection under the guise of ‘reasonable chastisement'”.

But Simon Calvert, from the Be Reasonable Campaign, claimed calls for a law change “are motivated by ideology, not by clinical evidence” and elected representatives must reject them.

“The current law strongly prohibits all violence against children, while protecting parents from prosecution for innocent and harmless parenting decisions,” he said.

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A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland department of health said changing the law will require the agreement of the Northern Ireland Executive.

“The Department of Health continues to play an important role in supporting parents and carers of children and young people and in particular to promote positive parenting behaviours,” they added.

A department for education spokesperson said: “Any form of violence towards a child is completely unacceptable and we have clear laws in place to prevent it. It is the responsibility of the parent to discipline their children, appropriately and within the boundaries of the law.

“We are supporting teachers, social workers and all safeguarding professionals to spot the signs of abuse or neglect more quickly, and our statutory framework for safeguarding children in England makes clear what organisations should do to keep children safe.”


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