The Scottish government announced this week that it is backing a law proposed by a Green Party MSP to ban the smacking of children in Scotland. The move has been widely, though not universally, welcomed. Campaigners argue that the rest of the United Kingdom should follow suit. Should it?
Corporal punishment, the beating of children, which used to be so common in both homes and schools, was made illegal long ago. But the smacking of children as a form of ‘reasonable chastisement’ is still allowed under the law. No ‘implement’ may be used, nor may a child be shaken or struck on the head, and criminal charges can be levelled against any adult who, in smacking a child, leaves a mark. Otherwise, parents are allowed to smack their children either to punish them or to try to prevent them from doing something they shouldn’t.
Now John Finnie, a Green MSP and former policeman, is bringing a bill to the Scottish Parliament to outlaw any form of smacking of children. He said that Scotland ‘cannot be thought of as the best place in the world for children to grow up in while our law gives children less protection from assault than anybody else in society’. The Scottish government agrees.
A ban on smacking children is already in force in fifty-two other countries and Mr Finnie’s proposal has won wide support in Scotland. It is backed by the former Scottish Children’s Commissioner, Tam Baillie, by the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents and by NSPCC Scotland, which called it ‘a common sense move’. Scottish Labour said it was ‘the right thing to do’.
Not everyone agrees, however. The Reverend David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland, told the BBC, that the new law would ‘criminalise good parents just for tapping their child on the hand’.
His point raises an issue that can often bedevil law-making: the issue of definition. What constitutes a smack rather than a tap? The point was taken up by a spokeswoman for the Be Reasonable campaign who also opposes the change in the law. She said: ‘They’re trying to make out that a gentle smack from a loving mum is the same as beating up your kids. If the government can’t tell the difference then they shouldn’t be passing laws about it. It must resist the temptation to constantly interfere in how parents choose to raise their children’.
But campaigners beyond Scotland seem undeterred by such objections. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, called for the law to be changed throughout the UK. She said: ‘The current legislation in England, which grants an exemption from the law on common assault to allow the physical punishment of children is outdated. It should be updated to reflect what the vast majority of parents believe – that hitting children is wrong and that there are better ways of disciplining and encouraging positive behaviour.’ Sally Holland, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, takes the same view.
Who’s right? Do you think the smacking of children in all circumstances is wrong and that the Scottish government is right to back Mr Finnie’s bill, or not? Do you think the distinction between a smack and a tap is a real one or just a red herring? What do you make of the argument that the law is already protective enough of children and that parents rather than the government should be the judge of whether smacking would be harmful or not to their children? And once Scotland has changed the law, do you think the rest of the UK ought to follow or not?
Let us know your views.