July 2004

Compromise option supported by peers in Britain

Despite extensive campaigning by child advocacy groups in Britain and impressive support from many peers in the House of Lords who want a complete ban on smacking Children in England and Wales when a vote was taken on 5 July 2004, peers backed a compromise option.  This option, supported by the Government, would allow ‘mild' smacking but remove the 140-year-old defence of ‘reasonable chastisement'.

The compromise measure means that parents could be prosecuted for actual bodily harm including grazes, scratches, cuts, abrasions or bruises but not for lesser forms of assault.  Actual bodily harm carries a jail sentence of up to five years.

However, any change in the law is still a long way off, since the bill has to go to the House of Commons and then back to the House of Lords before becoming law - probably later this year.

Lawyers, and others opposing the change and wanting a complete ban fear that the accepted proposal will send out a dangerous and misleading message that some violence to children is acceptable and lead to a confusing situation where parents do not know how much force they can apply.

A MORI poll conducted recently in England for the "Children are Unbeatable Alliance" found that more than two thirds of parents agreed that the law should be changed to give children the same protection from being hit as adults.  The present law that allows for ‘reasonable chastisement' dates back to 1860 and organisations supporting reform see it as out of step with modern values and knowledge.

An article in the Guardian (Thursday July 8, 2004) by Catherine Bennett (www.politics.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,9115,1256539,00.html) captures the farce of an approach that tries to define acceptable smacking.  Some quotes follow.

"Lord Lester's amendment, which prevailed over the Children are Unbeatable campaign to ban smacking, is designed to allow British parents to carry on hitting their children, as long as they don't do it too hard.  Even as it criminalises those who use too much force, it presents the light-to-medium painful "loving tap" as such an effective, natural and legitimate part of the disciplinary repertoire, that there is no reason not to take up child-hitting right away, even if there is no particular pretext, to make up for all those occasions in the past when the guilty child went unhit.  It may feel right to apologise to your child, afterwards, for all those early lapses in enforcement."

"The challenge, for the novice smacker, is getting the pressure right.  Too loving and soft, and your child may mistake condign punishment for a game, or - worse for physical affection.  Too much velocity, however, in the wrong place, and you may be charged with actual bodily harm (ABH) and go to prison.  So how much force is appropriate?"

Bennett describes the complex ambiguities that might have to be tested in court if the amendment becomes law and goes on to suggest:

" Or try something new.  Hit your child less heavily, but more often; the amendment is not impressed by "mere emotions such as fear, distress or panic".  Or administer your government-approved "minor disciplinary smacks" in an unexpected place.  Unlike cheeks or bottoms, bony protuberances may redden for a period that is within both official guidelines and any prosect of a police response".

She concludes:

"If enacted, their amendment - which simultaneously legitimised hitting and invited malicious prosecutions - could create such havoc that it begins to look very much like a piece of mischief.  A kind of modest proposal, satirising state-regulated battery.  Or, more ambitiously, an attempt at a Solomonic rebuke to advocates of the loving smack.  If so, it backfired.  This time the warring parties decided to take it out on the baby.