Today, an adult in any of the UK’s four nations can hit a child and claim it amounted to a ‘reasonable punishment’.
There is no similar defence in the law when someone hits an adult; it is never considered reasonable to do so as a punishment. Usually when we make laws that are different for children, we do it to give them more protection. This is why we have age limits on smoking, drinking, driving and sexual consent. The law related to physical punishment is the only one I can think of where we give children less protection from harm than adults.
Like many others, including my counterparts in Scotland (where change is on the horizon), Northern Ireland and England, I’ve long campaigned for this law to be changed.
I’m delighted therefore that the Welsh Government has introduced a Bill to end this outdated legal provision to reflect what the vast majority of us parents believe: that physically punishing a child is no longer acceptable, anywhere.
Fundamentally, removing the defence is about children’s rights. All children have rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC); 54 individual articles that outline the steps the state and those who work with children must take to give them the best possible chance of growing up happily, healthily and safely.
We know from countless research studies that children who are smacked are more likely to develop problems in their behaviour and emotional health. And every time a child is hit, however mildly, we are giving the message that hitting is an acceptable way to sort out problems, and that they deserve to be hit. Both are messages we don’t want to see carried on into their adult relationships.
Changing the law will also encourage parents to use more positive parenting techniques, which are proven to be more effective. Thankfully attitudes to parenting techniques in Wales are already changing; between 1998 and 2017, the amount of adults surveyed who thought it was sometimes necessary to smack a child fell from 88 per cent to 11 per cent.
Some debate on this issue has focused on the potential criminalisation of parents. But a change in the law would create no new criminal offence. Instead, it would mean that those charged with assaulting a child would not be able to rely on the defence. The way social services protect children will not change as a result of the proposals either. A child has to be at significant risk of suffering, or has to have suffered significant harm, as a result of their parents’ actions for a care order to be considered.
Fifty-four countries have already strengthened the law to give children equal protection and there has been no evidence of increased prosecution of parents.
Perhaps inevitably the debate has raised questions about the level of state involvement in family life. It’s true there isn’t one right way to parent, but the Government does have a role in protecting the rights of all citizens. Offering parents charged with assaulting a child a legal defence would simply be a failure of the state to protect children’s rights.
I suspect that in 30 years’ time we will find it hard to believe we were even having this debate. No-one finds it acceptable any more for a teacher to punish a child by hitting them, yet this was entirely normal in the 1970s. Domestic abuse is no longer socially acceptable.
So, our cultures can change and just as we already find it hard to remember what it was like to sit in a smoke-filled pub or café, so I believe we will shock our grandchildren with stories about how it used to be legal for parents to hit children.
It is cultural change that is at the heart of my office’s work; change on a range of issues that affect children’s rights and well-being.
To drive it we support those who work with children to see the benefits of embedding children’s rights in their work: building services that really listen to children, that are accountable to children, and that give every child an equal right to be the best they can be.
It is also about teaching every child about their rights from an early age so they know what they are entitled to.
CHILDREN’S RIGHTS SCHEME
I’m excited to be able to say that this year, we’ll be piloting a new children’s rights scheme for our youngest learners: children in the foundation phase.
We’ll be creating eight lesson plans based on children’s rights, focusing on the things children need in order to grow up happy, healthy and safe. Alongside the lesson plans will be guidance for teachers and nursery leaders, as well as some tips for introducing rights in the classroom on a daily basis.
My ambition is for Wales to be a country where children know about their rights and where the adults around them respect those rights. There is plenty of work to do, both for organisations like mine, and for our Government. By removing the defence of reasonable punishment, we’ll be taking a step closer to this ambition.
Under the Children Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment (Wales) Bill, parents and other adults acting in a ‘parental capacity’ will no longer be able to physically punish children.
If the bill is passed, it will give children the same protection from physical punishment as adults. The common law defence of reasonable punishment will be abolished so that any adult acting in a parental capacity cannot use it as a defence if accused of assault or battery against a child.