Any ban on smacking must be based on the facts, not ideological fiction

London, (Parliament Politics Magazine) – The Great Smacking Debate . In recent years Scotland and Wales have both banned “smacking” – the use of physical discipline against children – yet England and Northern Ireland have no plans to follow suit.

Those supporting the ban equate the use of physical discipline as nothing but a form of abuse, that should be consigned to the dustbin of history, while those defending the ban say outlawing smacking is another example of the nanny state gone mad and that polling shows the public do not support parents being criminalised.

Against this background have been interventions by the Children’s Commissioner for England along with a several Members of Parliament, who believe this is a subject that should be debated.

To shed some light on this issue, Politics Magazine asked two of the UK’s leading campaigners, Frank Young from Civitas, who supports a ban and Ciaran Kelly from the Be Reasonable Campaign, who opposes a ban, to explain what their concerns are and to take a side in the Great Smacking Debate.

Imagine this. You’re in your local supermarket. You see a mum shopping with her toddler. Suddenly the child starts to have a tantrum, right there in the middle of the aisle. The mum tries to reason with the child, but they are having none of it. She warns them if they don’t behave they’ll be strapped into the push chair, or put into the trolley. And after a few moments that’s exactly what she does. The child, still mid-strop, shouts: “Get off me! Let me out!” But ignoring these demands, the woman calmly carries on getting her shopping.

I am sure that many of us have seen this very sequence of events, or as parents experienced it first-hand.

Now picture this. As the mum goes to leave the shop, a police officer approaches. A complaint has been made about her actions. The officer says that a witness saw what she did and that he is arresting her on suspicion of assaulting her child.

Far-fetched? Not in Wales, where the Government has recently criminalised reasonable chastisement.

In fact, for those who say this would never happen, this is exactly the example used by the former Children’s Minister Leighton Andrews in 2015 when Cardiff sensibly rejected changing the law.

He told the Senedd:

“The effect of amendments [repealing the reasonable chastisement defence] is not only to criminalise smacking, but also any other touching of a child in Wales by a parent for the purpose of administering discipline… For example, a parent who forcibly lifts a misbehaving child would be guilty of battery [emphasis added].”

And if that parent is a doctor, nurse, teacher or another role where they come into contact with children or vulnerable adults, they face suspension or even dismissal from their jobs.

Let me be clear, unreasonable chastisement, the sort that those supporting a change in the law often claim the ban will stop, is already illegal. They deliberately conflate reasonable chastisement with abuse – But the current law is clear, abuse is already illegal.

But, but, but, they say, parents are confused by what is illegal and what isn’t and changing the law will make it clearer. This seems like a fair argument – until you look at the facts. Parents know exactly what they can and can’t do. Indeed, during the passage of the legislation in Wales, the Be Reasonable Campaign used the Freedom of Information Act to ask the CPS how many parents across England and Wales had tried to use reasonable chastisement as a defence in Court from 2009 to 2017.

If those backing a ban are correct you would expect hundreds, maybe thousands of examples. But the CPS reported just three. That’s right, just 3, and not a single case was in Wales.

So, what other reasons are given to support the ban?

Well, there are those who claim that children who are smacked suffer severe and lasting mental trauma. But this time we only have to look at the Welsh Government’s own consultation document which admitted there was simply no evidence to show that a mild, occasional smack was harmful.

Evidence submitted by at least one expert was misused to support a ban. Incensed by this, Professor Robert Larzelere wrote to officials to complain:

“Having provided this information, I am concerned at how it has been used, or rather misused. Specifically some information I submitted has been misquoted, and other relevant peer reviewed research findings have been ignored.”

“For example, the section on “Our 2005 meta-analysis is cited incorrectly as concluding that ‘reasoning was more effective than smacking for enhancing positive child characteristics, but that non-physical disciplines (e.g. time-out, privilege withdrawal) were better for inhibiting misbehaviour’ (p. 14).

“The correct quote is ‘When reasoning and nonphysical punishment were both compared with physical punishment, reasoning was more effective than nonphysical punishment for enhancing positive child characteristics, but nonphysical punishment was better for inhibiting misbehaviour’ (p. 29). That same meta-analysis showed that reasoning, privilege removal, and isolation (an old label for time-out) were each less effective at reducing noncompliance and/or antisocial behaviour than was back-up smacking.”

Other claims that changing the law would be popular, also fall flat when you look at polling carried out by both our campaign and the Welsh Government itself.

Then there is bizarre claim that it is wrong to treat children differently to adults, but the simple fact is we already do this in so many ways. We tell children they must attend school. They can’t vote or have a credit card, can’t drive a car or buy cigarettes, pornography or alcohol. And when they misbehave we make them sit on the naughty step, or confiscate their mobile phone, or ground them. The truth is we do treat children very differently and rightly so, because they are children.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue. For a small group of campaigners pushing this agenda it’s not a question of facts and evidence, this is ideological.

But whatever your view on the rights and wrongs of smacking, ask yourself, should those who take a different view be criminalised? Time and again polls find three quarters of us say ‘No’.[1] Most think social workers and the police already have enough to do without investigating good families and parents and children deserve better – A view the Be Reasonable Campaign shares.


 [1] https://comresglobal.com/polls/be-reasonable-wales-survey/; https://comresglobal.com/polls/be-reasonable-children-and-families/

Ciarán Kelly

Ciarán Kelly is a spokesperson for the Be Reasonable Campaign