Tony Blair promises parents the right to smack their children

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Ministers are to change the law on how parents can punish their children after a European human rights legal declaration. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, says Downing Street insisted that smacking was safe in their hands.

The Government will for the first time enshrine the right to smack in law. The news that Tony Blair "fully supported" ministers' decision to preserve the right of parents to smack children was greeted with dismay last night by those committed to ending all physical disciplining.

Paul Boateng, the health minister, committed the Government to "clarify" the law after the European Commission on Human Rights said a young boy severely caned by his stepfather had his human rights breached. The boy, who is 12, will now take his case to the European Court for a final ruling, even though the Government accepted the Commission's opinion.

Mr Boateng said he would consult widely to come up with a legal formula to protect children from such "degrading" beatings in future - but insisted that parents would still be able to smack their children.

"Any normal parent will have been horrified and appalled to read about this case. We will clarify the law to reflect today's report, bringing better protection for children without getting in the way of normal family life ... The overwhelming majority of parents know the difference between smacking and beating."

When Downing Street later explicitly backed this view, it angered childcare groups who hoped that ministers would not close their minds to a complete protection of children.

Rachel Hodgkin, of the National Children's Bureau (NCB), who had otherwise welcomed moves to change the law, said she was "surprised, depressed and disappointed" by the Prime Minister's support for smacking. "There is no evidence that smacking is an acceptable part of disciplining children," she added.

Campaigners, such as the NCB and Epoch - End Physical Punishment of Children - who believe children should have the same protection from assault as adults, say that in drawing a distinction between "beating" and "smacking" the Government has arrived at an untenable, half-way house from which it will be forced to move. They claim it will be impossible to legislate between so-called harmless smacking and sharp slaps to the head that can cause hearing damage or that knock children down and cause injury.

Observers believe the Government has backed the right to smack because it was worried about how a total ban would play among right-wing newspapers and "pro-family" groups. Mr Blair has admitted smacking his children - though confessed he later regretted it.

Last night, however, the pro-smacking group Family and Youth Concern warned that the Commission's decision would be seized on by the anti-smacking lobby. Its director, Valerie Riches, urged the Government not to use the case to rush hasty changes into law.

"We don't want them to use a hard case to create a law which would jeopardise the position of normal parents," she said. "We have seen it again and again over the years how hard cases make bad laws."

Yesterday's case concerned a boy whose stepfather had been prosecuted for hitting him on his legs with a stick.

The man was acquitted at his 1994 trial of causing actual bodily harm after using the common law defence of "lawful correction", and particularly "reasonable chastisement". It is this last expression, dating back to the last century, which ministers want to modernise and outlaw the use of canes, sticks and other implements.

The boy and his natural father went to the Commission, which said that British law had failed to protect the 12-year-old against degrading treatment or punishment administered by a parent, or those acting for the parents - treatment banned by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.