Sweden's rules on corporal punishment lead the way

Jack O'Sullivan sees how other countries have coped
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Six European countries have introduced legislation during the past 17 years to prohibit corporal punishment. A number of others are also moving in this direction, making Britain look laggardly.

Sweden's experience has been the biggest influence. It introduced the first national ban in 1979 and there has been a dramatic subsequent change in public attitudes, which some attribute directly to the change in the law.

An opinion poll in 1965 found that 53 per cent of people believed corporal punishment was indispensable to parents. That figure dropped to 26 per cent in 1981, two years after the legislation and to 11 per cent in 1995.

In Sweden, the law, which is part of the civil code, is meant to be educative rather than punitive and was passed with overwhelming support - 259 votes to six. There has been only one prosecution - of a father who was fined pounds 10 for spanking his 11-year-old son.

Simone Ek, of Radda Barnen, a Swedish children's charity, said: "All our children know that their parents cannot hit them. When the legislation was introduced, there was a publicity campaign - in schools and on milk cartons, and brochures were sent to all 3.5 million households explaining the change." Of British practice, she said: "People here think you are a little old-fashioned."

Other Scandinavian countries have followed the Swedish example - passing laws designed to give a moral lead rather than to coerce parents into abandoning the smack. In Finland, since 1984, the law has said that a child "shall not be subdued, corporally punished or otherwise humiliated".

In both Norway and Denmark opinion polls suggested that more than two- thirds of adults favoured keeping physical punishment. This is similar to the current figure in Britain where the most recent poll, by Gallup in 1989, found that 75 per cent of Britons (59 per cent of the 16-24 age group) believed in the use of physical punishment for children.

Nevertheless, despite public opinion, a Swedish-style ban was introduced in Norway in 1987 and a limited prohibition was passed in Denmark in 1986, which the courts interpret as allowing slapping as long as no bruises result.

Niels-Christian Andersen, secretary-general of the Danish children's charity, Reb Barnet, said: "People say to us, 'Am I going to jail if I have a row with my three-year-old or if he runs into the street and I grab him by the arm?' Of course, we say 'no'."

Cyprus and Austria also have comprehensive bans. At the time, the Austrian Minister for the Family said that the reform was needed because of "the immeasurable harm children suffer when parents are not willing or able to avoid physical punishment as a way of bringing up their children".

The Republic of Ireland's law is probably the closest to British legislation in allowing parents to use what is termed "reasonable chastisement". It is currently under review following a 1993 poster campaign featuring two children whispering the slogan,"Slapping children is wrong, pass it on".

Subsequently, the Irish Law Reform Commission concluded in 1994 that "whereas it would be premature to abolish the Common Law chastisement exception immediately, the re-education of parents should proceed without delay and the exception should be abolished at the right time". So far the Irish Government has failed to act on the recommendations.

It will, however, will looking with interest at the outcome of the UK case at the European Court of Human Rights. So will Germany, where a draft bill to amend the Civil Code ambiguously proposes a ban on "educational measures offending dignity, particularly physical punishments and sanctions causing psychological harm".