Parents could face jail for smacking children

Plans to impose a ban on smacking children under the age of three were announced yesterday as part of a drive against child abuse in Scotland.

Plans to impose a ban on smacking children under the age of three were announced yesterday as part of a drive against child abuse in Scotland.

The move, which is in response to a European Court of Human Rights ruling, brings closer the prospect of a similar ban throughout the UK.

The Government is understood to be consulting on the issue after European judges condemned existing laws for failing to protect a boy, who was regularly beaten with a three-foot cane, from "inhuman or degrading" treatment. An English court cleared the boy's stepfather because he claimed it was reasonable chastisement.

The Scottish proposals form part of legislation to be introduced by the Scottish Executive to prevent the use of "unreasonable and excessive" physical punishment. Other measures include a ban on blows to the head of any child, shaking and the use of implements. Corporal punishment would be outlawed for childcare centres, childminders and non-publicly funded pre-school centres.

The proposals, which will have to be approved by MSPs, will be included in the Criminal Justice Bill due to be published next month and brought before the Parliament early next year. The Bill is expected to receive Royal assent by the end of 2002.

Although legislation already exists in Scotland to guard against "unreasonable chastisement", Jim Wallace, the Justice Minister, said there was a need for clarification to ensure children's safety.

"We want to amend the law to protect children from punishment that is harsh, degrading and completely inap- propriate in a decent society," Mr Wallace said.

"We also propose to ban physical punishment of children up to and including the age of two. Up to this age, it is very doubtful that a child would understand why he or she was being punished. If the child was in any imminent danger it should be possible for an adult to restrain or remove the child from that danger rather than punish them."

He said the corporal punishment measures provided clarity and brought them into line with existing policy for schools and publicly funded pre-school centres. "These plans reflect views from the recent consultation where more than three-quarters of those who responded were clearly in favour of further legal restrictions," he said.

The legislation will still allow parents the right to chastise their children within reason and to set rules for discipline in the home, which will cover childminders. However, there will be greater restrictions on what is allowed.

The factors that courts must consider when determining whether punishment was reasonable will be set out in the statute for the first time. These include "the nature and context of the punishment, its duration and frequency, its physical and mental effects and the sex, age and state of health of the child", Mr Wallace said.

The proposals were welcomed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

"Parents should never cross the line and hit babies or toddlers. And this should be the case across the UK and not just in Scotland," the NSPCC's policy director, Phillip Noyes, said. "The proposed legal ban on corporal punishment by childminders is welcome. An adult hitting a child of any age is not right and there are much better ways to discipline children."

Anne McNellan, director of The Scottish Childminding Association, said: "Having a law could be considered a bit extreme but we don't think smacking is a good way to discipline children. This legislation is very admirable, although it's a bit sad there needs to be a law."

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