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UK Politics

Smacking children should be illegal, says Children’s tsar Maggie Atkinson

Children’s Commissioner condemns current law for giving pets more rights than children

Parents should be banned from smacking children, the Children’s Commissioner for England has told The Independent.

Maggie Atkinson said it was her personal view that the current law gives pets and adults more rights to be protected from violence than children.

Under current legislation parents can hit a child if it constitutes “reasonable chastisement” and does not leave a serious mark.

While the four Children’s Commissioners in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do not have a published position on the issue, Dr Atkinson used an interview with The Independent to reveal that she is in favour of a total ban – which would see parents face criminal action for corporal punishment.

“Personally, having been a teacher, and never having had an issue where I’d need to use physical punishment, I believe we should move to ban it”, she said. “Because in law you are forbidden from striking another adult, and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole around the fact that you can physically chastise your child. It’s counter-evidential.”

She added: “It’s a moral  issue. The morals are that, taken to its extreme, physical chastisement is actually physical abuse and I have never understood where you can draw the line between one and the other. Better that it were not permitted.”

Dr Atkinson, who has two adult step-children, said that despite her strong feelings about the issue, her office was not planning to fight for a ban in 2014 because in the current climate such a move would be “running up a blind alley”.

“I don’t know if we’d speak out on smacking because there’s a lot of other things in the queue,” she said. “It’s a poor use of resources. The behind-the-scenes conversations don’t stop.”

The debate on smacking “becomes very emotive really quickly”, she said, adding that she wanted to be a “measured” voice on the issue.

Education as well as a change in the law would, she argued, make life safer for vulnerable children. “No public body can be behind the front door of every family in the land, as we know from tragic cases in our headlines,” she said. “Better by far that you are taught not to need to use physical strength against a weaker human being.”

Her comments are likely to reignite the debate about what constitutes “reasonable” punishment of children. Last year the MP David Lammy provoked outrage when he said that parents’ fear of being prosecuted if they smacked their offspring had been partly behind the bad behaviour that led to the London riots.

The United Nations has been pushing for a change in the law for more than a decade, saying in 2002 that it “deeply regretted” Britain’s stance, which contravenes principles on the rights of the child.

Phillip Noyes, head of strategy and development at the NSPCC, welcomed the commissioner’s comments. He said: “It’s right that we continue the push to get children equal protection in law. It would not be intended to criminalise good parents but to put into law what more and more parents are already moving towards – finding better ways than smacking to discipline their children.”

A government spokeswoman said: “Our policy on smacking is clear. We do not condone violence towards children. However, we do not wish to criminalise parents for issuing a mild smack.”