Peers given free vote on smacking

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Labour peers will be told they have a free vote tomorrow when the House of Lords decides whether to tighten the law that allows parents to smack their children.

But the vote may never take place because a group of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers believe that reforming the law is not enough. They want it to be a criminal offence to smack a child, in the same way that it is illegal to assault an adult.

Peers will vote first on whether to ban smacking outright. If that is defeated, they will then vote on a proposal from Lord Lester of Herne, to tighten the law. His amendment is expected to make it on to the statute books now that it has government backing.

Baroness Ashton, an Education minister, will tell peers the Government does not want to turn smacking into a criminal offence, and will warn that an outright ban could lead to a mother appearing in court for giving her child a light smack in public."We don't think it's right to criminalise parents in all instances if they smack their children," she said.

The decision means that a compromise put forward by Lord Lester will almost certainly be passed by the Lords, but a vote on whether to make smacking illegal will be much closer.

Current law, dating from 1860, allows parents to use "reasonable chastisement". Lord Lester wants to keep this defence, but to amend it so it cannot be used when a child has been harmed. Its effect would be that a light smack would still be legal, but beating a child with a cane or other implement would be illegal.

The vote will be part of the Lords' deliberation on the Children Bill, which aims to prevent another tragedy like the death of Victoria Climbié, the eight-year-old who died from multiple injuries after being abused by adults acting as her adoptive parents.

Lord Laming, who headed the inquiry into Victoria's death, has praised the Children Bill, and warned against a blanket smacking ban. In a letter in today's Independent on Sunday he warns that if parents think they are in danger of being criminalised, they may not want to work with the social services and others who can help protect a child's welfare.

Measures in the Bill include creating a new Children's Commissioner for England, and local directors of children's services.

Lord Lester's compromise is unlikely to satisfy campaigning groups. Mary Marsh, director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: "As the law stands it allows parents to physically punish their child with implements such as sticks, slippers and belts. It has been used by parents in the courts to defend harsh beatings and this is clearly very wrong.

"We need to move into the 21st century on this issue and leave archaic legislation such as this where it belongs - back in the Victorian era."