The children's tsar is warning that parents who smack their children are abusing their human rights and that the practice must be banned.
Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children's Commissioner for England, is preparing a dossier of evidence demonstrating that existing laws fail to protect children from harm and that minors should have as much legal protection as adults.
The report will be submitted to United Nations officials next autumn and is supported by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish child tsars. It will also say that black and ethnic children are particularly at risk because bruises or marks are harder to detect on their skin.
The move will put further pressure on ministers to rethink current laws which allow parents to discipline their offspring with "reasonable force", but not smack them hard enough to leave visible red marks.
Children's charities say smacking can lead to physical abuse and is no different from common assault, a crime against adults but not children. They cite cases such as the death of Victoria Climbié - found to be theresult of escalating violence that began with "little slaps".
More than 170 MPs from all parties have signed a House of Commons motion calling for the human right of children to equal protection from assault to be respected by the Government. But the pro-parent choice lobby argues that families will end up not taking responsibility for their children if they are undermined by the state.
Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, did admit in an interview this year on the BBC's Newsnight that he had smacked both his elder sons but not his youngest, Leo, now six. "I think everybody knows the difference between smacking a kid and abusing a child," he said at the time.
Twenty countries have imposed an outright ban on smacking but the British government has so far resisted calls from campaigners and MPs to do the same. But it may be forced to change tack following a legal challenge lodged by the Northern Ireland children's commissioner which calls for equal treatment for children and adults, for smacking to be outlawed and for physical punishment to count as common assault. Judges will rule in February 2007 whether the challenge should be upheld.
A spokeswoman for Sir Al said officials should be promoting positive forms of discipline. "It's bizarre that the most vulnerable members of society are not protected. Children should have equal rights and parents should be supported to find alternatives to physical punishment."
The Children Are Unbeatable Alliance, whose supporters include Barnardo's and Liberty, said that any form of hitting children is wrong. "Children are people with human rights to physical integrity and human dignity just like the rest of us. It sends out a dangerous message that hitting children is acceptable and safe, which the Government agrees it is not," said a spokesperson. "It undermines the promotion of positive discipline, much of which is funded by the Government. And it does not satisfy our human rights obligations under important United Nations and Council of Europe agreements to which we are signatories."
Kevin Barron MP, chairman of the Health Select Committee, said an outright ban must be imposed. "Children should have the same rights against smacking as adults. It's a nonsense - in the 21st century we should not be getting away with 19th-century laws."
But The Family Education Trust, a parent-support group, said a ban on the basis of "equality" was "deeply flawed" and parents must be seen as authority figures. "There are many things parents do to and for their children every day that would be quite inappropriate, if not illegal, if they were to do them to anybody else," said its director, Norman Wells. "If parents are to be held responsible for their children's behaviour ... it is of paramount importance that their authority to reasonably chastise children is recognised and upheld."
The last major UK study for the Department of Health on smacking found 91 per cent of children had been hit. In families where both parents were interviewed, almost half the children were hit weekly or more often, and one in five children said they had been hit with an implement.
Additional reporting by Sonia Elks
Anne Atkins, a novelist and the author of "Child Rearing for Fun -Trust Your Instincts and Enjoy Your Children", says that the anti-smacking lobby has got it wrong
"Smacking doesn't harm the child. It's a very effective, simple, quick way of disciplining that's less painful than losing a treat," says Ms Atkins, who has five children, aged from three to "just graduated". She adds: "It's not that I'm pro-smacking. Many of the best parents don't use smacking. I'm against the state interfering in the family. Child rearing is something the state does very badly and parents do well."
Fiona Millar, an education journalist and former Downing Street aide, says that the current law is muddled and smacking should be banned
"You wouldn't say you have the right to hit your wife. So why do you have the right to hit a child?" says the mother of three, who is also a school governor. "My impression is that the experts will help parents to use other forms of discipline. There's loads of evidence that children who are smacked, or hit, become violent themselves." Ms Millar adds: "The last piece of legislation was neither one thing nor the other. I think the Government didn't want to take on the tabloid papers, that would all accuse them of being the nanny state."Reuse content