E Jane Dickson: The smack of firm government

It is unpleasant to be seen abroad as the cradle of perversion, but what else can we expect?

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So Tony Blair smacked his children. He's not proud of it and he doesn't intend to do it again. Which puts him, for once, on a par with the majority of the electorate. Every parent will be familiar with the PM's squirming response when put on the spot by the Newsnight interviewer Kirsty Wark about family discipline. The fact that he smacked his older children, but not five-year-old Leo, reflects society's growing disillusionment with the idea of corporal punishment for children.

Old-school martinets who insist that a clip round the ear breeds character are thin on the ground. Most parents now see smacking as a gesture of defeat. And most have done it - not as part of some controlled punishment programme (a notion I find almost as creepy as "controlled crying") - but in the heat of a bad moment. In this, parents are fallible, arguably culpable, but not, as yet, criminal.

The fiercely contested Children's Act of 2004 upholds the "reasonable chastisement" of children, but bans any physical punishment that leaves a mark or bruise. The ruling has been criticised for being too imprecise - one man's reasonable chastisement is, after all, another man's abuse.

The idea of parents fearfully checking their children for bruises after beating them is hideous - it seems to me a no-brainer that if you're even concerned you've left a lasting mark you've already gone way too far. But while there is scant evidence to support the Prime Minister's claim that "everybody knows the difference between smacking a child and abusing a kid", I am inclined to give most parents the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, what Tony Blair means when he says "everybody" is "everybody like me". "The problem," he flustered on, "is when you get these really, really difficult families." It's the classic "can they mean us?" reaction of the British middle class, for all the world as if "difficult" families were a discrete socio-economic group operating in a moral no-go zone. The idea of society as a continuum is all but discredited by a nominally socialist government which prefers "fire-fighting" media-friendly causes to tackling the issues that seriously threaten our standing as a civilised country.

I am delighted Tony has put his smacking days behind him and wish him luck in his improved parenting plan with young Leo (though, in my experience, the years up to five are a breeze). Though I have to say I'm considerably less concerned about the possibility of Blair's "reoffending" on the smacking front than I am about his government's cavalier approach to recidivism farther down the child abuse line.

While Blair milks his "he's only human" moment, headlines are diverted from the Department for Education's decision to allow a teacher who has been placed on the sex offenders register to continue to work in schools. Despite accepting a police caution for accessing paedophile websites, a circumstance usually regarded by the Secretary of State as "conclusive proof of guilt", Paul Reeve was classified as "not unsuitable for working with children" and cleared for employment at the Hewett School in Norwich.

The details of Mr Reeve's case are as yet unclear, but the decision hardly inspires confidence in government commitment to child protection. Teachers, as we know, are in short supply, but if a documented interest in paedophilia doesn't make you unsuitable for the profession, I'm damned if I know what does.

Presumably, Mr Reeve was deemed "unlikely to reoffend", but this hardly seems sufficient assurance. The figures on criminal recidivism show sex offenders statistically less likely to re-offend than other categories of criminal (a calculation that does not take into account the traditionally low reporting and prosecution rate for sex crimes). But which, you have to consider, is the greater risk to society? Ten burglars doing another house-job or one sex-offender potentially damaging a child?

It seems to me if the Government is genuinely interested in cutting to the "causes of crime", then toughening up on the use of paedophile pornography is a good place to start. It may not be the root cause of a child sex offender's pathology, but there is surely enough evidence to suggest it is, at the least, contributory.

Just this week, Alan Webster and Tanya French were convicted of raping a 12-week old girl in Hertfordshire. The court case brought to light a "souvenir album" with photographs of the pair in the act of abusing the baby. Webster told the police he had become addicted to pornography and that images that may once have shocked him no longer did so. And yet the libertarian fringe continues to insist that pornography, even child pornography, is a victimless crime.

How many warnings do we need? When Gary Glitter was convicted of child pornography offences in 1999 after paedophile images were discovered on his computer, he served just two months of a four-month sentence before skipping off to Vietnam where, in November of last year, he was arrested on suspicion of having sex with two girls, aged 11 and 12. Initial reports that Glitter, if found guilty of child rape might, under Vietnamese law, face a firing squad stirred complicated feelings in the breasts of life-long opponents of capital punishment.

Now, having bought off the girls' families - in a country where the average wage is less than £400 a year, he bargained them down to £1,250 each - he is expected to face the much diminished charge of "lewd acts with children" which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. It is hardly too cynical, in the circumstances, to presume that the actual sentence will be considerably less for a man of Glitter's means.

It is possible, however, that under the terms of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, framed to curb the "sex tourism" that is our national shame, Glitter will be extradited to face prosecution in this country. It is to be hoped that embarrassment will not stop the British authorities hauling Glitter's ass back here at the earliest opportunity. If they do, he will doubtless claim his celebrity denies him a fair trial (as if his celebrity cash might not have furthered his alleged crimes in the first place - or did he think the girls wanted him for his signed photos?).

Certainly it is unpleasant for Britain to be seen abroad as the cradle of perversion, but how else, unless we smarten up our act back home, can we reasonably expect to be viewed? If we all know the difference between a smack and child abuse, we should know the difference between a legal slap on the wrist and a fitting punishment for a sickening crime. It is time we started exercising the distinction.

e.dickson@independent.co.uk

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