Yvonne Roberts: Slap-happy parents must be stopped

I still remember the immortal phrases,"Wait until your father gets home", and "This hurts me more than you"
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The woman had a toddler in a pushchair and was walking with a boy of about seven or eight as we all drew level at the deep-freeze cabinet in the supermarket. The mother had a ring on every finger, two solid gold knuckle dusters. Suddenly, she raised her hand and walloped the boy with the back of her hand so hard, he cracked his head on the freezer door.

The woman had a toddler in a pushchair and was walking with a boy of about seven or eight as we all drew level at the deep-freeze cabinet in the supermarket. The mother had a ring on every finger, two solid gold knuckle dusters. Suddenly, she raised her hand and walloped the boy with the back of her hand so hard, he cracked his head on the freezer door.

My words were involuntary: "Don't do that." The woman proceeded to tell me, using every swear word in the lexicon, that if I didn't watch out, I'd get some of it, too. The irony, of course, is that if she had decided to knock me about, I could have prosecuted her for assault (if, that is, I could have found a witness among the dozen spectators) Yet, in law, she is free to thump her child as she pleases, on the grounds that this is "reasonable chastisement".

Before the "spanking never did me any harm" brigade rises yet again from its torpor (to miss the point completely that it never did them any good either), they should be warned, times are definitely changing.

Children are Unbeatable! is an alliance of 350 organisations which includes such diverse groups as Fathers Direct, the Royal College of Midwives and the Community Service Volunteers as well as perhaps surprising individual supporters like Denis Healey and Lord Saatchi.

Yesterday, it published the results of a Mori poll that flags a significant shift in public opinion. Two years ago, a Mori survey showed 58 per cent in favour of a change in the legislation to give children equal protection under the law on assault, provided parents would not be prosecuted for "trivial smacks". The latest poll is much larger, and interviewers made it clear the use of the word "hitting" included slaps and smacks.

Seven out of ten (71 per cent) said they would support a change in the law which would give children equal protection. Only 10 per cent said they were opposed. The strongest support came from parents (74 per cent); adults under 24 (76 per cent) and women (73 per cent). A 13 per cent swing in two years is, literally, a striking change. So what has brought it about?

More to the point, is the shift in public opinion sufficient to persuade the Government that it's worth risking accusations from some quarters that ministers are, yet again, undermining parental rights, to allow peers and MPs a free vote on the issue - bringing Britain a significant step further into the 21st century in its treatment of the young?

Today, in the House of Lords, an amendment to the Children Bill will be debated that would allow children equal protection if it also receives a majority vote in the House of Commons later this year. The amendment has overwhelming support in the Lords. While in the House of Commons, too, it has the backing of 55 per cent of Labour MPs. The pressure from the human rights lobby may also convince more.

The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the House of Commons Health Select Committee have called for a change in the law, as has the Welsh Assembly. In addition, the UN committee monitoring the progress of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has twice admonished the UK for its inertia.

Surveys, conducted in the mid Nineties, tell us that smacking then, if not now, was endemic. Three quarters of mothers said they smacked their babies. Nine out of 10 four-year- olds were physically punished - one third, weekly or more often. A fifth of children had been hit with slippers, belts or wooden spoons. I still remember the immortal phrases, "Wait until your father gets home." Followed by, "This hurts me more than it hurts you." And I always wondered how he knew.

Of course, for those who have always believed that "a good spanking" is not only a contradiction in terms, but also morally wrong and unjustifiable in terms of children's rights, the arguments have always made sense.

But until very recently, they have fought against the peculiarly British understanding, bolstered in Victorian times, that it requires violence to rear well-behaved children.

In 1860, a thirteen-year-old died of a beating. Chief Justice Cockburn said: "By the law of England, a parent ... may for the purpose of correcting what is evil in the child, inflict moderate and reasonable corporal punishment ..."

In 1998, this "reasonable chastisement" defence was removed from teachers, ending corporal punishment in state schools. The proposed amendment to the Children Bill preserves the right of parents and carers to control and "punish" their offspring - and it affirms their right to take physical action to avert danger or injury - but not to hit.

So, will we see Mr and Mrs Bill Bloggs up in court for giving Billy Junior a tap on the hand? If the amendment becomes law, a prosecution could only go ahead if there was unequivocal medical evidence of harm, and the prosecution is in the public interest. A third test should also be introduced that a prosecution is in the best interests of the child. The aim is preventative, not punitive.

My sister-in-law is Swedish but was reared in South America. When she took her two-year-old to visit her family in Stockholm, the child misbehaved and she was duly smacked. The family was horrified, and told my sister-in-law that her behaviour was immature, unnecessary and reprehensible. "Their reaction," she says, "made me think."

At least 10 countries have banned smacking, including Croatia, Cyprus, Germany and Latvia. The right should consider this. In Sweden, a ban has helped to reduce state intervention in the family and promoted positive parenting. In 1965, 53 per cent of Swedes were supportive of corporal punishment - among those under 35, the figure is now 6 per cent (11 per cent in the total population), while the rate of prosecutions against parents and social work intervention has declined.

So why the change here? Why now? Among the reasons is the evidence that young parents are more liberal. Second, parenting itself has never had a higher profile. The Government's support for Sure Start, to help the young and deprived; the political acknowledgement of childcare for the development of children and measures to improve maternity and paternity rights, all flag up the Government's (at times, too coercive) involvement in what was once the private business of the family. A survey by the charity, the National Family and Parenting Institute, revealed that seven out of 10 know that parenting doesn't come naturally; much of it has to be learned. Help is increasingly available - and it is beginning to make a difference.

Again, too, although the list of children killed at the hands of their parents and step-parents tragically grows ever longer, many adults, when asked, say that they treasure their sons and daughters above all else - and are determined to make a break from the way that they themselves were reared.

Those in favour of corporal punishment will, no doubt, soon begin to rally their troops. They have looked back on childhood and edited out the fear, pain and mystification, which come when you are struck by the person you most trust - in the name of love. For the rest of us, this is the moment to write to ministers and MPs. We want a change in the law because, quite simply, to hit a child is wrong.