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Leading article: Smacking should be banned

Britain's children enjoy less physical protection under the law than prisoners. No one has the right to subject a jail inmate to assault. Yet parents are allowed to assault their offspring with impunity – by smacking them. This is a disgraceful anomaly, and tomorrow the House of Commons has an opportunity to rectify it.

The current position, the subject of fierce debate before it was cast into statute in 2004, allows parents to administer "reasonable punishment""to children – the legal equivalent of common assault. At the time, Tony Blair's government acknowledged that violence had no place in good parenting but refused to give children legal protection from spanking.

This position is now subject to a motion from MPs from all three main political parties, who are calling for the repeal of Section 58 of the Children Act. Emboldened by a United Nations report last week urging our government, yet again, to prohibit corporal punishment within the family, a further 111 Labour MPs have written to the Prime Minister demanding a free vote on the issue. Their stand is commendable and the Government must allow it, even if it does not support them.

The smacking of children is a highly emotive issue, and many otherwise good parents baulk at what they see as the state interfering with their right to bring up their children as they see fit. But the experience of the 19 European states which have already adopted similar legislation is not of the regular and unreasonable prosecution of parents – nor would it be in this country. The assault of children would be treated just like the assault of adults using the principle of de minimus – prosecutions are not brought in those cases that are considered trivial.

Nor is this is a question of the "nanny state". After all, what use is a nanny who does not censure violence towards children? Study after study has shown that a child's behaviour is never improved by violence in the family. The Government, so often too eager to legislate itself into our phones and computers, personal habits and private lives, has procrastinated on this issue too long. The Commons could rectify this tomorrow, and the chance should on no account be missed.