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Leading article: The smack of prejudice

The report by Britain's four Children's Commissioners, which will be presented to the United Nations in Geneva this week, is the latest in a long line of studies that tells us what, deep down, we already know – that our society has a grossly dysfunctional relationship with its younger members. Too many children are being cast into the black hole of the criminal justice system; too many live in poverty; too many are receiving a sub-standard education. A disturbing number of under-16s are obese. And they are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than their peers in other rich nations.

Just as damagingly, there is a tendency among the older generations to demonise the young, poisoning relations and skewing public policy towards knee-jerk "punishments" and away from effective solutions to juvenile crime. Responsibility for such a failure must be shared across the political establishment. Neither of the two main political parties has been sufficiently progressive in this area. David Cameron yesterday unveiled proposals to "strengthen the family", including tax breaks for married couples and investment in counselling services. No one would deny that family breakdown is a factor behind youth crime. But the Conservative leader has said disappointingly little in recent years about the other causes of social breakdown, such as poverty and the premature criminalisation of the young.

The commissioners rightly give the Government some credit, particularly for its efforts to reduce income inequality through tax credits. Yet ministers are also guilty of failing to pick some of the lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to improving relations with young people.

The report's authors say they are "disappointed" that the Government has not banned parents from smacking their children. This newspaper echoes that disappointment. The status quo means that children have less protection from assault than adults. What could be more representative of the subordinate status imposed on young people in Britain?

Outlawing the physical chastisement of children would be a straightforward way for the Government to show that it is serious about putting young people's interests first. But a ban on smacking would not be merely a gesture. Those countries that have gone down this road tend to enjoy rather healthier inter-generational relationships than our own.

Ministers have shied away from this subject in the past because of an absence of parental support for a ban. But as this latest report makes clear, popular prejudices when it comes to dealing with children are part of the problem, not the solution. They need to be confronted, not appeased.