Missing: the smack of firm government

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The Independent Online

After a long debate on the rights and wrongs of physically chastising children, the House of Lords yesterday voted for an amendment to allow "moderate smacking". Some will argue this is a victory for the rights of both children and parents, but this was a missed opportunity. Their lordships should have voted for an outright ban.

After a long debate on the rights and wrongs of physically chastising children, the House of Lords yesterday voted for an amendment to allow "moderate smacking". Some will argue this is a victory for the rights of both children and parents, but this was a missed opportunity. Their lordships should have voted for an outright ban.

The Government asserts that it is wrong to criminalise parents who give their children a light tap on the back of the legs, but concede it is necessary to protect children from any more vigorous punishment. The compromise amendment scraps the concept of "reasonable chastisement" but permits smacking as long as it does not cause bruises, scratches or mental harm, and is not administered with an implement. In other words: a parent will not be allowed to cause actual bodily harm.

All this does is acknowledge the present state of affairs. The Victorian-era defence of reasonable chastisement is rarely used in cases of actual bodily harm against children these days. It was explicitly rejected by the European Court of Human Rights in 1998. Lord Lester of Herne Hill's amendment simply confuses the issue. It does not constitute a major advancement of the rights of children.

Britain should follow 12 other European nations and make physical chastisement of children illegal. The low priority the Government has given this issue reflects badly on its commitment to our children's wellbeing, and its decision to allow Labour peers a conscience vote on a partial ban, but whip them to reject a total one, shows moral cowardice.

The Government's priority appears to be the avoidance of accusations that it is building a "nanny state". But outlawing smacking is not an attack on the right of parents to bring up their children as they see fit: a ban would send a signal that children are entitled to the same legal protection as adults.

There are far better ways for parents to discipline their children than resorting to violence, although it is not for the law to dictate what these are. The purpose of the law is to define what constitutes unacceptable behaviour. The Lords should have, unambiguously, added smacking children to that list.

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