The Welsh Government has published a public consultation on a new law that will prevent parents or carers being able to use a defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ if they are taken to court for using physical punishment on their children. Most people call this a smacking ban, but it’s more accurate to call it ‘equal protection’ – in other words giving children the same protection as adults in the courts. No-one can say that it was ‘reasonable punishment’ if they hit another adult and I think that children deserve at least as much protection in the law as adults. In fact, most laws concerning children recognise that they need more protection than adults – that’s why we have age limits on cigarettes, alcohol, sexual consent and driving.
I said on the day I was appointed as Children’s Commissioner in early 2015 that I would work to give children the same protection in the law as adults. This consultation, for me, demonstrates a significant step forward in Welsh Government’s commitment to protecting children. It will at last be responding to what the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been saying for the last 15 years – that Wales and the rest of the UK is in breach of children’s international rights by allowing this legal defence to continue. The UK is also out of step with other countries on this. Fifty-three of them, including Ireland, have changed the law and the main effect has been to change people’s attitudes and behaviour – not mass prosecutions of parents.
There has been a lot of misinformation circulating during debates about this topic over recent months. Here are the facts: Welsh Government will not be creating a new criminal offence with this law change – just removing a defence that can be used in the courts. Welsh Government does not intend to criminalise parents. What Government does want to do is to ensure children living in Wales are afforded the same protection in the law as adults. Hitting or smacking a child is never loving or caring. I see no reasonable arguments against the ambition of this consultation.
This consultation explains carefully and in detail the research evidence on the negative effects of smacking and the positive impact of authoritative parenting styles that do not include physical punishment. Although lots of people will say ‘a smack did me no harm’, decades of research show that children who are smacked have, as a group, poorer emotional and behavioural outcomes than those who are not.
I know how difficult parenting can be. As a mother of three, I’ve faced those tense situations and, like any other parent, felt at the end of my tether at times. During those situations, the last thing I wanted was to feel that Government or anyone else was telling me how to parent better. But I have always known that smacking my children would have given the message that you can use physical force to get someone else to do what you want them to do. That is not a lesson I would want any children to be taught.
I am quite clear that there is no one right way to parent, but the Government does have a role in providing advice and support that parents can access when needed, and in being clear about protecting the rights of all its citizens, including children. This new proposal will not see Government interfering in everyday family life, but instead offer children the same protection as adults and ensure those parents who do claim ‘reasonable punishment’ will not be able to defend their actions if their case of common assault reaches court.
Sometimes people say that children need a smack to learn about dangers of roads and hot kettles, or as a last resort. As a society we would be appalled if a vulnerable adult, with dementia for example, was hit if they were misbehaving or in harm’s way. Why on earth would we defend a position that would allow children be punished in the same way? I truly believe that we will look back in 20 years’ time and wonder why it took us so long to change this law, and why it was ever controversial.
I hope many parents and carers will take time to read the Welsh Government’s plans so that they are reassured that this isn’t about turning good parents into criminals, it isn’t telling parents how to parent, it’s about providing the same protection for children as we provide adults in Wales.