Acts of brutality are carried out in the name of ‘reasonable chastisement’ but, says Rachel Johnson, banning smacking will only encourage children to believe that they have a right to behave as they please
Well, this promises to be a fair old punch-up. In the anti corner, we have some 350 parenting and counselling organisations, 180 MPs and peers, the Methodist and Catholic Churches, the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee, the Lib Dems, 71 per cent of the general public (according to our old friend Mori Z. Poll), Penelope Leach, a roster of the great and the good from David Aaronovitch to Benjamin Zephaniah, and the late Dr Spock.
In the pro corner, we have Evangelical Christians, all those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, King Solomon, the Labour government, the Scottish Executive, and the late Dr Spock.
So how come Dr Spock appears twice? And what’s Labour doing with that crowd? Well, we’ll come to Labour later, but during the course of Spock’s career as the world’s paediatrician, he changed his mind about smacking, and became an anti. But as he’s dead, he is not here to lend his support in person to the hugely powerful campaign that is gathering steam in Westminster to remove from parents the right to ‘reasonably chastise’ their own offspring, a removal that will necessarily criminalise millions of loving, responsible parents who slap a naughty child on the back of the legs, as well as this country’s legion of vicious, violent, Millwall-supporting low-lifes who duff up their own kids for laffs.
I’m not exaggerating. If you read the literature put out by the Children Are Unbeatable! alliance, the lead agency of the anti-smacking lobby group, you would think that this country was a nation of child-beaters, and be ashamed to be British.
The alliance (let’s call it Unbeatable! for short) likes to announce that ‘children are being legally hit right now’ and leans heavily on a 1997 piece of research commissioned by the Department of Health from two psychology dons called Marjorie Smith and Gavin Nobes.
Unbeatable! claims that the Smith-Nobes study was based on interviews with more than 400 families. But some key findings are drawn from interviews with only 99 two-parent families on health authority lists in two areas — ‘an urban area outside London and an area of South London’, to be precise.
So Unbeatable!’s shocking and awful claim that over 90 per cent of parents hit and that ‘most children are hit and many are hit severely’ must be treated with caution. It is nonsense to extrapolate such a global assumption from what was, in part, a small sample of fewer than a hundred families, even if three quarters of mothers in the 400-family sample apparently admit hitting their babies before their first birthday.
Leaving that survey aside for a moment (not that Unbeatable! does), there are — on the face of it — many other good reasons to remove the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement,’ from the Statute Book, where it has lain since 1860. In that year, Lord Chief Justice Cockburn ruled, after a teacher had beaten a pupil to death, that ‘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.’
That remains the case. A husband may not beat his wife, nor a teacher a pupil; nor may a childminder smack a child even with the parents’ permission. But a parent may still strike a child, and many acts of brutality take place, for which the police do not feel able to prosecute.
Over the past 50 years, smacking has been banned in 27 US states and in ten European countries: Germany, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Cyprus, Italy, Latvia, Norway and Sweden; but they love most of all to tell you about Sweden. In Sweden, the change in the law was accompanied by a leafleting campaign to all households. In their pamphlets, parents were told that the law now forbade all forms of physical punishment of children, including smacking, although the state allowed that ‘you can still snatch a child away from a hot stove or an open window if there is a risk of its injuring itself’. Which gives you some idea of the level of authority Swedish parents have over Swedish children.
In Sweden smacking has been banned since 1979, and since then only four children have been beaten to death. In this country, where — as we are told — ‘most children including babies are hit and many severely’, there are one or two child deaths from battery per week.
Crikey, you think. It makes the issue sound like a no-brainer, given that this country has the highest rate of child deaths per head of population in Europe.
But it isn’t, actually, and even though I may now be meaningfully asked ‘When did you stop beating your children?’, it is important to pause and consider the consequences of a change to the law, however well-intentioned. At this point, I’m afraid, this piece becomes like a movie about a court case — rather procedural.
In the Lords last week, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (on behalf of Unbeatable!) made a moving plea for a free vote on an amendment to the Children Bill, an amendment that would outlaw battery to a child for any reason except to prevent damage to property, the commission of a crime, and to avert danger.
‘I know what it is like to be lonely, living in a highrise block with no money and two babies, one of whom cries incessantly,’ she told the noble Lords. ‘Without the restraint of having worked in paediatrics and having seen the results of shaking and hitting, I would have lost my rag. I feared that once I hit I would have been unable to stop, such was the pent-up emotion that I felt. That was as a young mum. The purpose of this reform is to send clear and unequivocal messages to parents that assaulting children, like assaulting adults, is wrong and unlawful.’
She continued to argue that the Children and Young Persons Act should be amended so that battery of a child could no longer be justified as lawful punishment. This would only, she argued, bring children the same protection from assault that adults already enjoy.
She went on to explain that this change to the law, according to Peter Carter QC, who drafted the amendment, would not create a new offence. It would only remove a cruel, outdated defence. And she also revealed that Mr Carter had assured her that the amendment, as drafted, would not result in increased prosecutions of parents for minor incidents.
Eh? At this point one has to blink and rub one’s eyes. No wonder Labour refused to allow a free vote on the clause. Labour’s Baroness Ashton told Baroness Finlay that her amendment, whether it removed a defence or created an offence, would lead to a ban on smacking, and that, furthermore, the DPP had advised her that ‘even minor assaults would be criminalised’.
Which brings us to logical flaw and legal fudge in the lobby group’s argument. If you’re going to ban smacking, you have to go ahead and prosecute, too. You can’t tell parents that they are criminals if they smack and in the same breath that you’ll let them off if they’re guilty of this crime. For that brings the law into disrepute.
So the upshot is, for now, that the amendment has been withdrawn — but only pour mieux sauter later in the year, when the Bill returns to the Commons. It’s like the hunting Bill. These heavily funded campaigns, once they enter the body politic, are the ineradicable prions in the bloodstream of Westminster. They never go away.
In the meanwhile, I invite you to reflect on this — and I’m assuming that we all start from the same position, which is that violence towards children is abhorrent, and that the world would be a better place if no parent ever got cross, no child was ever naughty, and that the best way to deal with incessant or violent provocation on the part of a child was to sit said child on the ‘naughty chair’ or call a ‘time out’.
But this is not the world we live in, and if this amendment is passed, all parents who decide, for whatever reason, that the best way to put a stop to a child’s behaviour is a smack, or who regrettably lose their temper, will have committed a crime. And their children can report them to the police, and then they will be put on a list, and social services can be informed, and so on.
The change to the law will fundamentally change the legal relationship between a parent and a child, and will encourage children to believe — both at home and at school — that they have a right to behave as they please and no obligation to follow adult instruction or direction, just as children at school do not believe that they have any duty to respect the teachers standing in front of them.
Parents will have no choice but to use other methods. I’m not saying the naughty chair doesn’t work, but in America it’s no accident that the use of the behaviour-suppressant drug Ritalin has soared as the frequency of ‘spanking’ has diminished. Meanwhile, the parents who hit their children with merry abandon will presumably continue to do so.
‘I’m furious about it,’ one mother of three (who preferred to remain anonymous) told me. ‘I don’t go about whacking my children, but I do believe a calm premeditated slap, given after a warning, can draw the line under particularly buggersome behaviour. If smacking was banned, I’d feel despair, and even more marginalised as a fairly strict old-fashioned parent than I am already.’
Look, being hit is never nice (I say that, but my husband’s main complaint about his time at Eton is that he was never once beaten). As the antis say in the US, ‘Spanking hurts everybody.’ But let’s not lose sight of the fact that verbal abuse and other punishments can be just as cruel and traumatic, as Lord Swinfen nostalgically told us last week. ‘I remember some 50 years or so ago, I and two other boys being caught breaking the rules at school. Two of us were beaten, but the other one could not be beaten for medical reasons. That boy had to translate 1,000 lines from English into Latin. It took him days. In my view the punishment was very much heavier and harder than the three strokes of the cane that I had. In fact the strokes warmed me up on a cold winter’s evening.’
That reminds me. To paraphrase Samuel Butler, sparing the rod does not always spoil the child. At prep school, the headmaster offered me the choice of the slipper or forgoing an exeat as my punishment for breaking into the tuck cupboard at night with a boy called Savile and stealing Mars Bars. (He reserved the golf club and Jokari bat for even more actionable offences.)
I chose the slipper with glee.