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Children Act 2004

Volume 689: debated on Monday 5 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they will report to Parliament on the results of their review of Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 which was due to take place in January 2007.

My Lords, the Government are committed to reviewing the practical consequences of the changes introduced by Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 and to seek parents’ views. This will take place during the year ahead.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I hope that the Government will stop making excuses. Is he aware that the view of the UN committee responsible for monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a view which has been published since the 2004 Act, is that all corporal punishment of children within the family should be abolished? Therefore Section 58 is both unclear and unhelpful. Can he give us an assurance that this authoritative advice, along with that of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the human rights aspect of this issue, will be taken into account during the consideration of the review?

My Lords, I can give an assurance that we will take account of all the elements set out by the noble Baroness. However, I should point out that this is not a question of excuses on the part of the Government. We are carrying out the will of Parliament as set out in the Children Act 2004. As the noble Baroness knows, Section 58 of that Act began as an amendment to the Bill moved by her noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and was agreed by this House on a free vote of 226 to 91. So there is no question of excuses, the Government are carrying out the will of Parliament in this regard.

My Lords, in what respects does my noble friend think children have fewer rights than adults, and for what reasons do they merit less protection?

My Lords, for all the reasons set out in the debate that led to the incorporation of Section 58 into the 2004 Act. The issue was fully debated at the time.

My Lords, this is a sensitive issue, but there is a world of difference between the perpetrators of violence against children and the vast majority of parents who struggle to do what is right for their children, often in difficult and challenging circumstances. Does the Minister not agree that the criminalisation of smacking would take up a great deal of time and resources that could be put to better use in protecting children who are in real danger?

My Lords, I simply note that when the Children Act 2004 was passing through this House, it was the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who said:

“It is important to make it clear that the public interest will not be served by prosecuting caring parents for an occasional quick smack”.—[Official Report, 30/3/04; col. 1222.]

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, in moving what is now Section 58 of that Act, said:

“The question for the House is not whether parental smacking is undesirable, just as the use of violent language, screaming and swearing at a child are undesirable and a failure of parental authority, but whether all parental smacking should constitute a criminal offence, even where it does not cause physical or mental harm”.—[Official Report, 5/5/04; col. 525.]

That issue remains the same, and I note the noble Baroness’s views on it.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, in this highly emotionally charged area of family and social life, clarity of what the law is and intends should be absolutely paramount, and that among many of those carrying responsibility for the implementation of policy, and indeed the implementation of law, there is at present an anxiety that, for ordinary people in ordinary family situations, the law is anything but clear-cut?

Again, my Lords, I simply rest on the will of Parliament, which enacted Section 58. In moving that provision, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who shares many of the views of my noble friends on these issues, said it was,

“a proportionate response to the pressing social need to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse”.—[Official Report, 5/5/04; col. 527.]

I hope it has produced much greater clarity in this area than was present.

My Lords, following the question already asked on human rights issues, is it not rather strange that we seem to be allowing an element of violence against children that would be quite unacceptable if it were between two adults? If I strike an adult in the street, he or she is likely to get extremely angry and in fact bring some kind of case against me. If I strike a child in the street, the same is not the case.

My Lords, I fully understand the point the noble Baroness is making, but I say again that these issues were debated at length in the discussions that led to the incorporation of Section 58 into the 2004 Act, and Parliament’s will on this matter could not have been clearer.

My Lords, there is an impressive respect for Parliament in the Minister’s reply, which I think we will all appreciate. Does he not agree that the idea behind this part of the Act is very important, but that education and persuasion change parental behaviour, not putting people before a court?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that any review should look at the use of violence against children in custody too? Many such children are subjected to physical violence that remains unchecked.

My Lords, physical violence against children in custody is regulated by laws other than the Children Act 2004. While I accept that it is an issue we need to pay careful attention to, the provision I quoted is specifically in respect of parents and parental authority over their children.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Walmsley mentioned the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have recently heard that during the past few months 17 year-old soldiers have been placed in active combat. Will the Minister please explain that?

My Lords, in response to something the Minister said, is he aware that 16 other European countries already have a total ban on the physical punishment of children; that four more have already declared the intent to do so; and that in none of those countries where this has been a clear law for many years are the prisons full of caring parents who occasionally lose it?

My Lords, I believe that that is a rhetorical question which the House will no doubt take into account when it next debates legislation in this area.