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Children: Physical Punishment

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the recent memorandum by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights which stated that “laws allowing the definition of ‘justifiable assaults’ and ‘reasonable punishments’ on children are not compliant with international human rights standards”.

My Lords, the Government believe that the laws on physical punishment in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are compliant with international human rights standards. Their formal response to the memorandum was published on 9 October 2008. UK government Ministers do not accept that legislation to remove the reasonable punishment defence or the justifiable assault defence in Scotland is necessary or appropriate. Across the UK, considerable importance is already attached to awareness raising and promoting positive parenting.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but does she realise that all the Government’s warm words are not credible without legislation? Is she aware of the recent judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of R v the Secretary of State for Justice, in which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale of Richmond, is quoted as saying that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is the “authoritative international view” of what the UN convention requires? That committee has recently for the third time demanded that the UK Government remove reasonable chastisement. So, for how long will the Government go on believing that their view of their human rights obligations is more authoritative than that of four UN committees, the European Committee of Social Rights and their own JCHR?

My Lords, with respect, the Government are absolutely clear about the fundamentals here. We believe that this boils down to an interpretation of what is seen as violence. We do not accept that, for example, mild smacking—smacking for which the defence of reasonable punishment is available—constitutes violence. We firmly believe that our law is compliant with both the UN CRC and the ECHR. In our view, the UN CRC does not require the criminalisation of mild smacking. Conduct that could meet the threshold of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under the ECHR is already illegal in this country.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to her new post. Does she agree that we should not be in the business of criminalising parents who are struggling to do their best but should instead concentrate our resources on the children who most need our protection, particularly in the light of the horrific cases reported in the media in recent days?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her warm welcome. As we saw again from his performance today, my noble friend Lord Adonis will be a hard act to follow; but I promise that I will do my best. I very much agree with the noble Baroness that we should not be in the business of criminalising parents who are trying to do their best. It is vital that we keep our legislative framework up to date to support not only children but parents, and that we put safeguarding children at the centre of government policy. I believe that we are doing that.

My Lords, I think it is the case that 18 European countries have banned the physical punishment of children and seven have undertaken to do so—my noble friend, whom of course I also welcome to her new position, may have more up-to-date figures. But that makes 25 countries. Why should our children have fewer rights than theirs?

My Lords, whether we use the language of rights or the language of safeguarding and child protection, it is absolutely right that we put the needs and interests of children first. The Government have updated the law on child protection. We had a debate very recently in this House, in 2004, when the Children Act was updated and a new clause, Clause 58, was introduced after much debate. I think that it provides the right framework for protecting children while not interfering unduly in the role of parents, who are, after all, the people who bring up children in this country.

My Lords, in their response to the commissioner, the Government made much of the fact that a survey showed that 70 per cent of parents did not want physical punishment banned, but the Government and we as a nation are also very concerned about the level of violence in our society from young people. Is it that surprising, when we know from reliable research that one in four parents disciplines their children by hitting them, that we have such a high level of violence from young people? “Like father, like son” is an old aphorism, but does not the Minister agree that it is apt?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has touched on an interesting point. What we know is that younger parents are less likely to use physical punishment than older parents, so I am not sure that it is, “Like father, like son”. It is essential that we provide support to parents who may find it difficult to manage their anger and to deal with the stresses of parenthood, but I do not want us to go down the route of demonising young people and talking about the violence that young people cause in society in such a way either. It is a very delicate area. It is absolutely right that we have research to guide us. Recent studies have shown that parents do not think that it is appropriate for mild smacking to be made illegal, but smacking as a source of parental control is on the decline.

My Lords, I again welcome the Minister to her post—I have already welcomed her privately but now I do so on the record. Although she may not agree with me, does she at least share my frustration with those who are against equal protection for children under the law who seek to misrepresent our position as meaning that a caring parent who may use physical restraint to stop a child harming itself or another would be criminalised? She knows that that is not the case in the other 25 countries that have equal protection; and it would not be the case here.

My Lords, if we consider the use of Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 alongside the advice from the CPS on charging standards, which take account of the vulnerability of children, we see that in those cases children are protected in the same way as adults. That is a very important point. For the record, parents who cause injuries to children such as grazes, scratches, abrasions, bruising, swelling and superficial cuts now, because of the law as it is, risk being charged with ABH with no defence of reasonable punishment. That is because of the changes in the law that we supported in this House in 2004.