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Is smacking children allowed?

30 January 2012

Amid all the kerfuffle over Labour MP David Lammy’s call for smacking laws to be relaxed, one thing appears to have been forgotten.

And that is that smacking your children is not, in fact, illegal.

Despite repeated talk about a “smacking ban”, no such thing exists in the UK.

In fact, Britain is one of the few countries in the world not to have completely banned smacking – something the Council of Europe recently denounced, insisting all corporal punishment should be outlawed.

While Austria, Germany, Romania, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Iceland and Spain are among the countries that have ruled smacking to be unlawful, the UK, Belgium, France, Russia and Turkey have not.

So amid the confusion, and setting aside all arguments for and against, where exactly does the UK stand on the issue?

[See also: MP David Lammy: 'Laws surrounding the smacking of children need to be relaxed']

Currently, the law prohibits the use of force against children but it leaves room for adults in the home to administer, in effect, a light and occasional smack.

An amendment to the Children’s Act in 2004, introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government, allowed striking children so long as it leaves only temporary “reddening of the skin”.

It removed the defence of “reasonable chastisement” in cases where “actual” or “grievous” bodily harm were occasioned (ie any bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches) but left the door open for “reasonable punishment” where the injury is “transient and trifling”.

As for outside the home, a ban on corporal punishment in full-time state schools came into force in 1987 and in private schools in 1999. It is also forbidden in nurseries.

But one controversial aspect of the current legislation is that it allows part-time educational institutions or teachers providing part-time lessons, such as Sunday schools, madrasahs and private tutors, to administer light physical rebukes.

Schools or tutors who take pupils for fewer than 12.5 hours a week are deemed to be in loco parentis (“in the place of a parent”) and therefore have the legal right to smack, within reason.

Although the Government has indicated it plans to close the loophole – meaning no-one outside the family can physically chastise a child - this has yet to take place.

Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority on child safety, published a report in 2010 recommending a ban in all places outside the home – but added that a ban on parents administering a “light smack” occasionally would be “cumbersome, bureaucratic, largely impractical and very difficult to communicate”.

A major problem with the law as it stands, according to commentators, is that many people are confused about it: the public perception remains that it is illegal to smack in any circumstances.

Mr Lammy said: “"Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour government, saying: 'You guys stopped us being able to smack our children'.”

Meanwhile he pointed out that the “reddening of the skin” wording was effectively an irrelevance among many non-white communities.

His comments have reignited the row over whether smacking at all should be permitted. Andrew Flanagan, CEO of the NSPCC, said: "Parents have to be able to set clear and consistent boundaries and maintain discipline with their children but this does not require smacking them.

“Evidence shows that smacking is not an effective punishment and sets a bad example by suggesting that problems can be solved through hitting.

“The only way to stop this ambiguity is to ban smacking altogether and help parents to use more positive and constructive forms of discipline.”

But an online Telegraph poll at lunchtime today found more than 89 per cent of readers felt “a light smack” was “essential for discipline”, compared to just ten per cent who felt “violence is never the answer”.

And London Mayor Boris Johnson said the current law was “confusing” but that parents needed to have the right to impose discipline as they see fit: “I think there ought to be some confirmation that the benefit of the doubt will always be given to parents in these matters and they should be seen as the natural figures of authority in this respect.

“Obviously you don’t want to have a licence for physical abuse or for violence and that’s very important.”

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