picture8 Nov 2001 @ 16:36, by Eyes to the Skies UK

PARENTS in England and Wales can continue smacking their children without interference from the state, the Government announced today.

Ministers have concluded they do not need to change the law which allows parents to use "reasonable chastisement" in disciplining their youngsters.

Outlining a "common sense" approach to the "difficult" issue, Health Minister Jacqui Smith said a change in the law on smacking was not considered "appropriate".

"It would neither command public support nor be capable of consistent enforcement," she said.

A total ban on smacking would not help parents to raise their children or "help us to be better parents," she insisted.

But children's charities poured scorn on the decision not to outlaw smacking and accused the Government of misreading the public mood.

The Department of Health stressed the definition of what constituted "reasonable chastisement" would be kept under review.

A survey conducted as part of the Government's consultation on smacking found 70% of the public wanted to preserve the status quo and keep the law as it is.

The Government's decision follows a UK-wide consultation on the physical punishment of children, ordered after the European Court of Human Rights found that Britain failed to protect a boy whose stepfather beat him with a cane.

Children's charities had pressed ministers to follow Scotland and introduce a total ban, with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children warning that a failure to do so would be tantamount to declaring "open season on hitting babies and toddlers".

NSPCC director Mary Marsh branded the announcement a "step backwards" for child protection.

"It is scandalous that the Government has ignored the view of virtually every child protection and health professional in the country.

"The Dickensian idea of reasonable chastisement has no place in a modern civilised society. Children should enjoy the same legal protection from being hit as that afforded to adults. Anything less puts children at risk."

Ms Smith denied the Government's decision would mean a "free-for-all" and said it was clear that violence against children was unacceptable.

"I have got to set the sort of legal framework that people have confidence in, that we can enforce, that protects children from abuse but that recognises that parenting is difficult," she said.

"I am not convinced that banning smacking actually helps us to be better parents."

Speaking on GMTV, the minister added: "I have, on occasions, resorted to smacking.

"I don't personally think it is a very good way to discipline my children."

The decision not to legislate has put Westminster at odds with the Scottish Parliament, where the devolved administration is preparing to ban all physical punishment of under-threes.

There were reports that ministers could face a revolt on the issue from their own backbenches.

The chairman of the Commons Health Committee, David Hinchliffe, told The Guardian: "There is a lot of unease among a significant number of MPs about lack of progress on this question."

Save the Children's director general Mike Aaronson said he would continue to press for a ban on smacking throughout the UK.

"Children will continue to be put at risk whilst the legal defence of "reasonable chastisement" exists, because of the inconsistent interpretation of this rule.

"In the past this has been used to justify all manner of beatings including assaults on children with electrical flex and high-heeled shoes.

"The Government has frequently promoted human rights on the international stage; it is important to remember that our children are human too and hold these same human rights."

Children's charities in Scotland said they were "deeply disappointed" that the Government had not taken the opportunity to bring the law in England and Wales into line with child protection measures north of the border.

Susan Elsley, assistant director at Save the Children in Scotland, said: "This is a terrible lost opportunity. Scotland has led the way and we are deeply disappointed that the same steps forward have not been made in England and Wales.

"This sends out confusing messages to parents who, in theory, could smack toddlers when they cross the border but not before. Children should be safe wherever they live in the UK.

"Despite being some of the most vulnerable members of society, children have less legal protection than adults. Only by having a complete ban on the physical punishment of children can we really claim to be a civilised society."

More than 900 responses were received to Protecting Children, Supporting Parents: A Consultation Document on the Physical Punishment of Children, the Department of Health said today.

The consultation showed this was a subject about which people have "deeply held and strong opinions" with almost all the organisations which responded opposing all physical punishment of children.

Setting out the Government's position in a statement, Ms Smith said: "We are committed to improving safeguards for children to protect them from harm, violence and abuse and to improve their life chances.

"We need to balance the needs of children with the reality of the difficulties of parenting.

"We do not believe that any further change to the law at this time would be appropriate - it would neither command widespread public support nor be capable of consistent enforcement.

"However, we will be keeping the use of the `reasonable chastisement' defence under review. Good parenting is vital. But it can be a demanding job and we are committed to supporting parents ... and helping them recognise that asking for help is not an admission of failure."

Ferris Lindsay, of Friends of the Family, welcomed the Government's decision and said children in loving families could "benefit greatly" from smacking if it was coupled with "verbal correction".

"Sometimes a well-timed slap is able to teach a child that what they have done is wrong, if that is accompanied by words," he said.

The minister said the Government would be giving 145,000 to the National Family and Parenting Institute so it could provide parents with practical help and alternatives to smacking.

The project will initially reach about 50,000 English families with children under ten through a booklet and video.

By Sarah Westcott and Vanessa Allen, PA News

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