British agency rules spanking is ‘reasonable chastisement’

Associated Press

LONDON — Asked to decide whether spanking a child constitutes punishment or abuse, the British government on Thursday came up with a compromise — violence against children is unacceptable, but a healthy smack can be fine.

Health Minister Jacqui Smith said the government would not introduce new laws, long advocated by children’s charities, to ban parents from hitting their children. After a review of the issue, officials decided to keep the current law, which says parents and guardians may use corporal punishment as "reasonable chastisement."

The government called the decision "common sense," but children’s welfare groups said it sent the wrong message.

"The Dickensian idea of reasonable chastisement has no place in a modern civilized society," said Mary Marsh, director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

"Children should enjoy the same legal protection from being hit as that afforded to adults."

Smith said a ban "would neither command public support nor be capable of consistent enforcement."

Nor would it "help us to be better parents," she said.

"We need to balance the needs of children with the reality of the difficulties of parenting," said Smith, who admitted on a television program that she has occasionally struck her own children.

Britain has a long tradition of corporal punishment. Hitting children with a cane, often until they bled, was a routine classroom punishment for centuries; it was banned from all schools only in 1998. In a government survey the same year, 88 percent of parents agreed it was sometimes necessary to smack a naughty child.

"Sometimes a well-timed slap is able to teach a child that what they have done is wrong, if that is accompanied by words," said Ferris Lindsay of Friends of the Family, an evangelical group.

But the government was forced to review its 140-year-old law on "reasonable chastisement" in 1998, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a 9-year-old British boy whose stepfather beat him with a cane had had his rights infringed.

The court said Britain had violated a provision of the European Convention on Human Rights that bars torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

Smith said Britain’s Human Rights Act, which came into force last year, protects children by requiring courts to consider criteria such as the nature, duration and context of a punishment in deciding whether it constitutes reasonable chastisement.

But critics say only a total ban can protect children. Inquiries have been called into two recent cases in which social workers, police and health authorities failed to save children who had been repeatedly battered by their guardians and who eventually died.

Obi Amadi of the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association said such cases show "that once you start to hit a child, there is the possibility that this could be the slippery slope that results in greater physical damage to that child and, in extreme cases, death."

Thursday’s ruling applies to England and Wales. In Scotland, which makes its own laws on the matter, the government has proposed banning physical punishment of children under 3-years-old. The Scottish legislation would also make it illegal to shake, strike with an implement or hit on the head a child of any age.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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