Calls for English smacking ban

Anna Edmundson
Wednesday, November 11, 2020

On Saturday, Scotland brought into force a law that ensured children receive the same protection from physical assault as adults.

While this is a hugely significant step for the country, it is a painful reminder to those of us watching from across the border that Westminster is behind the curve on this issue.

We know from the children and young people reaching out to Childline for help that physical abuse leaves them feeling scared, lonely, helpless and confused. Some children tell us of their inability to sleep or eat, while others say they turn to behaviours such as binge drinking and self-harming as a way to cope.

One young person told us “it’s like a spill that can’t be mopped up.” But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Until recently in all nations and states of the UK, adults charged with physically assaulting a child could claim ‘reasonable chastisement’ or ‘justifiable assault’ as a defence. After campaigning by a coalition of children’s organisations (including our NSPCC colleagues in Jersey, Scotland and Wales), governments in the nations have been convinced that the law needed to be updated so that the physical assault of children is never reasonable nor justifiable.

Jersey boldly led the way and now Scotland has followed, meaning that defence has been removed from law, while Wales will do so in 2022.

Astoundingly, that argument has yet to cut through in England where there are no plans to follow suit, and it’s the same in Northern Ireland. This means that despite children being some of the most vulnerable people in our society, they are the least protected from harm.

At the NSPCC, we campaign to give young people the best possible start in life. There’s strong evidence to show that physical punishment against them is associated with increased childhood aggression and antisocial behaviour plus we know that it carries a serious risk of escalation into abuse for the recipients.

We are particularly concerned as we head back into another lockdown in England as we know from our analysis of contacts to Childline and our helpline for adults that the first led to more stress and physical conflict in some families. 

Counselling sessions about physical abuse delivered by Childline increased by 22 per cent and contacts to our helpline from adults concerned about a child being physically abused surged by 53 per cent.

One of the most striking findings was that some children talked to Childline about parents using physical punishment in their household and didn’t know whether what they were experiencing was allowed or whether it was physical abuse.

A 16-year-old girl told Childline: “My parents have always hit me since I was little and I have never thought much of it because they said it’s not illegal to hit your child as a way of teaching them not to do a wrong thing. But I do not think that at my age they should still be hitting me. It is not constant hitting but when it happens it really hurts and it comes as a last resort or out of anger.”

A boy, aged 14, told Childline: “I was just wondering if it counts as abuse if my dad sometimes hits me and says it’s his way of discipline. I personally think it is, but I don't know if I’m being over dramatic.”

A concerned neighbour told our helpline: “I have concerns for a five months old baby. I heard the mother and father screaming and shouting at each other and at their baby. They were screaming for the baby to be quiet and using threatening language. The baby was screaming and crying. I then heard slapping sounds. The parents have arguments every day and there is a constant noise of shouting, screaming and banging. I have heard the baby being slapped a few times and it has been going on for a while.”

This shows how vital this legal reform is. The current law has created a grey area as to what is and isn’t permissible. Removing the defence makes it clear that physical punishment is not tolerated in our society.

It’s a contentious issue with emotional arguments on both sides. But as we’ve seen with the bans on corporal punishment in schools, smoking indoors and more recently using phones while driving, it often takes change to legislation to bring about important cultural change.

There is no evidence to suggest reform will lead to parents being criminalised; instead, it is about making the law clear and supporting children and families. We are not campaigning for a new offence to be introduced, we are calling for this outdated defence – which fails to protect the most vulnerable members of our society - to be abolished.

At the moment, England is out of step with not only our neighbours in the UK, but also a long list of over 60 countries worldwide that have passed similar laws. Children must not continue to be harmed or expected to “mop up” the impact after adults hit them. The Prime Minister needs to be bold to introduce legal change to protect children in England from all forms of physical abuse.

Anna Edmundson is the NSPCC’s head of policy and public affairs

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