Removing the defence of reasonable punishment

By Des Mannion

| 09 September 2016

The defence of ‘reasonable punishment, is firmly back on the agenda in Wales, with the new Welsh government announcing its intention to legislate on its removal from law in 2017/18. This is a huge step forward in the fulfilment of children's rights here though it will, inevitably, spark an emotive and controversial debate that is not confined solely to Wales.  The UK government has been told to take urgent action on this issue by several UN bodies but despite this, there are still no moves to legislate on reform in Westminster.
 
As the law currently stands, the assault of an adult by an adult is prohibited. If an adult assaults a child and faces prosecution however, the defence of "reasonable punishment" is available. This effectively allows the smallest and most vulnerable members of our society to be hit. And for me, that's not fair. This is an issue of equality which we're simply not getting right. Next year's likely Welsh Bill however, would propose the removal of the defence, closing a legal loophole and ensuring equal protection for both adults and children.
 
There are some very real dangers associated with physically punishing children. Not only can it teach them that it's OK to hit others and acceptable to use violence to resolve an issue, but in a small number of cases it can escalate considerably and lead to children suffering injury or worse. Physical punishment of children has been commonplace in previous generations and many parents firmly believe that they should be able to discipline their children as they see best, within reasonable limits. But what punishment is reasonable? In my opinion, this should be for the law to decide and the law as it stands is incredibly unclear. Removing the defence of reasonable punishment would get rid of that ambiguity. This is a long-standing recommendation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and adopting it would provide a helpful correction to that current lack of legal clarity.
 
Bringing up a child can be very challenging and we all know that clear and consistent boundaries are essential for children to have a safe and happy childhood. But I don't believe physical punishment to be an effective tool in setting those boundaries and an ever-increasing body of evidence tells us that. In fact, the evidence shows that physical punishment actually results in poorer outcomes and can breed resentment in the long term - potentially damaging the parent-child relationship. Health visitors and parenting programmes have long advocated a non-violent approach and changing times have seen many new parents use more positive methods. I believe the upcoming legislation in Wales, though a first in the UK, will be part of that continuing journey towards "positive parenting" and improved outcomes for all children. It will help to change attitudes. But to be successful, it must be accompanied by a Welsh campaign that gives hard-pressed parents advice and support.
 
Wales has made tremendous progress in boosting children's rights in recent years. From the creation of the UK's first Children's Commissioner in 2001 to the country becoming the first in the UK to embed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into legislation through the Rights of Children and Young Persons Measure in 2011. There's no doubt that this country has been progressive and forward looking and I applaud the fact that Welsh government has the courage to take the next step. But we must remember that nearly 50 other countries have already removed any legislative defences, including Spain, Germany and - most recently - the Republic of Ireland.
 
The UK has been left behind on this issue. And we want to work with Welsh politicians to help it catch up.

Des Mannion is head of service at NSPCC Wales

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