THIS week, a Bill to criminalise parents who smack their children in Wales moved one step closer to becoming law. With just one vote to go on the proposal, next Tuesday, it is widely expected that it will be introduced.
The result led to jubilation amongst liberal elite politicians, campaigners and ideologues who have battled for the change for several years. It may have been a happy day for anti-smacking zealots at Cardiff Bay, but for the majority of mums and dads across Wales the news will have come as a shock.
When this legislation is introduced, behaviour which has hitherto been viewed as a normal and acceptable part of parenting – a tap on the hand or the bottom – will be considered criminal. Parents who use reasonable chastisement after a change in the law will be subjected to police investigation, social work intervention and even criminal proceedings. The Welsh government says that more than 500 parents a year could be affected by the law, with the majority of offenders being sent to parenting ‘re-education’ classes, and some being prosecuted.
For most ordinary parents in Wales the idea that they could be arrested for using very mild physical discipline is preposterous. Most parents were themselves smacked as children and feel that it did them no harm. And they know that in disciplining their own children they are acting out of love and care – a desire to imbue a sense of right and wrong.
They’re right to see the proposal as ridiculous. There is no evidence that mild physical discipline does any harm to a child. Even the Welsh government admits this. Explanatory notes on the smacking ban Bill state that there is ‘no definitive evidence that “reasonable” physical punishment causes negative outcomes for children’.
This point was made time and again during scrutiny of the Bill when eminent sociologists, criminologists, child psychologists and others urged the government not to criminalise parents for actions which are not harmful to a child. So why does the government feel it has a mandate to outlaw smacking?
One reason politicians give for changing the law is the fact that children need equal protection from assault. They imply that the defence of reasonable chastisement allows cruel and vindictive parents to hit their children and get away with it. This is nonsense. In practice, the defence is hardly ever cited in court. It has not been used in Wales for more than ten years. Whenever the defence is used, the police and judiciary are perfectly aware of what constitutes abuse and what is normal, harmless parenting. The Welsh government was unable to give one single example of the reasonable chastisement defence being used inappropriately.
Retaining the reasonable chastisement defence as a guide for prosecutors and a defence for loving parents is important. Especially when there is strong evidence over many years to show it is working, and is clearly understood by authorities who are working to uphold child protection.
Given that there is no evidence that mild physical discipline is harmful, or that the current law is in some way insufficient, it is clear that the smacking ban is ideological. It has come about at the behest of a minority of campaigners and campaigning politicians who don’t like smacking and don’t want any parents in Wales to take a different view.
Dr Ashley Frawley, a sociology lecturer at Swansea University, puts it well: ‘This bill isn’t about giving children additional protections. The law as it stands protects children from violence and abuse at the hands of a parent or carer. This is ideologically driven. It represents the views of a minority of self-styled “parenting experts” who don’t like smacking, and feel that thousands of decent, loving parents across Wales should be forced to adopt their style of parenting.
‘The Welsh government itself admits that reasonable chastisement is not harmful to children. So it’s hard to see how they can justify a law which will criminalise parents for such actions.’
The government could have chosen to discourage smacking through existing public awareness campaigns. In practice, many public bodies already discourage parents from taking such action. It could have opted to use civil enforcement. Instead it has chosen to change the criminal law and subject families in Wales to significant and stressful intervention because of their parenting approach.
It will be another two years at least until the ban comes into force and, in some ways, it remains to be seen what will happen. An Assembly election lies between now and implementation. But one thing’s for sure – deciding to punish good parents for parenting will do them, and their children, a great deal of harm.