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ruler   :  Archive   :  2004   :  UK Domestic Nov 2004



Domestic CP - November 2004

Corpun file 14452

The Guardian, London, 2 November 2004

Rebel MPs fail to ban smacking

By Martin Nicholls and agencies

Tony Blair survived his second Labour backbench rebellion in as many days as MPs failed in a bid to ban smacking in the Commons tonight.

After a brief but highly charged debate, an amendment to the children bill outlawing the "hitting" of youngsters was rejected by 424 to 75, a majority of 349.

A move to delete the tighter definition of "reasonable punishment" from the bill was also defeated by 284 votes to 208, a government majority of 76.

The bill will instead allow mild smacking, while barring any physical punishment which causes visible bruising.

Late last night, 29 Labour MPs defied the whips to vote against the second reading of the gambling bill, which will allow super-casinos to open in Britain.

Tonight's revolt came after Mr Blair failed to win over opponents of smacking at an 11th hour meeting last night. The health select committee chairman, David Hinchliffe, led the bid to scrap the 19th-century legal defence of "reasonable chastisement" by citing experience gained during his time as a social worker.

Mr Hinchliffe said it was "a scandal and a disgrace that in 21st century Britain, at least one child every week ... dies at the hands of their parents or carers".

"Like colleagues who have also worked in child protection," he said, "I don't just think there is a connection between our shocking levels of child deaths and our laws permitting so called reasonable chastisement - I know there is."

The Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance, made up of more than 350 organisations involved with children and families, had urged MPs to back Mr Hinchliffe's amendment and condemned the bill as "unsafe and unworkable".

Despite pleas for a free vote, Labour MPs were subject to a three-line whip, leaving them open to disciplinary measures if they failed to support the children's minister, Margaret Hodge.

Challenged last week at prime minister's question time, Mr Blair said he hoped there was a "common-sense way" through the issue and insisted most parents could tell the difference between discipline and abuse of a child.

Introducing his amendment to the bill, Mr Hinchliffe called for children to be given the same protection from being hit as adults, and condemned the government for whipping Labour MPs to vote against his move.

"For some people this is an abstract academic issue. For myself and a large number of other MPs it is about the basic human rights of a significant proportion of our population," he said.

"Our strength of feeling comes from a certain knowledge that our laws and society could do a great deal more to ensure the wellbeing of vulnerable and abused youngsters."

Children were generally better treated now than at any time in history, according to Mr Hinchliffe, but for a minority the reality was very different.

"Compared with many other similar countries, our record on child deaths is frankly appalling," he said.

As debate on the bill got underway today, both the Tories and Liberal Democrats complained that the government was allocating insufficient time - just over six hours - to debate a series of amendments to the legislation, including those on smacking.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "We do not in any way condone abuse of children, but equally we believe that reasonable chastisement is what parents are allowed to do."

Commenting on the vote, Tony Samphier of the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance said: "Tony Blair has sadly chosen Victorian values over modern family standards by defending corporal punishment of children. History will frown on him as the prime minister who failed to give babies and children the same protection from being hit that he himself enjoys."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills, however, welcomed the vote. "The government is pleased to be sending a clear message to parents that they are free to bring up their children in a supportive disciplinary environment," she said.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

Corpun file 14505

Daily Telegraph, London, 3 November 2004

These people telling me how to chastise my child need a slap

By Melanie McDonagh

This is one of those times when a really rough childhood can be an unarguable asset.

When the Commons takes on the subject of smacking, those of us with strong views on the subject find that our position is immeasurably strengthened by being able to point to our own childhood floggings and either remark that it never did us any harm (look!) or that it is the reason for our present damaged psychological condition.

Alas, being female, my credentials aren't all they might be. The nuns who educated me from the age of four to 16 were the Sisters of Mercy, and in primary school they didn't exactly spare the rod, but they didn't go overboard with it.

I was slapped on the hand with a wooden ruler on a few occasions, hard enough to sting, but not - under the Government's preferred rules, sufficient to get them prosecuted - enough to occasion a redness lasting more than a few hours. At least, not that I can recall.

As for domestic violence in the home, I was smacked, I think, twice, in all, though that was nothing by comparison with the time I stabbed my poor father in the shin with a Biro, drawing blood. My male contemporaries were educated by the Christian Brothers, who were notoriously free with the strap.

But if I lack really traumatic experience on the receiving end of corporal punishment, I could, until now, at least administer it (though perhaps it may be a little premature just yet, since my child is just over a year old and is still robustly invincible to rational argument about matters such as poking things into the plug sockets, dancing on the dishwasher door when it's down and snapping the aerial off the radio).

But there will come a time when he arrives at the age of reason and may well, despite repeated remonstrance, do wilfully awful things with matches, or dart in front of oncoming traffic, or jeer at people on the grounds of age, race, gender, sexual orientation or wearing glasses.

In that case, I can't, alas, resort to saying threateningly that he can just wait until his daddy comes home. My husband is conscientiously opposed to hitting children, so it'll be down to me to smack him. That's how I've usually assumed I'd get on with rearing a child, until yesterday's debate on the Children Bill reminded me that this intimate matter of conscience is no longer my own affair.

You like to think that you'd try to bring out the best and suppress the worst in the child in a positive sort of fashion, by force of example and, if you were in a bad humour, with sharp words. And if that didn't work, with a slap.

As matters stood until now, there was a perfectly reasonable legal context for hitting children - the 1860 defence of reasonable chastisement. This is the kind of formula that is so vague as to be completely intelligible.

If you hit your children viciously and enough to harm them, then you got prosecuted. If you slapped them by way of discipline, that was your business. So if you are, say, Victoria Climbie's tormentor, you ought to be in no doubt about where you stand - in the dock, preferably. It's a principle that the police seemed to find intelligible and certainly most parents did. There is a difference between cruelty and chastisement and we all knew it.

But, for a substantial section of the childcare industry, many Labour MPs and an extraordinary proportion of the commentariat, this commonsensical distinction wasn't enough. The pressure group, Children are Unbeatable, has been campaigning for an absolute, outright ban on smacking children which went even further than the amendment to the Bill proposed by Anthony Lester in the House of Lords.

That amendment, which was the basis for the Commons debate yesterday, argued that if a parent causes demonstrable harm to a child by causing his skin to redden after chastisement for more than a few hours (as Trevor Phillips pointed out, this isn't much use to black parents), then the parents can be prosecuted. The more radical policy, which has already been adopted in 10 European countries, is to criminalise parents who smack their children. It may yet happen here.

Just consider who the people are, who are telling me how I should chastise my child. Just going through the Children are Unbeatable list of supporters makes me want to lash out at a well-meaning humanitarian adult, let alone a child.

There's David Aaronovitch, Martin Amis, the Archbishop of Armagh, Melvyn Bragg, Sir Richard Branson, Richard Dawkins, Noel Edmunds... and that's just a slim selection from the list as far as E from the Children are Unbeatable coalition.

How many of them know anything about the families whose workings they want the state to monitor? Are men and women like these, with nannies, super au pairs and home helps, to lay down the law to other men and women who may have lots of children, or obstreperous children and no domestic help apart from the children's granny?

I have only one child to rear... if I had six, like some of my friends, I'd be even less likely to keep my temper. Am I honestly to be guided on the question of whether I can slap my child by David Aaronovitch? Of course I wouldn't dream of slapping the Most Reverend Robin Eames even under provocation, but then I'm not, thank God, accountable for how he turns out. And does Sir Richard Branson know more about the temperament of my son than I do? How come these nice, bossy people know so much better than me what will help him turn out well?

It's a weird time to be bringing up children. You can find that your daughter has been prescribed contraceptives by a state nurse without your knowledge, even under the age of consent, but you are still liable to be imprisoned if she plays truant repeatedly from school. You can abort a foetus of 26 weeks but people are trying to stop you smacking a child to the point where his skin reddens for more than ... how long? A few minutes? If this is the nanny state, honestly we should leave rearing children to mother.

Corpun file 14581

International Herald Tribune, Paris, 20 November 2004


Smack those kids, but mind the marks

By Michael Johnson

LONDON: Anyone who was channel surfing in Britain earlier this month to stay abreast of the U.S. elections could be excused for thinking they had been sucked into a Victorian time warp. The British electronic media were pointing their cameras elsewhere - to the House of Commons, where much dander was rising over exactly how hard you can whack your children without involving the police.

In England and Wales, they call it "smacking," an 1860s concept from Common Law that most civilized countries have long since moved beyond. For years, "reasonable chastisement" has been allowed, but some members of Parliament want to be more specific, making it a crime any time you strike your children with such force as to "redden the skin."

As the rest of the world worried over who was going to run the West for the next four years, the Commons debate parsed the meanings of "reasonable" and defined various shades of red and what constitutes a bruise or a scratch. To the outsider, it was a revealing peek into a side of British society that remains largely hidden from view.

"Smacking is hitting, and smacking hurts," argued Labour Health Committee Chairman David Hinchliffe rather obviously, calling for parents to use moderation. "It causes not only physical harm. It causes harm inside, too." Still, he wanted no outright criminal ban.

Health Secretary John Reid said the public wanted a middle-of-the-road solution that would not tell parents how to bring up their children, but would make sure the law cannot be used for "some of the terrible violence we have seen against kids recently."

In the debate it emerged that some 50 small children die at the hands of their parents in England and Wales each year. Campaigners wanted a complete ban on beating children, but government ministers felt that would intrude too much on family life.

Admittedly, this country has moved on from Victorian times. Originally, the vague concept of reasonable whacking applied to women and servants as well as children.

It may surprise the outside world to learn that today the normally humanistic lawmakers on the Labour side, including the prime minister, take a laissez-faire attitude, believing that no precise legal definition is needed here. Moderate smacking is okay, they say, and parents should decide in the privacy of their homes just how hard to cuff their rowdy kids. But a revolt was mounted by a smaller Labour grouping to criminalize all corporal punishment, reddened skin or not.

Tory Andrew Robathan described such attempts as arrogant. He smacks his own small children "very, very occasionally," he said. "Much more often I threaten them with it, and funnily enough it works rather well."

In the end, a government compromise carried the day as Labour Health Committee Chairman David Hinchliffe invoked children's human rights, and his amendment to the Children Bill passed despite 47 rebelling Labour MPs. An amendment banning "smacks that leave marks" or cause mental harm was however added, winning approval by 284 votes to 208. The children's minister praised the amendment for toughening the law without condemning parents for an occasional "light smack."

Not everyone is happy with the compromise. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was outraged, calling it endorsement of an acceptable threshold of violence toward children.

The debate is all the more poignant because virtually every member of Parliament, Hinchliffe included, grew up in a school system that encouraged caning. Some came to like it and sought other forms of organized punishment as they grew up. Adult spanking is known abroad as the "British disease."

The smacking issue aroused passions in Britain unseen since the latest debate on banning fox hunting in September. As the war in Iraq raged, it brought hundreds of thousands of angry Britons from the countryside to London to tangle with the police and invade the House of Commons, wrestling on the floor with the "men in tights" who are there to keep order. By local standards, it was undignified at best.

Is Britain becoming unhinged? I don't think so. This has always been a country obsessed with its own insular squabbles. That is the essential charm of living here.

Copyright 2004 The International Herald Tribune

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