Call 999 and social services if you see a parent smacking their child, Welsh Government tells public
- New Government guidance confirms that after the 21st March parents who use even the mildest physical discipline of any kind “could be charged with common assault” and “may get a criminal record”
- Guidance also urges anyone who works with children to “contact your local social services” or “call the police” if they see a parent smack their child
- This flatly contradicts previous Government reassurances that repealing the reasonable chastisement defence “will not criminalise parents”
- Campaigners warn the new smacking ban will overstretch police and social services and tyrannise innocent parents
The Welsh Government is urging anyone who sees a parent smacking their child to call the police or social services after the introduction of the smacking ban next month, despite previously claiming that changing the law would not criminalise loving parents.
In new guidance for organisations and people who work with, volunteer or care for children, outside of formal education and childcare, the Government says to call the police or social services if you see or suspect a parent is smacking their child:
“What should I do if I see a child being physically punished or if I am concerned about a child?
Contact your local social services department. You can also call the police in an emergency, or if a child is in immediate danger”
And guidance for social workers confirms that parents who physically punish their child “could be charged with common assault” and “they may get a criminal record”.
This directly contradicts repeated assurances made during the passage of the legislation. In a 2018 document, Removing ‘the defence of reasonable punishment’, used as part of the consultation process by ministers and officials, the Welsh Government stated:
“Will this criminalise some parents? We understand this fear. But this hasn’t happened in other countries that changed their law. In New Zealand, the police data shows no rise in reports or in parents being prosecuted for ‘light smacking’.”
In the same year, then First Minister Carwyn Jones (who admitted to smacking his own children [audio]) told the Senedd:
“It will not criminalise parents.”
In June 2016, the then Communities and Children Secretary, the late Carl Sargeant, said:
“Let’s be very clear here: this isn’t about legislation to criminalise parents. What we want to do here is give people the opportunity to have positive parenting experiences.”
The new guidance for those working with children also confirms that the law, which will come into force on the 21st March, will cover more than smacking:
“It isn’t possible to give a set list of what makes up physical punishment because it can be anything where a child is punished using physical force…”
This raises the prospect of other innocent actions by parents, such as making a toddler get into a pushchair against their will, being misinterpreted as “unlawful punishment”. Even the Government itself has, in the past, warned against this risk. In January 2015, former Children’s Minister Leighton Andrews opposed backbench amendments to repeal the reasonable chastisement defence, warning Members of the Senedd:
“The effect of amendments [repealing the reasonable chastisement defence] is not only to criminalise smacking, but also any other touching of a child in Wales by a parent for the purpose of administering discipline… Any touching of another person, however slight, may amount to a battery. For example, a parent who forcibly lifts a misbehaving child would be guilty of battery.”
The Be Reasonable campaign has always said that there was no solid research basis for banning smacking. This is confirmed by the new guidance which merely says:
“Research suggests that any type of physical punishment could be harmful to children”. [emphasis added]
Simon Calvert, a spokesman for the Be Reasonable campaign commented:
“This recent guidance gives the lie to the frequent claims made by ministers, officials and activists that repealing the reasonable chastisement defence would not criminalise ordinary, loving parents. It clearly says that if you see a mum or dad tapping their child on the legs or hand because they are misbehaving, you should call social services or the police. This would open that person up to investigation, arrest, prosecution and conviction. If that’s not criminalising parents, I don’t know what is.”
“It’s bad enough that mums who tap their tots on the bum are going to be reported to police and social services, but the guidance also confirms that the ban is not limited to smacking. It says any form of physical contact that could be interpreted as ‘punishment’ is illegal. Even a previous Government minister warned that this would mean a parent who forcibly lifts a misbehaving child would be guilty of battery. Good parents know that sometimes toddlers can put themselves or others at risk and you have to intervene physically to protect them. But, come March, if somebody sees you do that and reports you to the police you might find yourself under arrest. This is madness.”
“And all this is being done without any solid research behind it. The Government guidance can only say that research ‘suggests’ that smacking ‘could be harmful’. Well, research suggests that all kinds of things ‘could’ be harmful but we don’t go around making criminals out of people on the basis of speculative research like that. There are, of course, activist academics who want to ban smacking but when you look for the evidence to back up their advocacy, it just isn’t there.”
The Be Reasonable campaign has previously highlighted the costs of the ban, predicted to top £3.7million, including nearly £1 million for extra policing, Court and Crown Prosecution Service costs. It has also warned how changing the law would see police and social workers overwhelmed with trivial cases, leaving them more stretched and with fewer resources to deal with genuine cases of child abuse.
Mr Calvert concluded:
“Let’s be clear, this change to the law has little to do with tackling genuine abuse, which is already illegal. Instead it criminalises good mums and dads for nothing more than tapping their toddler on the back of the hand or the bottom for misbehaving. Even if that parent is released without charge the information will still be recorded on official databases. This could impact the employment prospects of teachers, doctors, nurses and anyone else who works with children or vulnerable adults.”
“Many people will think they have been misled over the impact of this ban on ordinary parents.”