Is parental smacking now a criminal offence in Wales?

Since 21st March 2022 parental smacking has been a criminal offence in Wales. The Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) Act was passed by the Welsh Parliament in January 2020.

Does this mean I can’t give my child a tap on the back of the hand as a form of discipline?

That’s correct. It is illegal to give your child a light tap on the back of the hand or leg as a form of discipline. Previously the ‘reasonable chastisement defence’ prevented parents from being criminalised for this but the defence has been repealed.

Did the law need to be changed?

No. Any discipline that was immoderate or excessive was already against the law. The reasonable chastisement defence could not be used in cases where ‘actual bodily harm’ was caused – defined as anything more than transitory reddening of the skin. If a parent used unreasonable chastisement they already faced a fine, a community order or up to five years in jail.

But on 21st March the reasonable chastisement defence was abolished and so parents who use reasonable chastisement – even the lightest tap on the hand or back of the legs – could be arrested and face a criminal charge, potentially leading to a criminal record, a fine or imprisonment, and personal and professional ruin.

What happens if someone sees me smacking my child?

The Government is urging anyone who sees or suspects a parent has smacked their child to ring 999 or social services. This is despite supporters of the ban repeatedly claiming that changing the law would not criminalise loving parents.

Official guidance also indicates that police may use an “Out of Court Parenting Support Scheme” if they decide not to prosecute the parent. The schemes will aim to “encourage and support parents/carers in adopting positive parenting techniques while helping parents/carers understand why the physical punishment of children is unacceptable in all circumstances”.

What problems could the law change create?

  • 85% of Welsh adults have been smacked. Outlawing reasonable chastisement will inevitably catch ordinary loving parents and turn them into criminals. The slightest touch could become grounds for an assault charge.
  • But even if a parent is released without charge, the nature of being arrested and investigated could have a hugely damaging impact on the parent and family. Children may be removed from their parents while an investigation is underway. And a parent may be left with a record which would show up on DBS checks, preventing them from working with children in the future. This could be detrimental to some lives and livelihoods.
  • It involves unreasonable state interference in family life and undermines parents. This could create a harmful breakdown between vital parent/community relationships.
  • Children could be removed from their parents merely on the suspicion of having been smacked.
  • The smacking ban could be weaponised by divorcing parents or used in family rifts, leaving children in a vulnerable position.
  • Police, social workers and others involved in child protection are already at breaking point. This law change will inevitably divert their valuable time and resources away from those children who are genuinely at risk of abuse.

Are the public in favour of a ban?

No. For example, a 2017 poll of 1019 Welsh adults asked: “Should parental smacking of children be a criminal offence?” 76% said no.

What evidence is there for the benefits of a ban?

Those in favour of a ban often cite Sweden as a role model. It became the first country to ban smacking in 1979 and is a useful case study because there is more data available to assess the claims of anti-smacking campaigners.

They argue that reasonable chastisement teaches children that violence is acceptable. On this basis, we might expect the figures to show lower levels of violence among children after the ban. In fact figures from Sweden show the opposite to be true: child-on-child violence increased by 1,791% between 1984 and 2010.

In his critique of the Swedish attitude to parenting, psychiatrist David Eberhard argues that following the ban parents have become scared to say no to anything.

Studies show that after the ban children became significantly less accepting of any parental rights to discipline them through grounding or other restrictions. In 2000, only 4% of teens felt that their parents had the right to “threaten to forbid something” down from 39% five years earlier.

Dr Ashley Frawley, a sociologist from the University of Swansea, recently commented on an anti-smacking article in The Lancet. Highlighting a major problem with studies often used to justify banning smacking, she said they, “often fail to distinguish between light discipline within a loving family, and parental abuse”.

The Welsh Government consultation on banning smacking admitted that “there is unlikely to be any research evidence which specifically shows the effects of a light and infrequent smack as being harmful to children”. And leaflets encouraging people to report parents who smack to the police admit “there is no definitive evidence that ‘reasonable’ physical punishment causes negative outcomes for children…”. This is hardly a solid evidence base upon which to criminalise good parents.

But isn’t smacking a form of abuse?

No. Most reasonable people know there is a big difference between child abuse and loving parental discipline.

A parent who gives their three-year-old a light smack to impress upon them the importance of not running out into the road should not be treated as a child abuser. The 85% of Welsh adults who were smacked know that their parents were not child abusers.

Smacking is used when verbal warnings and other disciplinary tactics have been ignored or cannot be understood because the child is too young. Children, particularly those aged between two and six, do not tend to assent rationally to what their parents say is good for them.

Those seeking a smacking ban often deliberately muddle smacking with ‘hitting’. With good parents, reasonable chastisement will not be done in anger but in a controlled manner and with an accompanying explanation as necessary. Parents use a range of approaches to discipline their children. It is often the case that parents don’t feel the need to smack their child at all, but for most parents smacking is one form of loving discipline among many. Most people regard this as legitimate and reasonable.

Everyone accepts that the State must intervene to protect children who are in danger of abuse. But under the new law, loving parents who use mild physical discipline could end up with an assault charge.

Does the new law only apply to Welsh residents?

No. The new law would also apply to anyone visiting Wales.