‘Parental alienation’ and the smacking ban

This week, AMs debated the annual report of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland. It was a short debate, consideration of the annual report being a formality, but concerns raised by one AM point to dangers in the Government’s smacking ban bill.

At the outset of the discussion, the Welsh Government applauded itself for introducing its bill to ban parental smacking. Deputy Minister Julie Morgan said:

“A very practical demonstration of our commitment to children’s rights is our work to bring forward legislation to remove the defence of reasonable punishment. This is in line with our commitment to a child’s right to grow up in a safe and nurturing environment. We believe that physically punishing children is simply not acceptable in Wales.”

Morgan’s insinuation that parents who use smacking are not providing a ‘safe and nurturing environment’ for children, is patronising and untrue. Parents who use light physical discipline with their children, such as a tap on the hand or the backside, do so out of love, not a desire to harm them.

Unfortunately, the Deputy Minister’s assertions over the smacking legislation were not challenged during the debate and discussion soon moved on to other topics around children’s rights.

The most eye-catching intervention of the debate was by Independent AM Neil McEvoy, who raised concerns over ‘parental alienation’ – when a child is isolated from one parent through the actions of the other.

McEvoy expressed disappointment that the issue of parental alienation was not referenced at all in the Commissioner’s 2019 report, and warned that children who are denied access to a loving parent are more likely to meet negative outcomes as they grow older:

“If you are a child who has been alienated from a good and loving parent, you are more likely to live in poverty, you are more likely to do less well in education, you are more likely to suffer mental illness, you are more likely to self-harm, you are more likely to abuse substances, you are more likely to have difficulties yourself in forming relationships as an adult.”

Alarmingly, parental alienation is one of the dangers of a smacking ban outlined by the UK Ministry of Justice.

In a letter to a Welsh Assembly committee earlier this year, the MoJ stated that court officials had raised concerns over the issue of parental alienation during discussions about the Welsh Government’s smacking bill:

“[Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service] also raised the issue of parental alienation (where one parent tries to tum the child against another), one parent may fabricate an episode of smacking as a reason for non-contact with the other parent and for the involvement of the police. This is a complex problem that is recognised as an issue in other countries as well as in the UK.”

The MoJ worries that the smacking legislation will be weaponised by parents who are seeking to score points against one another – to ensure that one parent is barred from accessing a child, or children.

The letter goes on to caution that this misuse of the smacking legislation could become common in divorce proceedings:

“[Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service] have serious concerns that feuding parents may, following removal of the defence, use the change to further their cause against the other parent in a separation or divorce. Following the change, it would be easy for an allegation of smacking to be made which may lead to the involvement of the police and a concurrent criminal investigation. This would inevitably cause delays in proceedings when the family court which ls already under pressure.”

Parental alienation and family breakdown both negatively affect children and it is thought that a smacking ban will make these matters worse. This is not something that has been publicised much during debate of the legislation.

It would be tragic if these negative effects of a smacking ban were only to be recognised in hindsight, when the law is passed and the damage to families has been done.

Concluding the debate on Tuesday, Julie Morgan was dispassionate about Neil McEvoy’s concerns:

“I want to reassure him that this is an area that is being considered very carefully by the Government…we’re taking a very balanced, very non-emotive response to parental alienation and looking at it in a very balanced way”.

Neil McEvoy’s concern for the wellbeing of children is admirable, and should not be dismissed so readily. It’s what led him to oppose the Government’s smacking bill earlier this year when he said it will not help truly vulnerable children.

During the Stage 2 debate on the bill in September, McEvoy said: “There are real concerns about how workable this smacking ban is going to be.

“We’ve got enough trouble enforcing the existing laws against child abuse without confusing the picture by treating mums like abusers just because they use a little tap.”

He’s absolutely right.

AMs must wake up to concerns over the smacking ban and its potential impact on family life. For the sake of parents and children in Wales, they must vote it down when it comes to be debated in January.