Public “misled” over impact of smacking ban, warns campaign
- Government guidance clearly confirms that parents who use even the mildest physical discipline “could be charged with common assault” and “may get a criminal record”
- Guidance tells those who work with children to “contact your local social services” or “call the police” if they see a parent smack their child
- The Welsh Government is accused of misleading public that repealing reasonable chastisement defence would “not criminalise parents”
- Doctors and nurses who are suspected of smacking, face suspension or the sack
- Those not prosecuted may still have their details recorded on State databases
- Only 38% of the public support the new legislation
The public have been “misled” by the Welsh Government over the impact of the smacking ban that comes into force today, Monday 21st March.
Four years ago, the Be Reasonable Wales campaign released a slew of freedom of information responses from hospitals and social services highlighting how loving parents who smack their children could face suspension from their jobs, or criminal investigation.
Asked how it would treat patients and staff, Cwm Taf University Health Board stated: “It is already a statutory duty to report child protection concerns to the Local Authority and if the defence of reasonable chastisement is removed, smacking will become one of those concerns.”
It continued: “All allegations of abuse or neglect are investigated by the Local Authority and the Police.”
Pressed specifically about how changing the law will affect its staff Cwm Taf University Health Board replied that a complaint about a staff member “would be dealt with in the same way as any other complaint of abuse / neglect made against a staff member using the Safeguarding Board policies and procedures”.
Public Health Wales said: “staff are aware of their duty to report suspected abuse of a child to the police or social services”.
Despite this evidence, and information about the impact of a similar ban in New Zealand, Ministers strenuously denied removing the reasonable chastisement defence would criminalise loving parents.
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.”
The same claim was made during in official documents. In 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’.”
However, on the eve of the ban coming into force, the Government finally confirmed that it wants anyone who sees a parent smacking their child to call the police or social services.
The new guidance for organisations and people who work with, volunteer or care for children, outside of formal education and childcare, says:
“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”. (Emphasis added).
The guidance for organisations also confirms that the law, which came into force at midnight, 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 an un-co-operative toddler get into a pushchair, 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.” (Emphasis added)
Simon Calvert, a spokesman for the Be Reasonable campaign commented:
“It is clear that the Welsh Government has misled the public over the impact of the ban. When evidence from NHS trusts, the police, courts and prosecutors confirmed removing the defence of reasonable chastisement would criminalise loving parents, Ministers continued to peddle the line that it would not. This, as we can all see now, was simply not true. The official guidance, issued just a month ago, could not be clearer. If you see or suspect a parent is smacking their child, the Government wants you to call the police or social services. This is what we repeatedly warned about. And it’s one of the reasons why the ban has always been so unpopular. The Welsh Government’s own survey shows public support for legislation banning smacking fell from 46% in 2019 to just 38% in 2020.”
“Throughout the passage of this legislation we said the Government was selectively using evidence to justify the ban, while ignoring other data. It led to one contributor, Professor Rorbert Larzelere, who was asked to give evidence by officials, taking the highly unusual step of writing to the Minister to complain that ‘having provided this information, I am concerned at how it has been used, or rather misused. Specifically some information I submitted has been misquoted, and other relevant peer reviewed research findings have been ignored’.”
“New Zealand, which shares our common law tradition, has seen the devastating impact on families of their ban, as the courts and police have struggled to balance applying the legislation with what is best for the child. Leading law firm Chen Palmer issued a report showing that politicians’ pledges that good parents would not be criminalised were not borne out in practice. But all this evidence was ignored.”
“This ban is not about protecting children from abuse. That is already illegal. The reasonable chastisement defence only protected reasonable parental actions from prosecution. So, by definition, it is only those reasonable interactions that are now being criminalised.”
“Let me be clear: this ban will criminalise ordinary loving parents. Even those who are not prosecuted will have information against them recorded on state databases, casting a shadow over their employment prospects. Should that individual be a doctor or nurse, or a volunteer at a youth club, this information could appear on their DBS check. This is why we hoped that Ministers would display some common sense and pull back from implementing this ban, but they have chosen to press ahead and it will be decent families who pay the price.”