‘It’s not about criminalising parents’ claim the politicians, but council guidance paints a different picture

As the smacking ban legislation was making its way through the Scottish Parliament, politicians repeatedly claimed that it wasn’t about criminalising parents.

But council guidance, which has been produced since the smacking ban was implemented, paints a very different picture.

Documents obtained through freedom of information (FOI) requests to Scottish councils show a pattern of advice about how to report or handle smacking allegations now it’s outlawed.

Edinburgh Council sent an official Scottish Government leaflet, which, under the heading “What should I do if I see someone physically punishing their child?”, advises: “You should call 999 to report a crime in progress or if a child or young person is in immediate danger. You can also call the police on 101 if you think a crime has been committed.”

This leaflet was supposedly withdrawn and amended by the Scottish Government in October 2020, so it is concerning if councils are still referring to the original draft.

Government officials quietly tweaked the guidance, removing the sentence: “You should call 999 to report a crime in progress or if a child or young person is in immediate danger.”

An amended version was published, simply retaining advice to “call the police on 101 if you think a crime has been committed.”

Yet in 2017, John Finnie, the Greens MSP who was behind the legislation, told Radio Scotland: “This isn’t about criminalising anyone. This is about supporting parents”.

Two years later, Maree Todd, who was the Minister for Children and Young People at the time, told Parliament something similar: “I assure members that our intention is not to criminalise parents”.

An FOI request to Falkirk Council revealed internal multi-agency guidance for the Children (Equal Protection From Assault) (Scotland) Act 2019.

Under section two entitled “ASSESSMENT AND REPORTING – when to share information with police or social work”, it advises: “A parent, carer or any adult assaulting a child in any way is against the law and therefore should be reported to Police.”

To be clear, when the guidance talks about ‘assault’, it includes a mum tapping a child on the back of the leg, since the Act removes any defence that this is reasonable punishment.

Further on in the guidance it states: “If following due consideration, it’s concluded the assault is a stand-alone Equal Protection incident, calls to Police should be made via the 101 number.”

Under section three entitled “INVESTIGATION- role of police”, it explains: “Following investigation, where there is sufficient evidence, Police will consider their response. This includes a recorded Police Warning if the suspect is eligible or a report to Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.”

Can they really still claim it’s not about criminalising parents?

Similar internal guidance was sent by several other councils.

Inverclyde Council states: “Police Scotland have been supplied with a set of guidance by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) following the Lord Advocate guidelines being concluded. Once a child has been reported to Police Scotland there is no scope for officers to apply discretionary measures.”

It adds: “Note: Police Scotland cannot exercise any Police discretion and all reported assaults on children will be progressed with a number of options available:
– Recorded Police Warning;
– Referral to Public Protection Unit for further investigation;
– Report to COPFS for consideration of a criminal prosecution.”

Renfrewshire Council even simplifies it into a flow chart. Parental smacking will be reported as “child assault by parent” and will end up becoming either a police or a social work matter.

West Dunbartonshire Council echoes this guidance, asserting: “A parent or carer assaulting a child in any way is a crime and should therefore be reported to Police.”

An information sheet from Stirling Council advises: “If this is a standalone minor Equal Protection incident, call Police on 101 to report.”

A survey of more than 1000 Scottish adults in 2017 found that 85% said they had been smacked by their parent or guardian as a form of discipline. That would have been a lot of police officers knocking at a lot of doors.

Could you imagine the impact a police investigation would have had on all of those ordinary families?

Even John Finnie MSP admitted to smacking his children when they were young. (It’s worth noting that his daughter is now a politician and doesn’t seem to have been ‘harmed’ by it as the ‘research’ would have you believe.)

The Scottish Government is yet to release any data regarding investigations and convictions following the smacking ban.

Estimated figures suggest that more than 2,300 parents could face police probes in Scotland in the first five years of the smacking ban coming into force.

Only time will tell what kind of effect a police intervention will have on ordinary families. And what will happen to the vulnerable children that really do need help, when the already overstretched police officers and social workers are stuck investigating ordinary mums and dads that occasionally give their child a light tap on the back of the hand as a form of discipline?