SMACKING BAN: MSPs URGED TO THINK AGAIN AMID FEARS OF CRIMINALISING PARENTS AND RISE IN SOCIAL WORK COSTS
MSPs have been urged to think again over a proposed new law to ban smacking amid concerns from the country’s law chiefs and fears over increased spending on social work as parents are criminalised.
Meanwhile, a raft of experts, family groups and campaigners have issued a statement calling on the legal status quo to be preserved.
Ahead of a vote in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday MSPs have received a briefing from the Law Society of Scotland which admits the ban opens up “potential consequences of the criminal law for those who may face prosecution for punishing children and ultimately, if convicted, the negative implications for them personally and professionally.”
The briefing adds: “We have highlighted that there may be significant pressure to reach out effectively to certain groups within the community that may face specific cultural challenges, those involved with children that involve with additional support needs and the vulnerable within society.
“Account is needed to ensure that those who are themselves vulnerable may be supported in undertaking their responsibilities and fulfilling their caring duties in relation to children. Vulnerability may, for instance, include ‘age’ in supporting grandparents who may have been brought up under a different regime when such punishments were the norm or health or poverty where those with medical conditions or suffering from stress may face specific issues in caring for their children.”
Campaigners claim the new law would be implemented despite no estimates being worked out on how many additional cases social workers will have to deal with or how it will impact on local authority resources more generally.
During a BBC Question Time debate on smacking in Kilmarnock, one social worker stated, “You’d need to have a million more of us” to make a smacking ban work.
Jamie Gillies of campaign group Be Reasonable, which is spearheading opposition to the ban, said the Scottish Government has been unable to give a detailed estimate of costs but is happy to proceed anyway “with their fingers crossed”.
“In a letter earlier this year, Children’s Minister Maree Todd suggested that the smacking ban in Scotland will cost less than £2 million pounds for the police, the courts and awareness raising in the first five years. But she was unable to give any indication of the costs to social services departments and local councils more generally.
“Considering that social workers will be one of the main groups tasked with implementing a smacking ban, it is simply unacceptable to proceed without any reliable estimates as to the number of additional cases arising, or whether resources will have to be diverted from other frontline services. Social workers deserve to know how this law will affect them.
“The Welsh Government, which is also considering a ban, estimates costs of more than £3 million over five years in the smaller context of Wales – that’s a million pounds above the Scottish Government’s predictions. The numbers just don’t add up.
“The Government says it is holding ongoing discussions about the financial implications of the Bill but how can MSPs be expected to vote on it when they have no indication of the impact it will have?
“Given the reversal on the Named Person scheme recently, do MSPs really want to endorse similarly problematic legislation which could see added pressure on children’s services and the state reaching into homes across Scotland?”
STATEMENT BY PARENTING EXPERTS
In advance of the Holyrood vote, experts in the fields of child psychology, child protection and sociology have also issued a statement opposing the ban.
They state: “We are deeply concerned by legislation before the Scottish Parliament to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement and introduce a ‘smacking ban’. It is unnecessary, will do nothing to help vulnerable children, and will instead cause traumatic intervention in good families.
“The discourse around smacking is dishonest. It conflates ‘hitting’ and violence with smacking… A careful examination of the evidence does not find that light, infrequent physical discipline is harmful to children.
“Removing the defence will leave loving parents open to police cautions and even criminal convictions for behaviour which is, by definition, ‘reasonable’. The stress this would bring to parents and children far outweighs any perceived benefits.
“A smacking ban would also make the work of the police and social services more difficult by bringing hundreds of good parents under the remit of child protection agencies, impeding efforts to identify actual abuse.
“The vast majority of Scots do not want to see smacking criminalised, regardless of their views on smacking as a parenting technique.
“We urge MSPs to oppose this legislation.”
The statement is signed by:
• Prof Tommy MacKay, Consultant Child Psychologist, former President of the British Psychological Society
• Joy Knight, former National Chair, Children’s Panel Advisory Committee
• Dr Simon Knight, Senior Community Work Practitioner
• Prof Ellie Lee, Director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies
• Dr Ashley Frawley, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy
• Frank Furedi, Sociologist, Commentator and Author
• Anne Atkins, Novelist, Writer and Parenting Expert
• Sally Gobbett, Parent Campaigner, qualified Speech and Language Therapist
• Dr Penny Lewis, Parent Campaigner
PUBLIC OPPOSITION REVEALED
Be Reasonable point to submissions (see attachment for details) to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee consultation on the Bill which found 89% were against the Bill overall (387 of 437); 97% of individuals are against the Bill (378 of 390); and 99% of parents against the Bill (99 of 100).
Polling on the issue also shows that the majority of Scots do not want to see a law which criminalises parental smacking. ComRes polling of Scottish adults found that 74% of adults in Scotland do not think “parental smacking of children [should] be a criminal offence”.
THE CURRENT LAW WORKS
In a letter to MSPs sent ahead of the debate, Mr Gillies stressed that children already have equal protection and the ban is not required, adding:
“The law as it stands is sensible and was updated as recently as 2004. It outlaws violence, abuse, unreasonable chastisement and shaking, and prohibits the use of an implement. The reasonable chastisement defence simply permits parents to use very mild discipline like a tap on the hand or smack on the bottom without being charged with assault. By definition, it only allows reasonable behaviour. Therefore, if the defence is removed, it is only reasonable behaviour that will become unlawful.
“The defence is rarely cited in court, proving that it is well understood by prosecutors and the police. Responding to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee consultation, a police officer with 29 years’ experience said: ‘I have never come across a case where I have felt the law as it stands is inadequate for any investigation into child abuse. Conversations with similarly experienced detectives suggests this is a universal view. I have found no appetite amongst my operational colleagues for any legislative changes.’”
CONCERNS BY FAMILY LAWYERS
Writing in The Scotsman today, Mr Gillies drew attention to statements by a top family law firm in Wales and the UK Ministry of Justice on the impact of a smacking ban on family justice which are equally relevant to Scotland.
Katie O’Connell, of Wendy Hopkins, the largest family law firm in Wales, cautioned that removing reasonable chastisement from the law could leave families in “real turmoil”. In a statement last month, she said:
“If a parent is investigated for an offence of this nature, or worse, convicted of an offence of assault against their child, a family could be left in real turmoil. Social services would also very likely be involved. Pending prosecution of the accused or if a parent is convicted of an offence against their child, it could result in families being divided. Of course, the other parent would need to be seen as protecting their child from potential harm. Where would this leave their relationship with the accused?”
In May this year, the UK Ministry of Justice (MoJ) also outlined problems with a smacking ban in a letter to the Welsh Assembly. The letter warned: “Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service have serious concerns that feuding parents may, following the removal of the defence, use the change to further their cause against the other parent in a separation or divorce.”
“This would inevitably cause delays in proceedings when the family court is already under pressure…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”.
Mr Gillies concluded:
“Seeking to further the protection of children is highly commendable but a smacking ban is not the way to do it. The risks this proposal carries to family life, social work and the police mean it could end up doing far more harm than good. The Government should invest in current services, which are already hard-pressed, and bolster their ability to identify and tackle abuse.”