"A big person should not hit a small person, not anyone, ever," declared Amy, 9. "It makes you feel sick inside and it breaks your heart," said a five-year-old boy about the use of corporal punishment. His and Amy's words have been brandished by lobbyists campaigning against the proposed British legislation that stops short of an outright ban on parental hitting.
Under the existing law, parents can use "moderate and reasonable" corporal punishment. This status quo dates back to 1860 when the then Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, declared: "By the law of England, a parent may, for the purpose of correcting what is evil in the child, inflict moderate and reasonable corporal punishment."
In recent months, there have been efforts to change the laws established during the Victorian era, but a complete ban on corporal punishment has not yet taken place. In July 2004, Britain's upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, voted against the amendments to the Common Law that preserves the parents' right to punish the child. Instead, the government proposed a law allowing `mild smacking'. Under the `compromise' proposal, a slap that causes reddening of the skin would be considered as actual bodily harm. But a slap that leaves no mark would be legal. In its proposal, the government argued that upbringing of children must remain a private matter for parents.
This proposal is to be debated this autumn by the lower house, the House of Commons, as the next step towards it becoming law.
The campaign against the government's compromise proposal is gathering momentum and pollsters have found that many people in Britain think it is wrong to hit children. A survey by the Market and Opinion Research International (a British research agency) carried out in February and March 2004 found that 56 per cent of those questioned agreed it was wrong for someone to hit a child in their family. The research was based on a sample of more than 2,000 adults.
Research done during the 1990s indicates that parents were prone to beating their kids. A large-scale research study carried out for the Department of Health during the mid-90s, based on interviewing parents and children, found that 91 per cent of children had been hit. In families where both parents were interviewed, almost half the children were hit weekly or more often, and one in five of the children had been struck with an implement.
Today in Britain, those who justify the government's backing for its compromise proposal say it is seeking to guard against excessive force, while avoiding charges that it is a nanny state, telling parents how to bring up their children and criminalizing them for enforcing discipline.
Those calling for an outright ban on corporal punishment argue that British legislation in its existing form, and as proposed, is in breach of international law on human rights. In 1998, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that British law does not provide adequate protection for children. The European Social Rights Committee, monitoring compliance with the European Charter, urges abolition of all corporal punishment. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has twice recommended reform to Britain, most recently in October 2003.
They say that the new compromise would be almost impossible to enforce and that, in any case, striking a child can never be condoned. "It fails in principle and it fails on a practical level," says Tony Samphier, spokesperson for Children Are Unbeatable!, a UK-based alliance of about 350 groups that argues children should have the same protection from assault as those aged over 18 and that hitting a child should be illegal. "They (the compromises) are unworkable and unjust, and can increase the risk to children. So-called compromises would lead to greater legal ambiguity, professional uncertainty and parental confusion," the alliance has stated on its website.
The alliance was formed in 1998 after the European Court ordered the British government to pay '10,000 (1US$=Pound 0.56) in compensation to a boy who was repeatedly caned by his stepfather. Prosecution of the stepfather in Britain had failed on the grounds that the punishment was "reasonable chastisement". Currently, under Common Law, any parent or guardian can use this defence of "reasonable chastisement" if they are brought before the courts accused of physically harming a child.
Since that European Court ruling, the Children Are Unbeatable! alliance has been gathering more and more backing for its arguments and 12 European countries (including Austria, Croatia, Finland, Sweden, Ukraine, Romania), have passed legislation that gives children equal protection from assault.
One of the more prominent members of Children Are Unbeatable! is British charity National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). "Hitting children is as unacceptable as hitting anyone else, and the law should say so," said an NSPCC spokesperson. "If the law sends out a clear and unambiguous message that all hitting of children is wrong, it would help us to create a culture of non-violence in the family home," she added. The NSPCC advocates "positive discipline" building on a child's innate desire to please.
Hitting, by contrast, risks psychological damage and creating a spiral of violence, it says. "Violence can also breed violence. Teaching children that hitting is an appropriate way of resolving conflict can contribute towards a more violent society," the spokesperson said.
While it might bring about compliance in the immediate term, the fact that physical violence does not effect any permanent positive change is borne out, the NSPCC says, by the fact that parents who smack usually have to do so repeatedly - and probably harder and harder.