Martin Crewe says that Scotland has moved on from the smacking debate, as plans to offer children protection from assault progress
Today is a significant landmark for children's rights in Scotland - the last Parliamentary evidence session for Stage 1 of the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill. It is fitting that weeks of evidence to the Parliament's Equalities and Human Rights Committee is concluded with appearances by John Finnie MSP, who lodged his original proposal for the bill in May 2017, and Maree Todd MSP the Minister for Children & Young People.
Barnardo's Scotland, along with other children's organisations, has campaigned for many years for 'justifiable assault' of children to be removed from our statute books. In 2015 we published comprehensive evidence for the change along with our coalition partners Children 1st, NSPCC Scotland and the Children’s Commissioner. Our Equally Protected? report drew heavily on international experience and a highlight of the recent Parliamentary process was hearing from Jillian van Turnhout, a passionate children’s right advocate and the former Senator who successfully introduced similar legislation in Ireland.
We have seen overwhelming support for the bill from professional organisations representing health, education, social work, Police and legal bodies. Political and media support has also been strong. In the original consultation on John Finnie's Bill 75% of the 660 responses were supportive.
However, when similar debates were had as part of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 the response was very different. Most of the media was hostile and public opinion polls suggested that legislation would be unwelcome and unworkable. The possibility of criminalising parents was of more concern than children's rights.
So what's changed in the intervening 16 years? The simple answer is that society has. There is much wider knowledge of positive parenting approaches and a recognition that children thrive in safe and nurturing environments. In addition, international evidence has shown that legislative change does not result in increased prosecutions of parents but it does facilitate positive culture change.
At the same time, the opposing voices have become more marginalised and desperate. The argument that parents should be permitted to administer a 'light tap' to ensure their children learn to avoid risky situations suggests a cool and rational approach to discipline which bears little resemblance to reality. I think most of us recognise that physical punishment is far more likely to happen when the parent is feeling stressed and out of control.
I am glad to say that we have now largely moved on from the 'smacking debate'. The tired argument that 'it never did me any harm' has been effectively countered by many adults who recount the opposite reaction of having felt humiliated and resentful about being physically punished.
It now looks likely that the bill will progress through the Scottish Parliament and become law in 2020. Similar legislation is being proposed in the Welsh Assembly to a similar timescale. Hopefully England will follow suit before too long.
We know from experience (such as when the belt was banned in Scottish schools in 1987) that there will be some stark warnings about a resulting breakdown in discipline and an explosion of unruly children if this legislation is passed. In reality what this will do is take us one step further down the path towards a Scotland that is less violent and more respectful of our children. We are proud to have championed this bill along with our partners and will continue to support its successful implementation.
Martin Crewe is director of Barnardo’s Scotland