My position is simple. It is never okay to assault a child for the purposes of punishment. That’s why I commend John Finnie for introducing his Member’s Bill to remove the defence of ‘justifiable assault’ from the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003.
To allow the assault of children goes against Scotland's basic values of human dignity and respect for children. The United Nations, Council of Europe and other international human rights bodies have been unequivocal – a child’s right to protection from violence and to equal protection under the law means that states must enact legislation which prohibits, without exception, all forms of corporal punishment of children in all settings.
Scotland is one of the last countries in Europe to amend its law to protect children. We need only look for a positive example to one of our nearest neighbours, Ireland, who banned physical punishment of children in 2015. I welcome the fact that we now have broad political support for a change which is long overdue. The Church of Scotland, Police Scotland, many health professionals and organisations across Scotland who work with children and families are also in support.
It is worth remembering that removing the defence of ‘justifiable assault’ will not create a new criminal offence; most forms of physical assault against children are already against the law. This change will simply ensure that children in Scotland enjoy the same protections as adults from violent punishment.
Since the Children and Young People’s Commissioner’s office was established in 2004, we along with many others have consistently called upon the Scottish Government to act to protect children from physical punishment.
There is no such thing as a reasonable level of violence. Legalised violence against children in one context risks tolerance of violence against children generally.
While the Scottish Government has been clear that it does not support the use of physical punishment and prefers to encourage the use of non-violent alternatives for disciplining children, it has only in the last year agreed to live up to its obligations and support the legal change.
In 2015, together with NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Children 1st, we commissioned a review of research on physical punishment which was published as the Equally Protected report. This showed there was a clear link between the use of physical punishment and increased childhood aggression and anti-social behaviour and that rather than improving a child’s behaviour, physical punishment was likely to make it worse.
The research examined and challenged the perception that physical punishment could exist as part of a loving parental relationship: One argument that is brought forward again and again is that physical punishment is not harmful in the context of an otherwise loving and warm family environment. However, the majority of studies that tested this hypothesis found that the harmful effects of physical punishment were the same even when levels of maternal warmth were high. The ‘loving smack’ is a myth.
In the Programme for Government unveiled this week, there was a pledge to continue to work to incorporate the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and we must continue to drive for its full incorporation into Scots law.
Scotland consistently talks about wanting to be the best place in the world for children to grow up, and this can never be the case while adults have more protection in law from violence than children.