The international evidence could not be any clearer – physical punishment has the potential to damage children and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.2 ambition is to “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children”, with specific reference to the physical punishment of children.
In the global context, 52 states have legally prohibited the physical punishment of children in all settings.
The UK is one of six European Union member states without full prohibition in legislation, and one of only four without any commitment to law reform.
The 2016 concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) urged the UK and devolved governments to: prohibit as a matter of priority all corporal punishment in the family, including through the repeal of all legal defences, such as “reasonable chastisement”.
Societal attitudes towards the physical punishment of children have been changing in the UK.
An international review, Equally Protected? A review of the evidence commissioned by NSPCC Scotland, Children 1st, Barnardo’s Scotland and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, found that the prevalence of the use of physical punishment was in decline and that physical punishment was less acceptable now.
The review highlighted the negative consequences of physical punishment, including increased childhood aggression, antisocial behaviour and the effect on children’s emotional and mental health.
Legal reform in prohibiting physical punishment has not increased prosecutions of parents or carers.
The Republic of Ireland achieved legal reform in 2015, and evidence suggests there have been no changes in their rates of prosecution. In New Zealand, an independent review of legal reform in 2007 did not alter agencies existing thresholds for taking action relating to child safety and wellbeing.
So while concerns about unnecessary criminalisation of parents are understandable, the international evidence indicates that these concerns have not materialised in practice.
There are also worries that public services (such as police and social work) will be overwhelmed by allegations of physical punishment, and this will impact on the other important work they carry out.
It is sensible to expect an initial increase in reports to public services, in line with increased public awareness of the issue from the media and campaigns. However, there is no evidence suggesting that legal reform is likely to lead to services becoming overwhelmed.
The Republic of Ireland’s children and families agency reported slight increases initially in concerns coming to their attention, but they were easier to respond to in light of the new legal context.
Additionally, evidence suggests that legal reform accelerates the decline in use of physical punishment, further decreasing the risk that services will be overwhelmed as physical punishment becomes less prevalent.
Legislation is one very important step, but in isolation the impact will be limited. Regular public awareness campaigns on the merits of positive parenting and the harm caused by physical punishment are needed accompanied by non-stigmatising parenting strategies, advice and support.
There needs to be a concerted effort to promote positive and non-violent forms of discipline and respect for children’s equal right to human dignity and physical integrity.
There is a will in Scotland, now we have started to pave the way for the way for the rest of the UK.