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Why Wales must follow Scotland and make smacking children a crime

After Scotland’s landmark decision Daniel Jones, child protection service manager at Newport City Council, argues the case for passing a similar bill currently going through the Welsh Assembl

Wales smacking ban Scotland
Child protection manager Daniel Jones calls for law change to protect children from smacking

Professional Social Work magazine – 4 October, 2019

Bringing clarity to a situation can only be a good thing surely? Child abuse is child abuse. Here in Wales, the Welsh Government is proposing a change in the law to make the defence of reasonable punishment towards children a thing of the past. The Children Wales Bill, if passed by the National Assembly for Wales and it becomes law, will mean parents and other adults acting in a parental capacity will no longer be able to physically punish children in Wales. It will ensure children here have exactly the same protection under the law as adults.

The grey area is removed overnight. Hitting a child will no longer be permissible or acceptable. As we mark 30 years of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, my main reaction is why has it taken so long to bring this law into the mainstream?

The main concern seems to be within the media about the scale of the challenge for professionals like ourselves to respond to the change in legislation. We don’t get involved with parents who have smacked their children as a one-off now and that won’t change. Children’s services will still focus on significant harm and the impact on the child, undertaking investigations in those most serious of cases. The law does however remove the grey area of what parents can and can’t do with their children and this has got to be welcomed as a positive move forward in the right direction.

Will we be overwhelmed with cases of ‘innocent’ parents being prosecuted for smacking their children? I can’t see this happening. Since they brought in the law to ban smoking in a car with children present, we have yet to see a prosecution. I believe the impact will be seen through a broader opinion shift within society that hitting children as a punishment is not an acceptable behaviour, rather than on our workload. We’re not taking the challenge lightly and have road-tested countless scenarios within our team based on historic cases and those we are dealing with currently. Would the new law have meant we would have done things differently or arrived at different conclusions? In our opinion, no it wouldn’t.

That’s not to say there aren’t misconceptions of our role as social workers and it could be argued that health visitors and those on the frontline may see more impact on their workload. However, in many ways the legislation will help nudge those parents who continue to use physical punishment into seeking alternative coping strategies through positive parenting messages. The focus should be on supporting families to find alternative and positive ways of dealing with their children.

In many ways the tide has already turned in terms of public opinion on the matter and we are already seeing physical punishment tolerated less and less. This in itself is a self-perpetuating cycle, but it doesn’t mean it has gone away. We are seeing too many children facing physical abuse and neglect, but the threshold for section 47 enquiries under this new law will be the same as is already rigorously applied.

It is often difficult to find a baseline from which to judge the efficacy of any legislation. But research carried out on behalf of the Welsh Government published in June found 58 per cent of people surveyed believe it’s already against the law to physically punish children in Wales.

The research also found just 35 per cent of people agreed it would sometimes be necessary to smack a child. The same research showed the level of support for smacking was even lower among those with caring responsibilities – including parents, guardians and family members – for children aged seven or less. Just 28 per cen agreed with the statement that, it was sometimes necessary to smack a child.”

The challenge for all of us will be identifying the real impact of the legislation going forward and the data definitions will need to be clear for us to do so.  

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.