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Mrs. Browning: New clause 21 will be subject to a free vote for Conservative Members.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will the hon. Lady declare an interest?

Mrs. Browning: Yes. I have slapped a lot of little legs and I can see a lot of little legs that need slapping tonight. [Laughter.] Line up in the corner and see me afterwards.

I cannot support new clause 21. There are some variations on it in new clause 23, to which the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) spoke. For example, subsection (5) makes an exception in respect of action taken where a child is in immediate danger. That is a sensible addition, but I parted company from her when she invoked the idea that corporal punishment was necessarily akin to child abuse or violence with long-reaching psychological effects. She mentioned, as did the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the European dimension. I should like to put on record the position on corporal punishment based on case law in the European Court. The European Court of Human Rights has consistently ruled that there is nothing inherently inhuman or degrading about physical correction. In its judgment on a case concerning school corporal discipline, it declared:

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    "a particular level of severity"

had to be reached for a punishment to be in breach of the European convention on human rights. The judgment went on to say:


    "factors such as the nature and context of the punishment, the manner and method of its execution, its duration, its physical and mental effects and, in some instances, the sex, age and state of health"

of the child being disciplined must all be taken into account. That judgment was in the case of Costello- Roberts v. the United Kingdom in 1993.

4.45 am

Furthermore, article 2, protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights requires states to


I am concerned about the spirit of new clauses 21 and 23 not because I advocate the flogging of children--certainly not--but because there could be a dangerous read-across from schools to the rights of parents to smack. At present, if corporal punishment is practised in an independent school, parents have an opportunity to say whether they are in support of it or not and make an appropriate choice.

I jokingly said to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) that I had smacked a lot of little legs. I have to say to the hon. Member for Colne Valley--perhaps I failed as a parent in this--that when a child of two or three tries to run into the road, you can point out the dangers to him, but there comes a point at which a slap on the leg prevents the child coming into danger. I advocate the parents' right to exercise that type of discipline in the child's own interest. It would be a great concern if the new clauses were accepted and that subsequently led to a diminution of the rights of parents. I am not talking about flogging; I am talking simply about the slap on the legs that many parents feel is necessary in the interests of the child's safety.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): Not many things would get me on my feet in this place at 4.45 am, especially when I have to be on my feet again at 9.30 am for another debate. Having seen what corporal punishment does to people in a secondary modern school, however, I feel deeply that we should move ahead this morning in the way outlined in new clause 23.

The current situation is ludicrous and anomalous. I am grateful that the Government are prepared to listen to arguments that this nonsense should be removed. My central point is that corporal punishment simply does not work. That was my experience at secondary modern school. I urge any hon. Members here who advocate retaining corporal punishment to look at the punishment books of schools that still use corporal punishment, or of those, like my own, which used it in the past. The same names appeared week in and week out--the same boys and the same girls. That is the most obvious evidence that it does not work.

Mr. Robathan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hinchliffe: I will not take interventions. The hon. Gentleman can make his own points at the appropriate time.

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After listening to the comments that have been made so far, I should like those hon. Members who argue for the retention of corporal punishment in schools to define the difference between legitimate corporal punishment and child abuse. I say that because I have had the experience on more than one occasion of having to define that difference in a juvenile court. I used to work in a social services department.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) talked about slapping legs. When one slaps legs, occasionally one marks a child. I have had to go to court and give evidence in cases where children who have received corporal punishment have been marked. I should like to hear a clear definition of what is child abuse and what is not; what is legitimate corporal punishment and what is abuse. I suspect that no one here can define that difference, which is why we have to grasp the nettle tonight and get rid of this nonsense once and for all.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hinchliffe: I have made it clear that I am not giving way. I intend to conclude shortly.

This country is looked upon by other European countries as an anachronistic regime living in a historical time warp, because we still permit corporal punishment. I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), and I hope that a time will come when we do not hit our children but look for alternative methods of discipline. I plead guilty to having occasionally slapped my children when they were younger. I recognise now that that was not the right approach. There are alternative ways, and I hope that the Government, who are making efforts in this respect, will help parents to find those other ways of ensuring that their children are disciplined and behave in an appropriate manner.

I welcome the fact that the Government have been prepared to listen to the arguments from Back Benchers on the Government Benches and the Liberal Democrat Benches and even, I suspect, from several hon. Members on the Conservative Benches who feel uneasy about the current position. I hope that, in a free vote tonight, hon. Members will support new clause 23.

Mr. Nicholls: I hope that I do not embarrass Labour Members too much by joining them in the Lobby later tonight. Of all the arguments I have heard tonight for abolishing corporal punishment in independent schools, the one that I find utterly unconvincing--almost, but not quite, to the extent that it might make me change the way I vote--is that we must do it because otherwise we would be out of step with Europe. We are having a debate in Westminster, in our own sovereign Parliament; we should make up our own minds, one way or the other, for better or for worse, about how we feel about this issue. We should make a decision and be prepared to justify it to ourselves and to our constituents.

The idea that, even at this time of the morning, we should troop up and cravenly say that, simply because Europe is out of step with the United Kingdom, we should follow Europe, is one that I find demeaning and insulting. In saying that, I hope that, to a certain extent, I have been able to do something to save the embarrassment of Labour Members who will, I suspect, find me with them in the Lobby when we vote on the new clause.

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The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was perfectly straightforward in stating how he felt about smacking children, but he is wrong. It is frankly ludicrous to say that one can persuade a two-and-a-half-year-old child not to run out into a road simply by saying, "We're going to reason with you and discuss other forms of disciplinary sanction with you." That is complete and utter nonsense, although I accept that that is how the hon. Gentleman feels. The crucial point is that, even though the hon. Gentleman disagrees with it, it is not slapping in that context that has made him table his new clause. What animated the hon. Gentleman was what I would call ritualised flogging, which is what we are actually talking about.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). My memory is imperfect, but although I do not think that we went to the same school, I am pretty sure that we suffered the same experience. I do not know whether we are going to hear from my hon. Friends some sort of nostalgia for the good old days. I wonder whether they will say, "Well, I got beaten at school and it didn't do me any harm"--[Interruption.] The House can draw its own conclusions about whether it did any harm to those among my hon. Friends who may say that.

My point is that I can remember the state of boys who were beaten at my prep school. I regularly saw marks put on their backs. That was not something out of "Whacko", as some of my colleagues will know. I am talking about boys of 10, 11 or 12 who, as a result of perfectly routine, not particularly excessive, beating, were bruised, cut and bleeding in a way that even I--this should cheer Labour Members up--find utterly unacceptable. I did not think that it was right then and I do not think it is right now. That is what we are talking about--that is what is before the House this morning.


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