4. Memorandum from Families First
Families First is a family advocacy organisation,
committed to supporting parents and children in the family unit.
It supports the rights and responsibilities of parents to protect
and guide their children and to bring them up in a reasonable
manner according to their religious and philosophical convictions.
We understand that the Joint Committee on Human
Rights is currently preparing its response to the report of the
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and will be
reviewing the reasonable chastisement defence in this context.
We are also advised that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is
in the course of considering the case for a children's commissioner
for England. We shall comment on each of these in turn.
1. THE UN COMMITTEE'S
It is important to bear in mind that, contrary
to the impression given in some sections of the media, the United
Kingdom was not being singled out for criticism by the United
Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in its concluding
observations released at its thirty-first session in October 2002.
The Committee's recommendations were entirely predictable, following
the same pattern as reports addressed to other countries.
In responding to the committee's charge that
the United Kingdom is failing to comply with the requirements
of the Convention in a number of areas, we would observe that
the committee is imposing some extreme interpretations on the
Convention as a means of promoting a somewhat radical social agenda.
Certainly the committee has consistently pursued a course which
goes way beyond what was in the minds of the original framers
of the Convention, and far beyond what most states would have
understood the Convention to mean when it was originally ratified.
The Convention itself is framed in very broad
terms. For example, the committee argues that an absolute ban
on all physical correction of children is required by Article
19 of the Convention. But in reality, the Convention states that
children should be protected from "all forms of physical
or mental violence, injury or abuse." It does not say anything
about parental discipline at all. Similarly, in its insistence
that homosexual and transsexual young people should receive information,
support and protection to enable them to "live their sexual
orientation", in its recommendation that contraception should
be made available to schoolchildren free of charge, and in its
call for the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act
1986, the Committee is going beyond the requirements of the Convention.
We would also note that the committee is not
consistent in its view of children. There is a strange anomaly
in the report in that at the same time as calling for an absolute
ban on all physical correction of children, the committee is also
pressing for a considerable rise in the minimum age for criminal
responsibility. On the one hand the committee wants children to
be treated exactly the same as adults, while on the other, it
wants them to be treated differently. The message being conveyed
is that children should have adult rights but not adult responsibilities.
We have three main concerns about the committee's
it is seeking to impose an unproven
philosophy of childhood on every country in the world in a way
that fails to respect the social, cultural, religious and philosophical
factors which shape each family;
it is undermining parents and the
autonomy of the family. It is striking that in its 17-page report,
the Committee focuses exclusively on the responsibility of the
state for children, without giving any recognition to the role
and responsibilities of their parents or of the family unit; and
it does not promote harmony within
the home to think, speak and act in terms of the "rights"
of one family member over against another, whether the family
members are adults or children.
2. PHYSICAL CORRECTION
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of
the Child considers that the "reasonable chastisement"
defence represents "a serious violation of the dignity of
the child". No supporting evidence is supplied to substantiate
this view which appears to reflect a predetermined ideological
commitment. The committee goes on to call for blanket legislation
against all forms of physical punishment as a matter of "urgency"
and suggests that corporal punishment is a negative and violent
form of discipline.
On the basis of the experience of generations
of parents and recent academic research findings, Families First
rejects the notion that all forms of corporal discipline are negative
and violent, and constitute a violation of a child's human dignity
and physical integrity. We are enclosing along with this submission
a copy of our paper Not Without Reason: The place of physical
correction in the discipline of children, which we submitted
to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in
advance of its day of general discussion on "Violence against
children within the family and in schools" in June 2001.
This paper addresses the emotive language frequently employed
by campaigners who wish to impose their own unproven philosophy
on all other parents by force of law and draws on research findings
which demonstrate the positive benefits of appropriate physical
correction used in conjunction with reason and in the context
of a warm relationship where the child is valued and cherished.
The committee's call for "public education
programmes on the negative consequences of corporal punishment"
is once again based on assumptions arising from its own ideology
and its failure to draw any distinction between physical correction
administered with care and in a controlled way on the one hand,
and severe, uncontrolled, erratic and violent actions on the other.
Mr Denham, the Minister for Young People, appeared to be under
a similar misapprehension when in his evidence to the Committee,
he suggested that "good parenting" avoided "the
need for physical punishment".
Like cars, computers, knives and needles, physical
punishment may be misused, but not all use is misuse. While there
may be a place for public education to discourage the improper
use of physical sanctions and encouraging their proper use, there
is no basis for stigmatising it and rejecting its use wholesale.
Indeed, in many situations it is arguably a more kind and merciful
response than other approaches which may be more drawn-out or
risk causing emotional damage. We fully endorse a statement issued
by the Children and Young People's Unit:
"The Government is absolutely opposed to
violence and abuse against children. The law only allows what
is reasonable in terms of the physical punishment of childrenit
does not permit child abuse. We recognise that parenting can be
difficult, but we must avoid heavy-handed intrusion into family
life. The Convention refers to the protection of children from
physical violence and maltreatment. The Government is satisfied
that UK law is in line with these provisions.
"We believe our policy reflects common sense
views of the vast majority of people. It is not only wrong but
dangerous to link smacking and child abuse deaths. It diverts
attention from those children most at risk."
By putting this issue high on its agenda, the
children's rights lobby is misrepresenting the concerns of children.
As Mr Denham commented in his evidence before the Joint Human
Rights Committee in November 2002, children are far more concerned
about other issues such as their experience of being victims of
crime in the streets. Certainly children do not enjoy being corrected,
whether physically or otherwise, but where physical correction
is used in response to the child's misbehaviour in a moderate,
careful and consistent manner, it is accepted as a consequence
of wrongdoing, does not cause resentment and, indeed, is often
preferable to the child than more protracted disciplinary strategies.
It is not the case that the United Kingdom is
"very much out of step on corporal punishment visa"vis
the rest . . . of western Europe" and "out of step with
most other advanced democracies" (Joint Committee on Human
Rights, 18 November 2002, para 96). The fact is that only a small
minority of advanced democracies in Europe and beyond have legislated
against the physical correction of children. The Children are
Unbeatable alliance claims that corporal punishment has been outlawed
in nine European states. In reality, this appears to be an exaggerated
claim, as Swedish lawyer Ruby Harrold-Claesson shows in her article,
Smacking and the Lawa European Perspective, which
we enclose as an appendix to this submission. However, even if
the claims of the Children are Unbeatable alliance could be substantiated,
it would still leave the United Kingdom very much in step with
the majority of our European partners and with most other advanced
Sweden is frequently held up as an example of
a country which has successfully introduced legislation against
the use of parental physical correction. However, a paper by Dr
Robert Larzelere, of the University of Nabraska Medical Center
shows that there has been a major increase in the rate of child
abuse in Sweden since the law was changed in 1979. Dr Larzelere
also notes that while the number of assaults on children under
the age of seven has remained low and relatively stable, "perpetration
of criminal assaults against seven to 14 year-olds is increasing
most rapidly among those who were brought up after the law against
smacking was passed." A copy of Dr Larzelere's paper Sweden:
Data does not support success claims, is attached to this
During the course of the meeting with Mr Denham
on 18 November 2002, reference was made to a MORI poll in 1999
which found that 73% of respondents "said that they would
back a change in the law to abolish physical punishment if they
could be sure that parents would not be prosecuted for trivial
smacks." The poll in question was commissioned by the Children
are Unbeatable alliance and press-released by Barnado's under
the heading, "Poll shows strong parental support for anti-smacking
law". From the media coverage the following day, one might
have gained the impression that there had been a radical overnight
change in public opinion against smacking. But what Barnado's
omitted to tell the press and media was that there had been a
preamble to the questions asked which stated:
"We would like to ask you some questions
about corporal punishment of children. The Government has agreed
that the law should be changed to give children better protection.
In eight European countries children have the same protection
under the law on assault as adults and more countries are now
following suit. This means that hitting children is against the
law in these countries, just as it is against the law to hit an
adult. However, parents are not prosecuted for trivial smacks,
nor are they prevented from restraining their children for safety
Few of those surveyed would have realised that
the organisation behind the questions equated a moderate and reasonable
smack with "hitting" and "assault". Mention
of the word "assault" conjures up images of the bully
down the street gratuitously lashing out. To most people it does
not relate to a loving mother correcting a child for telling lies
or for wilful disobedience. Immediately after listening to such
a disarming preamble, the 1,035 respondents were asked the following
"If you could be sure parents would not
be prosecuted for trivial smacks, would you support or oppose
children having the same legal protection against assault as adults?"
Not surprisingly, 73% were in favour of such
legal protection, rising to 78% among parents with dependent children.
However, that is quite a different matter from saying that three-quarters
of the general public think children should be protected by law
from being physically disciplined by their parents! The fact that
respondents did not really mean anything of the sort is confirmed
by their responses to another question, when only 37% either "strongly
disagreed" (12%) or "tended to disagree" (25%)
with the proposition that "smacking children is a good way
of improving their behaviour". However, Barnado's chose not
to highlight these statistics in their press release.
Similar caution needs to be taken with surveys
undertaken by the NSPCC. Following an opinion poll conducted in
February 2002, the NSPCC is also claiming that the majority of
parents now support legal reform against smacking. But the truth
is that they did not ask what people thought about smacking; they
asked how people felt about "hitting" childrenwhich
is an altogether different question. It is rather like asking
whether doctors should be allowed to stab their patients. Everyone
would say "no" to that, but it would be dishonest to
draw the conclusion that there was overwhelming public support
for a legal ban on inoculations!
The use of a disciplinary smack by a loving
parent in response to a child's unacceptable behaviour is no more
a violent assault than the use of a needle and syringe in a hospital
or a doctor's surgery. In both cases any pain is accompanied by
an explanation and is done with a positive end in view. The context
is crucial. Yet, increasingly groups such as Barnado's and the
NSPCC are resorting to emotive language and refusing to take into
account the context or the relationship between a parent and a
child. They fail to recognise any difference between discipline
within the home from a loved and trusted parent and a violent
assault perpetrated by a stranger in the street.
3. THE CASE
The written and oral evidence presented to the
Joint Committee on Human Rights by supporters of a children's
commissioner gives the impression that the appointment of a commissioner
will be the panacea of every childhood and adolescent ill. The
most extravagant claims are made as to what the postholder may
be expected to achieve. But with the best will in the world, no
commissioner will be able to wave a magic wand and solve all children's
complaints, whether they relate to transport, education, the environment,
or the family home, not even with an annual budget well in excess
of the £15 million which the Children's Rights Alliance for
England estimates will be required to fund the office.
We would therefore agree with the Minister when
he commented that there are so many "contesting expectations
of what a children's commissioner will do that it would not be
possible to fulfil all in one office" (Joint Committee on
Human Rights, 18 November para 112).
We are not persuaded that the various children's
organisations who have made submissions to the Committee in favour
of a children's commissioner are at all representative of parents,
who serve as their children's advocates on a daily basis. We would
also question whether a group of young people assembled by the
Children's Rights Alliance for England is likely to be representative
of parents, who serve as their children's advocates on a daily
basis. We would also question whether a group of young people
assembled by the Children's Rights Alliance for England is likely
to be representative of children and young people nationwide.
Children's rights groups, such as Article 12 and Right Here, Right
Now, ostensibly run for children, by children, invariably use
the services of an adult "facilitator" with a very clearly-defined
agenda. There is clearly scope in such groups for adults to manipulate
and use the young people who take part in them for their own ends.
The fact that children and young people are
not a homogenous group who share common interests and concerns,
raises questions about which children and young people the commissioner
would be representing. We would suggest that it is far better
that parents should be left to represent the best interests of
their own children, rather than create an unnecessary layer of
Quite apart from the unrepresentative character
of the group of children and young people who appeared before
the committee, their expectations of a children's commissioner
were as unrealistic as those found in the evidence of their adult
counterparts. Several of the witnesses seemed to envisage being
able to enjoy a one-to-one relationship with a member of the commissioner's
team, who would always be available and accessible to them as
One witness expressed the hope:
"By introducing a Children's Rights Commissioner,
he or she would set up offices all over the country. Children
and young people would be able to drop into these offices and
say if there were problems and things that needed to happen. These
offices would report back to the Commissioner and the Commissioner
would have the power to tell the government that this or that
needed doing . . . Children and young people would also be able
to drop into the offices to have their say."
"A colourful, child-friendly, relaxed environment
will encourage young people to give their advice to the Commissioner
and nice, friendly staff will boost the trust of children and
young people. Young people will feel confident because they will
actually get the chance to be taken seriously."
In reality, of course, no statutory office will
ever be able to satisfy these longings for personal care and intimacy.
Such needs can only be met within a loving family environment.
A children's commissioner will always be a poor substitute for
a father or mother who is always "there" for his or
It is difficult to see what a children's commissioner
could do for children in terms of addressing particular needs
that is not being achieved by existing agencies. As one of the
young people observed, children and young people already have
a number of places to go for help if they do have problems:
"These include charities such as the NSPCC,
Barnado's and the Children's Society. The list goes on. There
are also many telephone support lines such as ChildLine."
In mentioning these organisations which exist
to support and counsel children with particular problems, we should
not lose sight of the fact that the majority of children find
their parents adequate to meet all their requirements and do not
feel any need to call on outside agencies.
If some of the hope that have been entertained
about a children's commissioner have been unrealistic, others
are undesirable. For example, Peter Newell in his oral evidence
to the committee expressed the view that a commissioner would
act swiftly to ensure the passage of legislation against al physical
correction of children:
"Another issue that is obviously of great
importance to the children is the lack of an equal right to protection
under the law on assault, the whole smacking issue. Here again
I do not think it would take very long for the commissioner to
convince Government that children do have the same right as the
rest of us to respect for their physical integrity and human dignity
and the right to equal protection under the law."
In this connection, we were concerned to read
in the first annual report of the children's commissioner for
Wales, the following section on "physical punishment":
"I strongly support the campaign to remove
the defence of reasonable chastisement from UK law . . . Smacking
carries with it an inbuilt tendency towards an escalation of violence.
There have been cases of beatings with belts and pieces of wood
having been deemed acceptable in the British courts, treatment
that would probably have been successfully prosecuted if the victims
I believe that a country that still allows babies
to be hit, and that views assault on young people as acceptable,
is not one in which we are likely to get very far in partnership
with our young. Attempts to assure young people that we do respect
them are comprehensively undermined by a law that says they are
the only group in our society who can be struck with impunity.
In my opinion, physical chastisement should be deemed "inhumane
or degrading treatment" under article 19 of the UN Convention.
Research from other countries that have outlawed physical punishment
is quite clear, and positive. My office will continue to campaign
for the basic right of children not to be assaulted by adults."
It is a matter of some concern to see the holder
of a statutory office using emotive language about "violence",
"beatings with belts and pieces of wood", "hitting",
"striking with impunity" and "assault" in
connection with reasonable chastisement. The suggestion that "smacking
carries with it an inbuilt tendency towards an escalation of violence"
and that the use of physical correction is incompatible with respect
for children is deeply offensive and represents a gross injustice
to generations of caring parents who have physically disciplined
their children precisely because they loved and respected them
too much to neglect their unacceptable behaviour or resort to
more emotionally traumatic methods. Also, the research from other
countries which have legislated against all physical correction
is by no means as clear as the commissioner for Wales suggests,
as has been demonstrated by Dr Larzelere in the article referred
We might have hoped for a more objective and
dispassionate approach to this issue, although the line taken
in Wales conforms to an emerging pattern in other parts of the
world, where children's commissioners have fairly consistently
undermined the authority of parents and increasingly encroached
upon the privacy of the family. We believe there is reason to
fear that a children's commissioner for England might, in time
have his powers extended with the same undesirable effect. Such
is certainly the hope of Peter Newell, who has long campaigned
for a children's commissioner and currently serves as chairman
of the Children's Rights Alliance for England.
In his oral evidence before the committee, Mr
"Whether the commissioner should have a
right of access to the family home, that seems to me something
that within this country we are not ready for and if we advocate
it at this point it would probably delay us having a children's
commissioner for many more years."
Mr Newell clearly supports the commissioner's
right of access to the family home in principle, though in the
interests of political expediency he is prepared to wait for the
full realisation of this goal.
We therefore have serious reservations about
the appointment of a children's commissioner for England. We are
concerned that such an appointment would progressively undermine
parents, and could have the effect of setting parents against
their children and children against their parents, with disastrous
consequences for families. When parents are not valued, they will
tend to neglect their responsibilities, and look to others to
deliver. This will not serve the best interests of children. One
thing that comes across very clearly from the oral evidence of
the young people before the committee is that they are longing
to be special to someone. They want to be valued and loved. Such
a relationship will never be found in any impersonal office, but
only in a loving family.