updated 11/2/2004 2:35:07 PM ET 2004-11-02T19:35:07

After a passionate debate in the House of Commons, British lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday against banning parents from spanking their children.

Some lawmakers argued that even mild spanking should be outlawed and insisted children should have the same legal protection as adults when it comes to being hit.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has shied away from an outright ban, fearing it will be accused of intruding into family affairs. Instead, ministers urged lawmakers to back legislation that would allow mild smacking but make it easier to prosecute parents who harm a child physically or mentally.

Lawmakers voted by 424-75 against an outright ban. They will vote later on the government proposal.

“There is a world of difference between a light smack and violent abuse,” said Minister for Children Margaret Hodge. Arguing against a ban, she said it would “leave parents wondering if a trivial smack would land them in prison.”

“A total ban on smacking could potentially criminalize most parents in this country,” Hodge added.

Britain is out of step on the issue with several European countries, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Austria, where all physical punishment of children is illegal.

The current law in Britain dates to 1860, when a judge ruled physical punishment of children should be allowed as a “reasonable chastisement.”

Campaigners say the ruling is ambiguous and two parliamentary committees have said it is too often used as a legal defense to excuse violent behavior.

Labour lawmaker David Hinchliffe offered an amendment to the government’s Children’s Bill calling for a total ban.

“It is a scandal and a disgrace that in 21st century Britain at least one child every week, over 80 every year, dies at the hands of their parents” or caregivers, the former social worker told the Commons.

“I have witnessed in individual cases the progression from what is now being called gentle smacking to serious injury and, in a couple of instances, death from shaking, hitting, punching and beating.”

The government urged lawmakers to back a clause in its legislation that would allow moderate spanking, but remove the “reasonable chastisement” defense if parents harmed a child physically or mentally. Lawmakers were denied a free vote on Hinchliffe’s amendment and faced disciplinary measures if they backed it.

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