For centuries corporal punishment was a daily threat for British schoolboys. But the teacher’s much-feared cane, strap, slipper and birch were all laid to rest 6 years ago. And as the United Kingdom edges closer to its European allies, it is taking the ban into the home. Well, almost. The House of Lords passed a compromise bill this week that has left most parents confused — it says they can hit their kids, but not too hard.
Under the current Children Bill, British parents can defend striking their children with a hand or cane using the defense of “reasonable chastisement,” a clause which dates back to 1860.
But the new bill, which was passed by the Lords on Monday and will be debated in the Commons this fall, says that the 144-year-old defense cannot be used in cases where a child has been physically harmed.
Under the measure, parents could be jailed for up to five years if their actions result in grazes, scratches, minor swelling, cuts, abrasions, or bruises. Reddening of the skin would be permitted but only if it were transitory.
The bill was passed by 226 to 91 votes after peers overwhelmingly rejected a total ban on spanking.
The vote came as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government floated proposals to prohibit public smoking and clamp down on junk food advertising to reduce rising levels of obesity.
Fearing accusations of turning the country into a “nanny state,” Blair strongly opposed the blanket ban on spanking. Had the Lords passed the bill, Downing Street vowed to throw it out before it could become law.
“I know, as a parent, if your child is really naughty, you will want to smack them,” Blair said during an interview on BBC Radio 2 this week.
But, when asked if he spanked his youngest son, four-year-old Leo, he said: “With the little one I feel a bit different now.”
‘Dangerous and misleading message’
While the bill is intended to give children more protection, rights groups argue that it condones abuse and generates confusion.
"The fact is that this amendment will not fully protect children. It still sends out a dangerous and misleading message that violence towards children is safe and acceptable,” said Mary Marsh, Director and Chief Executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Children should have “the same protection under the law on assault as adults enjoy – no more and no less,” said Tony Samphier, Media Communications Officer for Children are Unbeatable.
“(The bill) will lead to greater legal ambiguity, professional uncertainty and parental confusion,” Samphier told MSNBC.com in an e-mail interview.
The day after the vote, front-page headlines read: “Police warn of smacking law chaos,” and “Parents face dilemma after smacking vote.”
“Having spent 10 years as a criminal prosecutor, I know the difficulty it is going to cause,” Roger Smith, of the Christian charity Care, which opposes the ban, told The Guardian newspaper.
“You are looking for some form of physical evidence of bodily harm. But depending on when you see the result of the smack, whether it’s five minutes after — when the skin is red — or 24 hours after when it isn’t, then you would have a different prosecution decision,” he said.
European Court demands U.K. review
The ongoing review of the “reasonable chastisement” law was forced upon the government by the European Court of Human Rights.
In 1998, the court ruled that a 9-year-old British boy whose step-father beat him with a cane had had his rights infringed.
The court said Britain had violated a provision of the European Convention on Human Rights that bars torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
The same year, the United Kingdom became the last country in the European Union to forbid caning in schools. Although corporal punishment had been prohibited in public schools a decade earlier, it was not outlawed in private institutions until 1998.
Across the English Channel, 12 European countries have made it illegal for parents to spank their children -- Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Romania, Sweden, and Ukraine. Spanking is also prohibited in Israel and the Supreme Court of Italy banned corporal punishment in families in 1996.
Asked if a ban on spanking was inevitable in light of European legislation on the issue, the Prime Minister’s Office responded on Monday, “We continued to maintain the position that protected the right of a parent to smack their own child. Other countries might have different rules. That was a matter for them.”
In contrast to Europe’s laws, only one U.S. state prohibits spanking — Minnesota — due to a series of provisions that when read together make physical punishment by parents prosecutable as assault.
In addition, corporal punishment is allowed in schools in 22 states, and a handful of states allow physical punishment of children in family day care, group homes and institutions, at state-regulated day care centers, and in family foster care.
While Blair hopes to take the middle ground on spanking legislation, the bill looks set to make more waves when it hits the House of Commons later this year.