Northern Ireland

Children’s doctors call on Stormont to change Northern Ireland’s ‘unjust and dangerous’ smacking laws

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health say the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ when physically punishing a child by slapping, smacking or hitting should be removed

Parenting NI and the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland call for a complete ban of smacking and other forms of physical punishment in order to give children living here the same protection as their counterparts across Europe

Children’s doctors have called for an end to “unjust and dangerous” smacking laws in Northern Ireland and England.

Following on from Monday’s report on spiralling waiting lists for children, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has said children and young people deserve the same legal protection as adults against physical assaults.

Parents in Northern Ireland and England can currently use the defence of “reasonable punishment” to justify physically punishing a child in certain circumstances, such as slapping, smacking or hitting.

In a new report, the RCPCH say there is now a legal case to introduce legislation to remove this.

They state that children who experience physical punishment are nearly three times more likely to develop poorer mental health and over twice as likely to experience serious physical assault and abuse.

Physical punishment is also said to increase the likelihood of behavioural problems in childhood, poorer relationships with parents and family and instances of aggression in later life.

Scotland is among more than 60 other countries credited with making the law change which fully protect children’s rights to be protected from violence, with 27 further countries committed to reforming their laws to achieve a complete legal ban.

Stormont’s health and education ministers have now been urged to remove the reasonable punishment defence from Northern Ireland law.

All political parties in England and Northern Ireland have also been urged to include this in their party manifesto ahead of the next general election, with the next UK government to commit to introducing the legislation at an early stage with a pledge in the King’s speech.

Dr Ray Nethercott, RCPCH officer for Ireland, said: “This report lays out the lays out once and for all the health, education, and legal case for removing the ‘reasonable punishment’ defence in Northern Ireland and England.

“Smacking a child is not a necessary nor harmless form of discipline.

“In fact, we have endless evidence which shows the extensive harm that smacking has on a child, including the learned belief that violence is accepted or even encouraged by society.

“For many children, this belief can lead to further instances of violence and harm later in life.

“We know all too well the intergenerational and cyclical nature of violence, but we also know that these cycles can be broken.”

He continued: “I strongly believe that children in Northern Ireland and England should have the very same rights and protections as their peers in Scotland and Wales.

“By introducing this small legislative change, we can level the playing field for children and young people across the UK, reduce instances of child abuse, and create a safer and healthier society for our children.”

Bess Herbert, advocacy specialist at End Corporal Punishment, said the debate on using physical punishment against children was “settled,” with hundreds of studies showing the negative effects.

She said the experience of 65 other countries to have passed legal reform showed it could play a powerful role in reducing the prevalence of physical punishment and other forms of violence against children, often positively impacting extremely large numbers of children.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said the report focused on a cross-cutting issue relevant to a number of Departments.

They added that any decision to amend the legal position as set out in the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 would require the agreement of the Northern Ireland Executive.

“The Department of Health continues to play an important role in supporting parents and carers of children and young people and in particular to promote positive parenting behaviours,” they said.

“A range of family and parenting support services are already available across Northern Ireland, funded by the Department of Health. They include investment in the Parentline NI service, the family support online directory of services and the network of 29 Family Support Hubs.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education noted two recommendations in the report, removing the reasonable punishment defence and developing a cross-sector Equal Protection Plan.

“Existing guidance for schools emphasises that corporal punishment is unlawful, and teachers or others are not authorised to use any degree of physical contact which is deliberately intended to cause pain or injury or humiliation,” they said.

“Bringing forward legislation or plans relating to the use of reasonable punishment outside educational settings is beyond the powers of the Department of Education and would be matters for other relevant Departments to consider, with input from DE.”