Children Bill [HL]
Baroness Walmsley (Shadow Minister, Home Affairs; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, as one of the movers of Amendment No. 106, I sometimes feel like Alice in Wonderland in a looking-glass world. First, I find myself, on behalf of my party, having to oppose a Back-Bench amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Lester, whom I admire very much. I regret the need to do that, but I do so firmly.
Secondly, I find myself living in a country in which there is a bizarre situation worthy of the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts et al. The common law of this country decriminalises an act which, if committed against an adult, would be a criminal assault, simply on the basis that the victim is a child—and on no other basis. In other words, the person who deserves more protection actually gets less. There is no other situation in law in which a victim of a violent crime or his representative has to prove that he did not deserve to be assaulted.
I also find a fellow NSPCC ambassador, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, opposing the long-standing campaign of that organisation and all the other reputable children's charities representing the interests of children. It is a looking-glass world indeed, and I regret it.
I am proud to be British and I am patriotic, but I am not blind to my country's faults, and today I am trying to do something to redress one of those problems. This country has a culture of violence, and I want to redress the roots of that culture, which I believe lie in the hitting of children.
I agree with those who have said that children are different from adults, but that does not mean that they deserve any less protection under the law of assault. They are different for three reasons—and each reason supports the call for equality, rather than the other way about. First, children are smaller and more vulnerable and need more protection from anyone who seeks to use violence against them, not less. Secondly, they do not know how to behave and need to be taught. Their parents have the right and duty to teach them; they have a duty to teach them in the most effective possible way, but no right to do it in a way that infringes the child's basic human rights.
I am a liberal, like my noble friend, and I believe that we should not interfere in people's private behaviour unless it infringes the basic human rights of someone else. I believe that this is just such a situation, and I am supported in that belief by the United Nations and the European Council, whose assembly called only last week for a ban on all physical punishment in the family and said that it would not interfere with the right to family life.
The third way in which children are different is that they take life very much as they find it. Lacking other experience, they assume that what happens to them is normal and right. If their parents hit them, that is what happens in the world, and they accept it. That is why children who are beaten severely and frequently are usually ominously silent. They no longer cry—they just whimper.
Children know that hitting them does not work. Last week, we saw a presentation in the House from some children, and they made it clear that hitting them teaches them only one thing—that if you want your own way and you are bigger and stronger than someone else, violence can get it for you. We hit our children and they learn that; then they go out and hit their playmates, and we smack them for hitting little Johnny. How illogical is that? Then they grow up and have fights in the pub, or hit their own wives and children. We condemn the one but condone the other. How logical is that?
Violence hurts the child and damages his perception of what is right. It also damages the parent and the relationship between the two, and it damages society. Here in Britain we have a society in which the level of crimes of violence is very high, especially among young people. The whole country seems to think that violence solves things—and it does not. The terrible situation in Iraq should tell us that. We live in a country in which one to two children die from violence or neglect every week. That is the tip of a terrible iceberg. Below the waterline is an enormous amount of violence against children. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, 75 per cent of babies are hit even before they have learned to talk. How can it be reasonable to punish a little baby that does not even know what is right and cannot in any way be expected to? Hitting a child is not the only way in which to teach him how to behave and certainly not the only way in which to teach him about danger—but it does teach him that violence works.
This whole debate has become very legalistic. It has been said that there must be certainty under the law, and there has been a lot of scaremongering about the possibility of prosecuting caring parents, but I hope that your Lordships will listen to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Condon, who should know if anyone does. But I believe that this debate should be about principle, and it saddens me that the Government will not accept the principle of equality.
The fact is that the law of any country should say something about the morals and standards of that country, and what its people believe to be right. The laws of this country say that hitting children can be justified. I believe that that is wrong, and I want the law to be clear in saying that hitting children is just as wrong as hitting adults—no more, no less—and that it should then be as understanding and sensible as it is about trivial assaults on adult victims when parents do not quite live up to that standard. I did not live up to that standard myself, as I have admitted many times in your Lordships' House. However, as with de minimis assaults on adults, the same charging standards should apply before any action is taken.
Every weekend we see assaults on sports fields when tempers rise; they even appear on national television, yet no action is taken. Every Saturday night, fists fly in pubs, yet action is very rarely taken. The Director of Public Prosecutions has made it clear that the interests of the child will be taken into account when establishing the public interest, and there is no public interest in prosecuting caring parents for trivial smacks, however undesirable they are. There, at least, my noble friend Lord Lester quoted me correctly. But the DPP did not endorse my noble friend's amendment. He simply said that taking away the defence of reasonable chastisement for all assaults except common assault was a possibility. He did not suggest that equal protection was unworkable.
My colleagues and I have never claimed that action should be taken every time a frustrated parent who cannot think of anything better to do hits the child he or she loves. We know from the polling on this issue that parents do not want to hit their children and usually regret it when they have done so. I know that I did. But it is not hypocritical to put past mistakes behind one and to move forward and change things, in the light of what we have learned from the experiences of other countries. None of us wants to feel like criminals, but we must realise that when we reach—