‘Protecting Children, Supporting Parents’ (2000)

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 12th February 2002.

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Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 2:00 pm, 12th February 2002

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take note of the outcome of the consultation in England and Wales by the Department of Health on the law on the physical correction of children in their homes, ‘Protecting Children, Supporting Parents’ (2000), which decided not to change the legislation.

Why this motion at this time? The subject is a crucial and emotive one, although it must be said that attendance in the House at the moment might suggest otherwise. However, we know from wider debate on the issue that that is the case. During the debate, there will, no doubt, be tremendous unity on the need to prevent cruelty and abuse of children. That is an aim that we all share. However, there will be differences regarding what is in the long-term interests of children.

The basic motivation for the motion was provided by the Office of Law Reform’s public consultation, which was titled ‘Physical Punishment in the Home’. That document implied that the so-called reasonable chastisement defence, which allows, within limits, parents to smack their children, should be either totally removed or severely qualified. However, in November 2001, during the course of that period of public consultation, which finished a few weeks ago, the Department of Health in London completed its own parallel consultation and decision-making in the same field. It concluded that no legislative change was necessary. My motivation in moving the motion is to urge the Minister of Finance and Personnel to pay strong attention to the decision in London.

My first reason for commending the result of the consultation in London is that the local Office of Law Reform document does not seem to have been genuinely open to all the options. On page 1, the then Minister of Finance and Personnel writes that

"This paper does not take sides".

That statement does not sit well with the subsequent comment on page 38 that

"We must change our law in some way".

Page 52 is emphatic. It states that

"It is clear that the most obvious ways to mitigate the adverse impacts identified and to better promote equality of opportunity would be to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement from our law".

If that is indeed the view of the former Minister of Finance and Personnel, what room is left for consultation that is open to all options, which should logically include the option of leaving the law unchanged?

A second reason to call for note to be taken of the decision of the Department of Health in London is that the use of research and statistical evidence in the Office of Law Reform paper further adds to the impression of a quest for a predetermined outcome. The document specifically asks for views on the evidence presented. Research in 1998 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that 88% of those surveyed across the United Kingdom viewed smacking as sometimes necessary. Contrast that with the survey quoted by the local consultation, in which only 34% were recorded as supporting "physical punishment". In fact, the apparently low level of support in Northern Ireland may have been strongly determined by the way in which the question was worded — "physical punishment such as smacking or hitting". To most people, hitting is much more violent than smacking, hence the much lower figure of support here.

As wide a range of scientific evidence as possible should be considered. In contrast, when on page 10 of the Office of Law Reform’s paper it claims to summarise the evidence on the effects of physical correction of children, it relied entirely, at least as far as the footnotes suggest, on just two academics, Dr Penelope Leach and Prof Christina Lyon.

It is not made clear that both those people have strong links to the lobby favouring the criminalisation of smacking. In 1993 Penelope Leach said:

"Social policy cannot always await rigorous research evidence".

Moreover, their research has been strongly criticised by other academics. Prof Eysenck stated in 1993:

"Leach’s account is too one-sided to form the basis of responsible recommendations to law giving bodies".

I also wonder why the document fails to register the research of other academics such as Dr Baumrind and Dr Larzelere. Dr Baumrind has written a review of the research evidence for the American journal ‘Paediatrics’. She concludes that a blanket injunction against physical punishment by parents is not scientifically supportable. A further review by Dr Larzelere and also published in ‘Paediatrics’ in 1996 found that out of 11 studies of parental discipline most — six — were found to have beneficial outcomes for children, one had a negative outcome and the remainder were neutral.

A further reason for following the Department of Health in London in retaining the reasonable chastisement defence in law is that the A versus the United Kingdom case at the European Court of Human Rights need not imply any further change in the law. That is a fundamental point. In spite of what the Office of Law Reform/ Department of Finance and Personnel document seems to imply, there is no imperative on the Administration in Northern Ireland, any more than its counterparts in London or Edinburgh, to allow a hard case to make bad law.

The 1998 A versus the United Kingdom case is a very peculiar and sad one. The boy known as "A" had allegedly threatened his brother with a knife, and he had also stolen something. His stepfather then beat him on several occasions with a garden cane. At the stepfather’s trial at Lincoln Crown Court in 1994 the jury deemed that the stepfather was using moderate and reasonable punishment. Subsequently, the anti-smacking lobby group, end physical punishment of children (EPOCH), sponsored A’s case in the European Court of Human Rights. The court found that A had been treated in an unacceptable manner under article 3 of the Convention on Human Rights. However, the European judges did not deliver any general pronouncement on the state of the law in England or the UK in this area. The Department of Health summary provided in ‘Protecting Children, Supporting Parents’ (2000), paragraph 4.5 states:

"The Court’s decision was based on the facts of the case before it. The ruling applied to that case only".

There is, therefore, no need to amend existing laws. The laws on assault should have been enough to result in a conviction in the A case, and there is therefore no need to remove the longstanding defence of reasonable chastisement. Moreover, under the Human Rights Act 2000, all UK courts must now take into account judgements from Strasbourg, including the A case. The Office of Law Reform admits that this has already happened in the case of Regina versus H 2001. That court of appeal case, heard in April 2001, developed the common law for England and Wales to take account of the A case.

A further major point is that those who argue for an outright or partial ban on smacking may have misunderstood, or misused, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on equality of opportunity. The Office of Law Reform has a responsibility under section 75 to promote equality of opportunity with respect to age, among other things. As a public body it has that responsibility. The document seems to imply that that responsibility should be read across to the position of parents relative to children. Is that not a fundamental misreading of the purpose of section 75? It neglects the extent to which adults and children are, by definition, unequal in certain key respects.

It is therefore an absurd use of the law to argue that smacking equals inequality and that hence smacking is illegal. Children, unlike parents, are subject to reasonable chastisement. However, they also cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes under a certain age, and nor can they vote, drive or get married.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Not only are children prevented from doing a number of things, but they are also, by virtue of their age, protected by the law as it stands, in a way that adults are not.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I thank the Member for that valid point. Moreover, there is incoherence in the consultation document. On page 16 it seems to favour non-physical methods of correcting children, such as time out, grounding and withdrawal of treats. If it is to correct a child physically, then — with regard to section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 — in due course it will be argued that it is just as unequal and unlawful to correct them by non-physical means. The logic must apply if we start from the premise.

Most parents in Northern Ireland would be appalled at the prospect of legal change that could criminalise the use of moderate and reasonable chastisement. In moving this motion, I oppose the amendment in Ms Lewsley’s name. In that respect, the Governments of Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have proposed bans on smacking, but they are not yet law. We will have to wait and see whether they move in that direction.

The document relied heavily on arguments drawn from human rights and equality, but what about the human rights of many parents who believe in a family ethos where moderate physical chastisement can be used in a loving manner? Of course, no one is defending violent abuse or bodily harm, but I want to defend the human rights of those families who wish to practise moderate physical chastisement. If the law is changed to ban smacking, some of us may have to make the difficult choice between following the law and following our consciences.

The Minister should pay heed to the decision taken by his counterparts in Westminster. As the Minister of State, Department of Health, Jacqui Smith, said on 8 November 2001:

"We do not believe that any further change in the law at this time would be appropriate — it would neither command widespread public support nor be capable of consistent enforcement".

Those points, which are made in the case of England and Wales, apply with equal strength to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have received one amendment to the motion, which is published on the Marshalled List.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment: In line 3, delete all after "Department of Health" and insert

" and also of international practices including those in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, in relation to the law on the physical correction of children in their homes".

I ask the House to support the amendment. It is essential that we identify and analyse models of best practice, current thinking and research in many other jurisdictions, not just England and Wales. We have to consider the development of best practice in line with international standards. The protection of children is of paramount importance in our society, and the issues around the physical punishment of a child have provoked an interesting and wide-ranging debate.

Children should be entitled to the same protection in law as adults. Domestic violence is still a common occurrence here, and witnessing this type of behaviour in the home has a devastating and detrimental effect on children as it can increase violent, aggressive and anti-social behaviour in young people and adults.

In order to best meet the needs of children, we should all approach this issue with a genuine, open mind. That is the duty of the Minister and the Executive. In its consultation paper on physical punishment, the Northern Ireland Office of Law Reform maintains that children require effective discipline and agrees that care and effective discipline will equip them to take their place as mature members of the community.

It is in that context that the issue must be addressed. As Dr Birnie said, the Office of Law Reform is engaged in an open consultation exercise, and the outcome is not predetermined. It is vital that experiences in other countries are taken into account.

With regard to discipline, parents’ discretion is exercised in a framework of legal rules. Any parent who fails to meet a child’s basic needs or mistreats a child can be tried in a criminal court. Although the law already regulates the issue of physical punishment, the established legal standard is problematic. Currently parents are allowed to use chastisement only in a reasonable and moderate manner. Changing the legislation is not enough to change society’s attitudes to parenting and the physical punishment of children.

Increasing knowledge of child development and psychology suggests that effective discipline should aim to stop unacceptable behaviour in the long term and short term by showing children an acceptable alternative way to behave. Effective discipline should help children to take responsibility for their behaviour and to internalise moral values.

In a recent report on physical punishment, the British Medical Association concluded:

"We believe that physical punishment is inefficient, ineffective and harmful in modifying children’s behaviour and that parents should be encouraged and assisted in developing other methods of child discipline."

Court action will not bring Northern Ireland law into compliance with the Government’s full range of human rights obligations, nor with the equality obligations of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. A decision must be made on whether the current law should be abolished or incorporated into a more general statement about families’ rights and responsibilities.

A statement of rights and responsibilities could be constructed to include the responsibilities of both children and parents, similar to that formulated in Austrian law, which was used to declare an end to physical punishment. That statement could be aspirational. Instead of banning physical punishment, the statement could say that parents should aim at not using physical punishment. It could be part of civil law rather than criminal law and be designed to help parents and children know where they stand under the law. A primary duty of the Northern Ireland Government is to promote equality of opportunity between people on the issue of physical punishment. Accordingly, due regard must be given to how to mitigate any equality impact and to how to promote equality of opportunity when dealing with a physical punishment policy.

Save the Children, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and over 100 other organisations in the UK have campaigned actively for a ban on physical punishment. Both the NSPCC and Save the Children are founding members of the Children Are Unbeatable! programme, a UK-wide campaign to end physical punishment of children. The NSPCC contends that

"the only sensible option in Northern Ireland that is consistent with the civil law on child protection, human rights and equality legislation is to legislate to remove the common-law defence of reasonable chastisement".

If the defence of reasonable chastisement were removed, children would be in the same legal position as adults with regard to the law on assault. Advice and information for all parents, not only those who experience problems, is important. Any help and support for parents, whether they are having a difficult time or not, can only be good. The aim should be to establish a system that will not only provide adequate protection for the most vulnerable in society from those who seek to cause them harm but also to respect parental rights.

A fundamental aspect of all relationships is to keep lines of communication open. We can all relate to parents’ statements such as "I do not know what to do with him/her. He/she will not listen to me." There are very few parents who have not said those words in some form or another. We cannot afford to give up and to stop communicating with young people. They may appear not to be listening, but often they have taken in our words and simply do not want to admit it. Respect and empathy should be shown to children, and corporal punishment is a contradiction of those values.

Funding is essential to support parents and, in addition to creating programmes to deal with problems after they develop, to introduce preventative measures. After all, prevention is better than cure. I therefore put the amendment before the House.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 12th February 2002

The Business Committee has allocated one and a half hours for the debate. For that reason, and to ensure that the smaller parties have an opportunity to speak, I must limit Members’ speeches to five minutes.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

Parents from all over Northern Ireland have spoken to me about the issue. I point out to the Minister that loving, caring parents want their normality to continue. I speak on behalf of those who have enjoyed parenthood, who have love and affection for their children, and who have a sincere wish to bring up their family according to the precepts, norms and principles of their beliefs, philosophical or otherwise.

I warn parents in Northern Ireland that if they allow the legislation to be passed without challenge, they will be assuming that there is a nanny state — in other words, the state knows best; the state takes control, and the state controls parenting and its methodology. I ask parents to write to the Minister to convey their concerns. I want all those who are concerned about the matter to ensure that the Minister is aware that raising a family involves love and affection and the wish for one’s children to grow up to be good citizens. That is the norm.

We are being told to control a tiny minority, the abnormal few who do not respect the rights of parenthood. We have a right to protect the family unit. It has always been the basic unit of society. We must give parents that right and privilege. I remind the Minister and those who support the current legislation that, according to the penultimate sentence in article 2 of protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the state shall not act contrary to the philosophic beliefs and wishes of parents. Therefore the concept of respect for parents and the family unit is embodied in European law.

I ask that that right be respected in our legislation. It would be wrong of any legislature to assume that, because some parents are irresponsible, it can impose a general prohibition on the norm. I appeal to the Minister to take note of a heartfelt lobby. Perhaps it is not the most vociferous lobby, but it is composed of people who want their human rights and beliefs to be respected. Let us do more than just take note. It is important to support Dr Birnie’s contentions, which he so eloquently outlined together with the various academic arguments on the issue.

I appeal from the point of view of common sense. Ulster parents have always had great respect and support for the family, so to support the normal, good parents, who do their best for their children and who want to continue doing so — without having to look over their shoulders to see what the nanny state dictates — it is important that Members show clearly that we support the rights of the family.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I want to record my disappointment that the Business Committee has allowed each Member just five minutes. There is clearly a great deal of interest in the debate — both in the Chamber and outside it.

I support the motion and the amendment. The motion is only calling for the Minister to take note of the outcome of the consultation process in England and Wales even though it was decided not to change the legislation there. I support Ms Lewsley’s amendment, because I think that she is right: the House should call upon the Minister to take note of the consultation that is taking place throughout the world and not just that which was carried out in England. We should not try to reinvent the wheel. There is plenty to take note of.

The Assembly must be careful not to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation, put a barrier against the outcome, or restrict the work of the Committee for Finance and Personnel or the Minister on that outcome. If there is to be consultation, the Assembly has a duty to allow the people who are being consulted the right to give their views. Local issues require local consultation, and the consultation exercise on this has raised several points from both the pro and anti sides in recent weeks. The Assembly must support parents, but it must also protect children.

‘Children Are Unbeatable!’ is a group that has undertaken much research on this. It has produced a briefing paper, which says that

"At the moment, ‘Children Are Unbeatable!’ believes that children are not equally protected under the law and deserve better support from society".

I do not believe that any Member would object to that. I am concerned that Dr Birnie does not support the amendment. I am unsure of his reasons. The model that has been proposed in Scotland, which Members were briefed on, shows that

"A ‘middle’ position has emerged which includes a ban on all physical punishment of children under the age of three and the use of implements on all other children."

I am, therefore, concerned about the basis on which Dr Birnie is rejecting the amendment.

Many parents feel uneasy at present about what they see on television and in the media, and the Assembly must take that on board. There are concerns that many good parents will be victimised by this. The ‘Children Are Unbeatable!’ briefing paper states that

"If the law were changed, parents should not have to worry about trivial prosecutions. Safeguards should be put into place to ensure that the new law is able to serve its key purpose — to protect children from physical violence rather than to penalise parents".

The people who are working on that consultation exercise are also aware of the issues.

Regarding the substance of the motion, I do not think the Assembly should allow anything to pre-empt the outcome of any consultation exercise or restrict Committees. All Members sit on Committees and are, therefore, aware that they get lobbied — rightly or wrongly — about many matters. The Committees have time to take that on board and to analyse, scrutinise, and ask for advice.

One of the Committees that I sit on sent the Office of Law Reform correspondence back and forth until it was satisfied with a number of Bills. While I hope that Dr Birnie is not trying to pre-empt or stop any consultation exercise, he is unwilling to take on board the model or consultation exercise that has happened. That is why I support Ms Lewsley’s amendment.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:30 pm, 12th February 2002

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that, when the timetable was made, it was not expected that we would be as far ahead of schedule as we currently are. This debate has been scheduled to last only for an hour and a half. With the leave of the House, perhaps we could extend the time for approximately 45 minutes. That would give all those who wish to speak on this important issue an opportunity do so.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Poots, you are well aware that your party sends a Whip to the Business Committee, which sets the time limits for debates. It is then my duty to allocate time fairly to all parties. Your Whips should inform the Business Committee of your dissatisfaction about the limited amount of time being given to such a debate.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir Independent

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The extension to the debate is proposed with the leave of the House. Surely, if it is with the leave of the House, that would mean that all Members are happy with the time being extended. Why should any time restriction be imposed? Mr Poots suggested that we seek the leave of the House to extend the debate by 45 minutes to allow a wide range of Members to speak. Surely that should be put to the vote?

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

The simplest method is for the Whips of each party to make it clear that adequate time should be allocated to debates.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir Independent

But surely — [Interruption].

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am on my feet, Mr Weir.

Extending the debate by leave of the House would mean that only one Member would have to say "No" for the proposed extension to fall. It is something that continually arises and must be dealt with, but it is for the Business Committee to deal with.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

You make the point that the feelings of the House should be referred back to the Business Committee, Mr Deputy Speaker. Most Members will agree that this must be the fifth or sixth time that this feeling of the House — that the time allowed for important debates of public interest is being severely restricted — has been aired. Apparently, there has been no improvement whatever. Mr Poots made the point that the time is currently available, as other business was more expeditiously dealt with than was anticipated. Why not, with the leave of the House, use that time? If one Member objects, then we do not have the leave of the House. If every Member agrees, then we do.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr McCartney, you are reflecting what I have said on several occasions in the Chair. Time and time again, the Business Committee has limited the amount of time for a debate. I am then forced into finding time for smaller parties, such as your own, to speak. The difficulty with these points of order is that we are eating into the time for the debate. However, I will put it to the House.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

We are ahead of schedule by an hour and a half. This is an important motion, to which an amendment has been tabled. As such, it is reasonable to extend the time in order to have a thorough discussion. Can I persuade you, as Deputy Speaker, to put it to the House?

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members do I have leave of the House to extend the time for this debate to allow all those who wish to contribute to do so?

[Members indicated assent.]

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

The two Members who spoke after me had their time limited. In fairness, those who are left to speak should have equal time, otherwise one person is getting more time than another.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

You raise a valid point, which I will take on board.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I will attempt to be brief in the time I may be allowed.

Like other Members, I was a little surprised that this motion was put before the House today. The motion simply calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take note of one aspect of consultation on the matter of children’s discipline that is being conducted in England. I have no doubt that, whatever criticisms I might make of him in other areas, the Minister of Finance and Personnel is aware of the English consultation and is capable of reading the outcome of that report. In the terms in which the motion is phrased, it does not particularly add much to the process that we are currently undergoing.

In that respect at least, Patricia Lewsley’s amendment adds something to it, since it creates a greater degree of balance by referring to the consultations in Scotland and the Republic, rather than merely to those in England and Wales. The amendment, therefore, has considerable merit. In any case, while the motion as originally put down was not particularly meaningful, I would not have wanted to vote against it.

There is no doubt that Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have taken significantly different directions to those taken in England and Wales, though their decisions have not been finalised. Given that the Unionists in this Chamber always tell us of their affinity with the Scots, they seem less willing to listen to the Scots than to the English. No doubt Nationalists will consider that they are being consistent by listening to what happens at this stage south of the border.

The Scots have taken a rather more balanced approach in their considerations than the English have, particularly in the matters of protection for children under three and the use of instruments for administering corporal punishment. If we are not moving towards a total ban, those areas should be considered. Perhaps we should move further in the direction of an outright ban. There is an issue of proportion in how we address the matter and in how we deal with the genuine concerns of loving parents who consider that their past methods might make them criminals.

In Northern Ireland we must refer particularly to the issue of obligations under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I was a little surprised at the suggestion made by Dr Esmond Birnie as proposer of the motion that adults are not exactly equal to children and therefore do not really matter under section 75. That is not my interpretation of section 75, and I do not accept that there is a case for adults’ doing anything they like with children just because they are not exactly equal. Clearly the rights under article 3 of the European Convention are at issue, and I was surprised when Mr McCartney intervened and referred to children being protected by virtue of their age. That also suggested that children might be damaged by virtue of their age in a way that would not apply to adults.

Dr Birnie talked about defending the rights of families who wished to use moderate physical chastisement. Would anyone in this Chamber use that phrase in relation to any kind of adult? How can it possibly be suggested that such language is appropriate in respect of children if it cannot be used about adults? We must examine appropriate mechanisms to encourage discipline.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Briefly, given my time limit.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I thank the Member for giving way, and I will be brief. Does he not accept that there are cases in which it is legitimate to treat children differently from parents?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Clearly there are, and I thank Dr Birnie for bringing me to my next point. As part of the balanced Scottish approach, for example, I notice that the Standards in Scotland’s Schools Act 2000 specifically bans corporal punishment but states that

"corporal punishment shall not be taken to be given to a pupil by virtue of anything done for reasons which include averting … an immediate danger of personal injury or ... danger to property."

Clearly there are cases where the proverbial tap on the back of the hand is appropriate, but we must be very careful that we do not appear to give the impression of a carte blanche for serious physical abuse. We have seen plenty of that in this society, and we must be careful not to approve anything which extends to any parent an understanding that such behaviour is acceptable. In this debate there is a danger of talking as if discipline is solely physical punishment. Other methods of discipline might not at times appeal to harassed, tired parents but might be more creative and beneficial to children in the long term.

It is certainly no part of my case to make criminals of loving parents who react in a particular way at a particular time. It is clear that we must look to a balance in those matters. Rather than suggest that we should automatically espouse the English system, we should seek to encourage more appropriate discipline, and thereby more appropriate behaviour by children.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

I did not intend to speak on this issue, but there are issues on which my constituents will require clarification. Are we saying that we want to retain the capacity to beat our children? Dr Birnie used either the word "slap" or the word "smack".

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I used the word "smack".

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

What is the definition of a smack? I would like to know the weight of a smack and the velocity of the movement of the arm. What is the difference between a proper smack and an improper smack?

Members’ comments seem to involve an element of "Don’t do as I do, do as I say". In other words, our children should be taught not to use violence in the hope that they will not use violence as adults. Of course, the people who teach them not to use violence use violence themselves. That is a fact.

Parents will do what they want to do in the confines of their home. There may be precious little that we can do about that. However, we, as legislators, should create an ethos and send out the message that the use of violence is unacceptable. It is as simple as that. I would like Members to share that opinion with me. Certain Members have wanted me to share those views with them for a long time. I want Members to share those views with every citizen of our society, including those who cannot speak for themselves and those who, when they do speak for themselves, are not listened to.

We cannot assess the parental skills and talents of Members, but their skills and talents as legislators are pretty evident. We have choices to make. We may not cure the ills of our society in one day, one week or one month, but we can lay down markers and an ethos. We can do that with our children before they get the opportunity to become, perhaps, polluted by the society that we live in.

It seems that there are circumstances in which, if a slap on the wrist were required, Mr Deputy Speaker, you would be more than welcome to tell an adult that he or she is about to get one, rather than have the adult tell the child that. I think that you get my message, Mr Deputy Speaker. It would seem that there are as many unruly adults as there are unruly children. There are those who are the grand democrats, who want to be listened to and fawned over but who will not listen to others. That is known as "Do as I say, not as I do".

Regardless of the history of our society and the ages that we may be, we can all cast our minds back and decide whether physical punishment in the home was a good idea. In relation to our capacity to withstand physical punishment, the red welts will go away. However, I am talking about a person’s state of mind, and the belief that it is OK to smack. Regardless of the scale of the punishment, and how it is dressed up, if it is OK to smack to engender authority, it follows that violence is OK. Even if minimal violence is involved, that is exactly what you are saying. Nothing will redress that — violence is violence is violence is violence. It is as simple as that.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 2:45 pm, 12th February 2002

Given the logic of the Member’s argument, perhaps he will tell the House whether he is an absolute pacifist. Does he not accept that there can be cases of the legitimate use of force, such as by the police, the armed forces or the state?

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

As an adult, I must react to the world that I live in. For a child, I wish that there were someone who would try to make it a better world. They used to put kids up chimneys. Children — [Interruption].

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

That is not relevant.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

It is relevant. Our society is changing — all societies, even if they are badly managed, are changing. Irrespective of how bad our society is because of the way the adults function in it, we should try to make it better for our children. The issues on the agenda should be: do not teach a child how to hit; do not teach a child how to be a bully; and do not show a child that violence of any form, no matter how minimal, is OK.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

Mr Ervine’s last point related to changing societies. Lest there be laughter in the House about the fact that certain things were once acceptable, but became unacceptable, I will tell Members about what was once acceptable — and what was said in the courts about what was acceptable — when it came to hitting a person. Hitting then, of course, became known as abuse. It was once acceptable to hit a woman with a stick that was no thicker than a person’s thumb, hence the phrase, "rule of thumb". That was where the ecclesiastical courts started their rulings. They declared that it was perfectly acceptable to hit a woman in the house, providing that it was not too damaging. Women, rightly, started to ask what was considered damaging and what could be construed as emotional or physical abuse. Therefore the law began to change. The victims rose up and said that people would no longer decide by those laws what they could tolerate. A great deal of law was made on the basis of victims responding to what was considered to be acceptable.

The Office of Law Reform’s consultation has not chosen a position. The matter has been left open for consultation and I have no doubt that the Minister will respond. The Office of Law Reform deliberately kept the consultation process open to facilitate a healthy debate.

Patricia Lewsley’s amendment is welcome. Some Members may agree with what the Scottish Parliament has done, but I disagree. When we start to split children up into age groups of 0-3 years, 3 years and above, et cetera, we are getting into difficult territory. Let us in this devolved Assembly form our own views and advise the Minister on the civil law. We are not discussing criminal law, because the Office of Law Reform has responsibility only for civil law. As we debate this matter, let us remember that Northern Ireland is still the only place in Europe that tolerates corporal punishment in independent schools. That is a piece of legislation that we should move to change immediately. In tabling the motion, Esmond Birnie is getting ahead of himself. It might have been best to wait until the Committee had reported to the Assembly on the current consultation process.

I agree with other Members who question what constitutes moderate physical force. Let me tell Esmond Birnie and Oliver Gibson that it is not a matter of a nanny state making decisions. The debate on seat belts was the same. The car was considered to be a private place and it was thought that, once inside a car, people should be allowed to do what they wished for the sake of their own safety. It was up to the individual to decide whether he or she would wear a seat belt. However, the law and the state took a different view, saying that such decisions had consequences for young children and that it was not the right of a parent to decide whether the child would wear a seat belt. The law and the state took that decision.

If people do not wear seat belts and accidents occur, there are consequences for the Health Service and social services. The same situation will arise as regards hitting children. The decision has consequences for psychiatric services, counselling services and social services. The state does make decisions on what happens in private places. Having undertaken much research over the years, I assure the House that private places are the most unsafe. People who are known to their victims carry out most of the violence in our society.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

I have approximately 80 seconds remaining. I would give way, had I more time.

I remind the House that this is a positive step forward and that the consultation is useful. To allow people to make their own decisions on the matter is unacceptable, ineffective and costs the state resources.

I support the amendment.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

One of the Members has difficulty with his digestion. We have heard some rumblings already in his address to the Assembly.

I oppose the amendment and support Dr Birnie’s motion. In an erudite, logical and objective speech, he indicated all the relevant parameters of the debate. I can speak with a degree of authority, because I am the father of four children and the grandfather of six, two of whom I take on holiday for three weeks every year. Therefore, I am in close contact not only with my own children but also with my grandchildren. The difficulty lies in distinguishing between child abuse — in whatever form — and correction or reasonable chastisement of a child in a loving and caring environment, when that chastisement or correction is offered not to endanger the child, but to protect him or her.

If a child clambers up on the parapet of a high-rise flat, introduces a piece of paper into an electric fire, or runs out into traffic, it may be necessary to correct that child’s behaviour instantly, not because anyone wants to abuse or to inflict cruelty on that child, but rather to teach, protect and make him or her alert to the dangers of this world. The world is a dangerous place, and a criticism of the nanny state and the excessively caring parent is that by not exposing children to risk and danger, or to an apprehension of danger, or to the correction of danger, in a natural environment, they may place the child in greater danger. That has been the subject of all sorts of psychological investigations.

The law as it presently stands protects children from abuse or cruelty, although much of the abuse and cruelty that goes on is undetected by organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and social workers, who apparently are engaged to protect them. There is the example of the NSPCC in the case of the Climbie child, and countless other examples of children who have been systematically abused, and who have been systematically supervised by social workers and the NSPCC, which fails them entirely.

In many cases, therefore, the real, secret abuse will continue to escape detection. When it is detected, the abuser will be subject to prosecution under the existing laws that protect children as they protect everyone from cruelty, harm or assault. That blanket imposition on parental control would mean that a mother who is alarmed when her child dashes onto the road and who pulls the child back, giving it an instant smack on the leg, may well be reported to the local authority by a neighbour or a happy voyeur, and may be prosecuted. There is a suggestion that an individual may be given six months’ imprisonment or a period of counselling by some parenting group. That is absolute nonsense. As Esmond Birnie pointed out, the European Court of Human Rights did not —

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

No, I will not give way. You have had your time, and you did not give way. The European Court of Human Rights has clearly pointed out that a specific case, where a boy was beaten on the legs with a garden cane, involved a breach of human rights. However, the court did not make any judgement on the principle of law that operates in the United Kingdom which states that a parent may not abuse or be cruel to his or her child, but may exercise reasonable chastisement for the purpose of protecting that child, because they love and cherish the child and wish to protect him or her from future dangers that might cause pain or suffering. It would be a great wrong to remove that right from a parent.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir Independent

I support the motion and oppose the amendment. Henry Ford once said that you could have any colour of car you wanted, as long as it was black. Having read the consultation paper from the Office of Law Reform, it seems that you can do anything about the law as long as it is changed. That is the option that is open to us, as the proposer of the motion noted. The status quo is the one thing that is not acceptable, because a range of five different options has been put forward.

I appreciate that consultation continues. For unusual reasons, there was not a great deal of publicity when the consultation was launched. Its launch was scheduled for 11 September, but other events overtook it. As the mover of the amendment probably said, there have been many lobby groups and forms of consultation. However, many people who have contacted me to express their concern do not feel that they have been empowered and consulted.

The voices of ordinary parents have not been listened to in this debate. The proposals bear symptoms of a wider malaise in society. The liberal elite appears to be introducing a raft of supposed rights and other proposals that are either ludicrous or repugnant to many right-thinking people. That liberal elite seems to sneer at anything that purports to relate to family values or the family unit, and that is the background against which the motion is examined.

There are several reasons why we should argue that the current law is adequate. Any proposed change discriminates, in particular, against parents of a certain moral disposition based on strong Christian values. A large lobby of people believe that they have a right to apply a certain level of discipline to their children as part of their Christian faith. Any changes to the current law would discriminate against them.

It has been indicated that any change would hit the wrong target. For example, unfortunately, at one end of the scale, many parents seem to neglect their children, let them run wild and do not seem to exercise any discipline. I am sure that all of us have received complaints from constituents whose lives have been made a misery by petty vandals and young children who create nuisance. However, any change in the law relating to reasonable chastisement would not affect those parents.

At the other end of the scale, the current law does not permit the physical abuse of children. Parents who physically abuse children, beat them up or attack them, are dealt with by the law. The review does not intend to deal more severely or adequately with those people. It will target parents who take a loving and disciplined attitude to their children. Those people will suffer as a result of any change in the law. Therefore, it is wrongly directed.

As regards state interference, the state has a right and a duty to protect the vulnerable in society against extreme behaviour. However, there is a fundamental difference between that and the enforcement of a particular theory of parenting, which is clearly intended in this instance. It is a facile argument to compare the reasonable chastisement of a child to the use of car seat belts based on the fact that if seat belts are not used, the child might be killed. We are not comparing like with like. If that theory were accepted, where would it reach its logical conclusion? For example, do we impose dietary conditions with which to bring up children? That would create a police state or nanny state, and it would take the role of the state too far. It would diminish people’s respect for the law, because it would create a law that people would find ludicrous, and which might not be enforceable. That would distract people’s attention from the important issues of child protection — the use of resources to protect children who are physically abused.

It is worthy to support the motion, because proposals to change the law as outlined by the Office of Law Reform would result in political correctness gone mad. Let us ensure that parents have a choice as to how they bring up their children, within certain restrictions. I call on everyone to support the motion.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I support the motion. It gives parents, myself included, insight into other aspects of life. We all bring our children up in a world full of hope and promise, and we all believe that we act as our parents have done. However, we sometimes have to chastise our children, and a slap across the back of the legs is one way of doing that.

That does not mean that we love our children any less. Chastisement is sometimes needed.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

Babies grow up, and we must educate them about right and wrong. That means that we praise the good behaviour, but we also acknowledge the bad behaviour and punish it. I found that out more so with my three boys. I sometimes wondered why I was smacked as a child, and I realised with my children that there was a reason for it. It was not out of anger, but to protect the children. It was out of love and a fear that they would continue to do wrong in the future. That was the guiding light for many of us. Smacking as a reprimand was not always carried out, but the knowledge that my parents would smack as a last resort was enough to enforce upon me that there were social rules that had to be obeyed.

It is disappointing that some Members here today cannot acknowledge the need for some control within a household on smacking children. Some Members seem to believe that there should be no smacking at all. They believe it to be cruel and unnecessary. That is hard to understand when we have representatives of a party here who tell teenagers to appear at Connolly House for reprimand and retribution. It does not look good: they are against smacking but are crying out for much more severe punishment.

Eighty per cent of parents in the United Kingdom said that they would use some form of physical punishment. The Government and the Assembly would be penalising the vast majority who take parenting responsibly. Many children are now fully aware of their rights and use those to their advantage. How many times have we heard of teachers being assaulted in schools and then being prosecuted because they tried to restrain the individual who was trying to cause them injury? We should acknowledge that.

In London, a teacher was kicked in the stomach by a student when she was four months pregnant, and she lost her baby. The student was never prosecuted for the offence, but the teacher was victimised even more by the students on her return to work. She was again assaulted when she became pregnant for a second time. This was in the press at the time. Teachers cannot even ask a student to go to the headmaster’s office — a place where I found myself perhaps more than I should have — because that would be picking on him and violating his human rights.

Minimal and appropriate physical punishment is necessary when bringing up children, and a lack of any form of punishment in society directly corresponds with the rocketing rise in crime and vandalism that we are seeing today. That has already been mentioned by other Members. It is necessary to inform children that bad, and sometimes dangerous, behaviour is never appropriate and will be punished.

One of the arguments against smacking is that it does not work. It does. I will give the example of one of my children. He was told not to do something, but he kept on doing it. He was approaching a fire, and there was a danger that he could be burnt. I told him to draw back, and he did not. I reached out, not in anger, but to protect him, to bring him back, and I smacked him. My son learnt that the fire was dangerous, but I also saved him from serious injury. That is a small thing, but it is a way in which a parent interacts with his children and ensures that they are protected. That is important. It is a small but effective measure.

Physical punishment is appropriate, because children do not know what is best for them. That is a parent’s responsibility. That is what we are always trying to do. To those who say that smacking is wrong, I ask how they can reason with a five-year-old who is hell-bent on scribbling on a wall with felt-tip pens or beating the brains out of his younger brother? There has been no leeway —

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 3:00 pm, 12th February 2002

Order. There is a conversation going on.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

It is my own Colleagues.

There has been no leeway in this report to support those parents who choose to smack if that is the way in which they want to parent their children. As a parent, I felt that it was, and is, the way to punish my children after reasoning has failed. It is not the Government’s place to tell me how to bring up my children, just as the Government should not choose my wife, my job or how many children I have.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

My democratic right to choose my life and my morals and to guide my children as I see fit should, and must, be safeguarded.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

This is a very interesting debate, and I welcome the fact that most Members will have the opportunity to participate. The role of the family is crucially important, and we do ill to interfere too closely with it.

Parents have a special relationship with their children. Having children was a special experience for my wife and myself. There was a bonding experience that allowed us to express our love, and allowed us to care for our children, and for our children to express their love to us. The vast majority of parents have the same relationship with their children. It is a loving and caring relationship where parents want the best for their children. They also want to give them the best opportunity and guide them in the right direction.

It is remarkable that 88% of parents have, at one stage or another, used smacking as a means of giving their children direction. The vast majority of those 88% did that in love and care, because they wished to give their children the right guidance.

Some Members may think it somewhat odd that I was such a keen supporter of the children’s ombudsman, and yet I supported smacking in the home. Throughout the process of the report that the Committee of the Centre drew up on a children’s ombudsman, I had said that 95% of the work of the ombudsman would relate to 5% of children. Children are being neglected and abused, not by parents smacking them, but by parents who are ignoring them and allowing them to run wild and do as they please in many circumstances. Those children unwittingly stray into danger.

In my constituency, large numbers of young people meet up regularly. Residents in the vicinity are harassed, objects are thrown at their houses and their own children are abused by those young people. Girls as young as 12 and 13 are mixing with young fellows of 18 and 19 years of age, where drink, drugs and glue are readily available. Are those parents caring for their children? Should those parents be charged with neglect of their children? I believe that parents who neglect their children and allow them to run wild do much more harm to their upbringing than those who will occasionally smack their children to bring them into line.

Some of the articles that I have read about smacking and other forms of punishment stretch to the ridiculous. Giving children stars for good behaviour may work with very young children, but once they get a little older they may look upon that with disdain. Another form of punishment is to send children to their rooms for a time. If smacking amounts to physical punishment, then those other methods equate to mental punishment, and that must be considered objectively.

Since corporal punishment has been excluded from schools, many teachers have said that they have no way of controlling children. Children can do what they like, and teachers can do nothing with them. If that has happened in our schools over the short time since corporal punishment has been removed, what will happen in our homes when children are allowed to do as they please, when they please, where they please, and parents can no longer bring them back into line?

Smacking is one form of punishment that can be used on children. I had to punish my son this morning, and I did that by removing his mobile phone for a week. I could have chosen to smack him, but I believed that removing his phone was another method of punishment. Parents have a range of options, and those who are disciplining their children should not be punished. Those parents who are neglecting their children and allowing them to run wild should be punished.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

Although I welcome the debate, I approached it with a degree of apprehension. I anticipated that, although the motion is directed at the nature of the consultation process, much of the debate would slip into assumptions about the outcome of that consultation process at a phase when the public consultation has been completed and an analysis of all of the submissions has just begun.

Therefore there has been no determination at this point on the outcome. As has become clear from the debate, many other jurisdictions, including all the United Kingdom jurisdictions, have been consulting on the question of how we most effectively bring discipline and guidance into the lives of our children, and what role the law should play. It is not a case of the law’s not having a role to play; it has a role to play in many aspects of family life. Suggestions that it should have no role at all simply ignore the considerable volume of family law that necessarily exists.

In England and Wales the consultation was through the document ‘Protecting Children, Supporting Parents’, published in 2000. That consultation received 900 responses, 80 of which were from Wales. Five hundred and sixty of the responses were from individuals. Analysis of the consultation showed that although nearly all the organisations that responded favoured a change in the law, 70% of those individuals who replied were in favour of maintaining the status quo. In November 2001, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Jacqui Smith MP, communicated the Government’s decision on the way forward. She said that the Government would not be legislating on the issue.

It is important to note that, whereas the decision was taken not to legislate for the time being, Members will be aware from now on that that did not mean that there was no change in the law in England and Wales. The Court of Appeal, between the consultation and the Government’s decision, had occasion to adapt the law in the case of the Crown versus H. The Court added to the existing common law on reasonable chastisement those tests set out by the European Court of Human Rights in A versus the United Kingdom. Judges and juries in England must consider the nature and context of the defendant’s behaviour, the duration of the behaviour, the physical and mental consequences of the behaviour for the child, and the age and personal characteristics of the child. The Court of Appeal also added a fifth factor, namely, the reasons given by the defendant for administering the punishment.

The Minister finished her statement by saying that the law on reasonable chastisement in England and Wales would be kept under review. It is, therefore, possible that the matter will be raised again in England and Wales at a later stage. Let me assure the Member — because this is the point of his motion — that I shall take careful account of the outcome of the English consultation exercise just as I, and, indeed my predecessor, have taken into our consideration the decisions reached on the law on the physical punishment of children in other jurisdictions.

The Scottish result may be very different from that of England and Wales. A Bill is being introduced by the Scottish Parliament, which, if passed, will prohibit the physical punishment of a child under three years of age. It will forbid the use of any implement, such as a cane or slipper, and will make it illegal to shake a child or hit him or her on the head. The Bill, if passed, will also make it illegal for childminders in childcare centres to use physical punishment.

The Republic of Ireland has also reviewed policy on the physical punishment of children and has decided that it will follow a policy aim of ending parental physical punishment through education. The Law Reform Commission of Ireland has said that it believes that this may, in due course, facilitate a change in the law, although it would be premature to change the law there now.

I should also refer to the experience of other countries. Sweden, Finland, Austria, Italy and Israel are among those countries that have ceased physical punishment, while Canada and almost all US states take the view that physical punishment is an exception to the law of assault. Therefore it was important to conduct a thorough consultation exercise in Northern Ireland so that a decision on the right model for Northern Ireland could be reached through the collection of comprehensive information on people’s views. The consultation document was not launched on 11 December, Mr Weir; it was launched on 11 September.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir Independent 3:15 pm, 12th February 2002

I said that it was launched on 11 September, and that was why, unfortunately, it did not get the publicity that it deserved.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

It received considerable publicity. I may have misheard the Member with respect to the date. The press was widely circulated, and the Minister launched the document at a press conference —[Interruption].

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

Doctors, dentists and surgeries were all provided with copies of the consultation document, as were churches, libraries and schools. Evidence that attention has been paid to the document and that the consultation process has been a success in reaching all sections of society is to be found in the 500-plus submissions that have been received. It is vital that the Executive hear the range of views so that we can find an appropriate way forward.

The process of analysing the responses has begun, and it will be a substantial task. I am making a commitment to publish the analysis. My Colleagues and I enter the process of examining options for the way forward with genuinely open minds. We shall have to do something, because the Westminster Government have undertaken to the European Court of Human Rights that the failure of the law to provide adequate protection to those in the position of A will be addressed and the law amended. However, all the options set out in the consultation paper remain: limiting the scope of the defence of reasonable chastisement; removing the defence of reasonable chastisement, including a statement of rights and responsibilities in the legal definition of parental responsibility; and encouraging the development of parenting programmes. Those options remain, and there may be more.

I welcome the contributions to the consultation exercise from all shades of opinion, including those contributions from Assembly Members. They are difficult issues that invoke strong feelings in many people, and the consultation exercise was the means by which those feelings could be communicated to those charged with deciding the way forward. The responses must be tailored to the circumstances of people in Northern Ireland.

I shall turn to some of the individual matters raised by Members. The nature of the Strasbourg jurisprudence, which was questioned in some contributions, means that although the court can look only at the case before it, its decisions will have wider ramifications. In A versus UK, the United Kingdom accepted that the law did not provide adequate protection to the applicant against maltreatment or punishment, contrary to article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Therefore it should be amended.

In moving the motion, Dr Birnie suggested that the research on which the consultation paper is based is flawed. Experienced lawyers and academics wrote the paper, and all efforts were made to check the facts contained in the paper. Dr Baumrind and Dr Larzelere are two leading sources that have been mentioned as not having been considered adequately. Dr Baumrind was considered during the preparation of the paper. Dr Larzelere’s work was written when the research for the paper was completed, but it has kindly been provided to officials who will give it proper consideration.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

My understanding is that Dr Larzelere’s research was published in 1996, well before the consultation in 2001.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I understand that the paper and research, which the Member refers to, was made available only after the consultation document was prepared. Nonetheless, it has been made available to officials, and the evidence in it will be considered in the course of the analysis of submissions to the consultation.

Reference has also been made to an alleged misuse, or misapplication, of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Section 75 provides for equality of opportunity in respect of age. Every consultation in Northern Ireland must refer to equality obligations, and equality impact assessments must be carried out in relation to policy decisions. Currently, the law creates differences between how children and adults are treated in the law as regards assault and battery. There is no defence of reasonable chastisement for an adult who hits another adult. Therefore it is our job to see whether that distinction, as regards children, is justifiable. That is one of the purposes of the consultation; it does not predetermine the outcome.

I reassure the Member that the outcome of the consultation carried out in England and Wales has been, and will continue to be, noted by my Department and by the Executive. Equally, we will take into account the experience in other jurisdictions. Work will be carried out to analyse the responses to the consultation, and any policy that is developed will properly take into account the views expressed by those who responded to the questions posed by the consultation paper.

As the debate has demonstrated, this is no easy topic. We have to keep in mind the three-year-old who is given a quick smack for going too close to the fire and the 12-year-old who is hit with a broom handle or worse, as evidenced by the use of baseball bats and cricket bats in our society. We must keep in mind chastisement of that kind, which is being given to teenagers for answering back or perhaps for not answering at all.

This is not a referendum for or against smacking; it is much more complex than that. We have to focus on the functions of the law in defining standards. It is about protecting vulnerable people, including children who can be exposed to considerable mental and physical risk not just outside the home but also within it, and helping to shape people’s ideas about what is acceptable and unacceptable. It is not about classifying people into good and bad parents. Some good parents say that they have frightened themselves by smacking too hard. It is about asking some difficult questions and recognising that we are dealing with laws that are 150 years old.

It is because of the value of informed debate on these important issues that I am happy to support the amendment in the name of Patricia Lewsley, as it emphasises the many sources on which we want to draw. Indeed, we have been doing just that in deciding the way forward. Parents, interested groups and all of us want what is best for our children and to bring them up to be responsible and active members of the community. I thank the Member for raising these vital matters in the debate, and I thank the Members who have contributed to it.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank those who have contributed to the debate and especially those who supported my amendment.

The debate is not about good parents or bad parents; nor is it about penalising any parent. It is about putting guidelines, legislation and, in particular, support mechanisms in place to help parents. I am surprised by Mr Weir’s complaint about the lack of consultation with parents and his support for a motion that narrows the issue by asking the Minister to take into consideration only the outcome of the consultation in England and Wales to the exclusion of other jurisdictions. The ultimate aim of the consultation should be the protection of our children.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I thank all those who took part, particularly the Minister.

The underlying argument in proposing the motion is simple and modest. It is that the Minister should note the decision made by the Administration in London, which was taken during the process of public consultation here, that no further change in the law is necessary. England and Wales face the same European Court of Human Rights obligations as we do, and the European Convention on Human Rights has already recognised that the European Court of Human Rights does not imply that all signatory countries must have an outright ban on smacking.

I sense that many opponents of the motion fear that if Northern Ireland, or any other part of the UK, retains the so-called "reasonable chastisement" defence, it will make them the odd man out internationally. Despite the implication contained in the consultation document, there is, in practice, great uncertainty as to whether major European countries such as Austria and Italy have truly banned smacking in the home.

The opponents of the motion should also be aware of the example of the state of Arkansas in the USA. You may say —

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I will not give way as I have only a short time. The former President of the USA, Bill Clinton, who was a welcome visitor here, was Governor of Arkansas, where the statutes allow for reasonable and moderate parental discipline.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

They also allow for capital punishment.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I do not think that we want to debate that issue today.

I will be brief. Ms Lewsley referred to the need to encourage effective parenthood, and we all agree with that. I pay tribute to those portions of the consultation document that point the way to greater forms of support for parents. I have doubts about Ms Lewsley’s proposal for changes in the civil law.

I agree with Mr Gibson’s points. Many of us have received letters from parents who are concerned about proposed changes in the law, and we should avoid punishing the innocent majority of parents along with a small minority. We should avoid a nanny state.

Ms Ramsey said that we should look at the example of other countries, and I agree with that. However, it is important to examine those examples carefully to check whether they actually have banned smacking.

As to the point that changes in the law would not lead to trivial prosecutions, we should bear in mind that a court case has been taken in Scotland because of an incident in October last year when a French tourist smacked his eight-year-old son on the streets of Edinburgh.

Mr Ford said that we should not give carte blanche for serious abuse. We all agree with that. There is an existing law on assault.

Mr Ervine challenged proponents of the motion to define smacking.

An acceptable definition could be established by the five criteria that are now set out in the development of the English common law, established by the R versus H case in the spring of last year, to which the Minister referred.

Prof McWilliams said that the consultation was an open process. However, as Mr Weir said, the option of keeping the law as it is was not listed among the options for public consultation. As to the impact of physical correction on children, I refer Prof McWilliams to the research that I mentioned in my opening speech. I agree with Mr McCartney that, in all probability, a change in the law would not prevent the sort of insidious, secret abuse that is so damaging and wrong.

I agree with Mr Weir that we must listen to the concerns of ordinary parents. I also agree with Mr Shannon’s and Mr Poots’s remarks about the importance of having a loving family without excessive state intervention.

I note that the Minister said it is too early to analyse the results of the consultation. We eagerly await the analysis of the more than 500 submissions that the Office of Law Reform received. As I said, he listed the five criteria that were established after the United Kingdom versus A and the R versus H cases in order to inform courts about the definition of reasonable chastisement in future. That is where our law should rest.

Finally, I urge the Minister of Finance and Personnel to note that the ‘Protecting Children, Supporting Parents’ consultation document said that

"it would be quite unacceptable to outlaw all physical punishment of a child by a parent".

Prime Minister Tony Blair was quoted in ‘The Guardian’ of 8 November 2001 conceding that he had smacked his children when they were

"really naughty or did something nasty to another child."

That is one example that we should bear in mind.

Question put,

The Assembly divided: Ayes 30; Noes 34


Alex Attwood, Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Mark Durkan, David Ervine, Sean Farren, John Fee, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Joe Hendron, Billy Hutchinson, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Martin McGuinness, Gerry McHugh, Monica McWilliams, Conor Murphy, Danny O’Connor, Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, John Tierney.


Fraser Agnew, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Esmond Birnie, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Nigel Dodds, Sam Foster, John Gorman, Tom Hamilton, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Robert McCartney, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Trimble, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take note of the outcome of the consultation in England and Wales by the Department of Health on the law on the physical correction of children in their homes ‘Protecting Children, Supporting Parents’ (2000) which decided not to change the legislation.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Order. Members should resume their seats.

Photo of Mr Billy Hutchinson Mr Billy Hutchinson PUP

My point of order relates to the extension of the debate that has just ended by the Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair before you. There is no provision for such an extension, either in Standing Orders, which I checked, or in the legislation. Can the Speaker make a ruling on this matter and bring it before the House on Monday?

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I will certainly refer that point of order to the Speaker for him to look at and report back.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Madam Deputy Speaker.]