Slap in the face for the enemies of violence
KATHLEEN Marshall, Scotland's Children's Commissioner, says that any "smack, slap, or hit" on a child is an "assault" and should be classed as a crime punishable in court. The professor was immediately rebuked by politicians from all parties.
The Scottish Parliament debated this at length three years ago, and agreed that parents should be able to use "reasonable chastisement" - a smack in other words - to rein in misbehaving children without fear of being turned into criminals.
So, where Prof Marshall thinks this is unfinished business, the politicians think it is finished. Instinctively, most of us would tend to agree with the politicians. The idea of an interfering state poking its nose into every cranny of family life is not attractive.
So let's move on. British girls aged between 11 and 15, we learn, are among the most violent in the world. In a survey of girls' behaviour, English girls ranked fifth and Scottish girls sixth in a league of 35 developed nations studied for girls' likelihood of being violent.
This is "ladette" culture, apparently. It differs from "lad" culture only in that boys are more likely to use sticks, clubs and knuckledusters where the girls prefer Mace, pepper spray or tear gas.
That suggests that girls' involvement in fights is more defensive than offensive. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people involved with young people - from the police to teachers - who say that girls have become more aggressive in recent years.
Move on again. Jack McConnell, the First Minister, and Cathy Jamieson, his justice minister, are reported to be angry that councils, courts and children's panels are not using new powers to tackle bad behaviour. Too few anti-social behaviour orders are being passed on rowdy, noisy and aggressive people. And not enough court orders compelling anti-social people to do community work are being handed out.
So let's sum up. The woman in charge of protecting children from violence believes not enough is being done to save them from being battered. Teenage girls and boys are wading into fights in ever-increasing numbers. Ministers worry that not enough is being done to protect people from louts.
And now at the top of the news is the chilling story of a 16-year-old girl who has been being jailed for her part in a gang's random attacks on eight people in London, one of whom died, and all apparently done for fun. The picture is not just worrying, it's terrifying.
The view that we are living in an increasingly violent society is not media exaggeration. The Scottish Crime Survey shows that since 1992, violent crime has increased from 411 incidents per 10,000 adults in 1992 to 599 in 2002, a 46 per cent rise.
The biggest increase is in petty assault, defined as resulting in little or no injury. Such assaults have increased by 125 per cent. Serious assaults are down by 45 per cent. So although people are more likely to be assaulted these days, they are less likely to be injured, which is of little comfort should you be confronted by a gang of noisy youths on a dark night.
Not very comforting either is the picture of various authorities, which are supposed to be curbing these problems, going round in circles. The Children's Commissioner criticises the politicians, who criticise the courts and local councils. We need all these people and their agencies, and a lot more besides, working together rather than slapping each other about.
JOHN Carnochan, a detective chief superintendent who heads Strathclyde Police's violence reduction unit, is pretty clear about it. Despite a vast amount of money and man-hours spent trying to curb violence in Strathclyde - by health boards, social workers, teachers, community workers, the police and other criminal-justice agencies - levels of violence in some areas remain unacceptably high. A big problem, he says, is that the work has not been cohesive.
The root causes are well known - bad housing, poverty, poor health, poor schooling and alcohol and drug abuse. In such an environment, says Mr Carnochan, it is too easy for violence to become seen as a near-legitimate means of getting what you want and stopping others from getting what they want from you.
Serving ASBOs on the worst offenders, or dispersal orders on riotous gangs frightening the peaceful, can only deal with the worst of the problem cases. Teaching the deprived the skills that can get them out of poverty can be little use if the everyday lesson they learn outside school is that knowing how to use weapons matters a lot more.
That most disturbing lesson can have its greatest impact if it is learned in the home. That's why campaigns against domestic violence are so important. It is not just to stop women from being battered by their husbands, it is to stop children learning violence is right.
Mr Carnochan says: "Research shows that children learn their basic life skills, such as behaviour and communication, during the first three years of their life." Thus his unit has this month started a programme with other agencies to encourage children to learn skills such as empathy, negotiation and compromise, instead of shouting, confrontation and fist-waving.
And that's where I begin to wonder whether Prof Marshall might not have a point. I am not prepared to leap to the conclusion that criminalising smacking is the answer. But I am ready to listen to the argument if a slapped three-year-old learns that slapping, and by extension, hitting, punching and kicking constitute socially acceptable behaviour.
The murderous gang of thugs jailed in London yesterday called what they did "happy slapping".
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