Defending child smacking is to argue that it’s OK to assault someone in our society if they are smaller than you and by banning it Scotland has joined an enlightened family of nations, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton.
Thursday was an emotional day for me. A road I had walked for 20 years finally came to an end with the passage of the (Children) Equal Protection from Assault Act, prohibiting the physical punishment of children in Scotland.
Before becoming elected, I worked in children’s rights and shared that journey over two decades with some of the finest people I know. Three children’s commissioners, a former Irish senator, and so many advocates within the children’s sector.
Each of them represent the vanguard for children’s rights in our society and without them we would not have achieved this change.
We worked together over the past three years to support the architect of this legislation, Highlands MSP John Finnie.
As a former police officer and repentant parent who used to smack his children, John lent wisdom, experience and understanding of the journey that so many Scottish parents have been on in recognising the harm caused by physical punishment.
He retires at the end of this parliamentary session and I can think of no finer legacy to his career.
This is not a big law, it is not even a big change. It simply removes the antiquated legal defence of justifiable assault on the grounds of reasonable punishment.
Wives and servants
This is a legal defence that used to allow men to hit their wives and servants. That defence was removed long ago and we would not dream of allowing it to be reinstated. As such the case for its repeal with respect to children was always unanswerable.
We heard as much during the consideration of the legislation in Holyrood’s Equalities and Human Rights committee, of which I’m vice-convener.
Those who have to deal with assault and abuse, both in our streets and in our homes, made powerful representations to us.
They told us that we shall forever fail in our efforts to end such brutality for as long as the state sanctions any kind of violence in the home.
As it should, the committee sought to balance the evidence we took and heard many arguments for the retention of physical punishment, but none withstood the test of our committee’s scrutiny or the counter evidence offered by the bill’s supporters.
Smacking is not an article of faith, it is not demanded by scripture. It does nothing to prevent children scalding themselves or running into traffic.
Parents do not use its application consistently or always retain control when they do. And a light tap on the wrist or the bottom is not the full extent of every parent’s intervention.
That last point matters, because the only clarity offered in Scots law around physical punishment came by amendment to criminal justice legislation in 2003.
An arcane defence
The sum total of statutory direction for when parents hit their children was no head shots, no use of implements and no shaking. That’s it. On everything else our law was silent. But above all this lies the fundamental disparity of treatment between adults and children that this arcane defence creates.
We would not for a minute consider relaxing the law around assault to allow the physical punishment of an adult with the mental age of three as a tool of correction or protection. So why should we allow it for actual three-year-olds?
To retain this defence would have been to argue that it’s only ok to assault someone in our society if they’re smaller than you, if they haven’t reached adulthood yet and if they cannot hit you back.
That is not compatible with our aims to be thought of as a human rights leader, it’s not even compatible with our aims to be thought of as a civilised society.
On Thursday, Scotland joined a family of more enlightened nations. Those countries who have recognised that the measure of a modern and progressive nation is in the rights it extends to its most vulnerable citizens and in the protections it offers its children.
I was proud to be part of it.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western