Tom Peterkin: SNP should concentrate on education and health, not smacking

Smacking is an emotive issue but the SNP might be better advised to concentrate its political energy on health and education.
Smacking is an emotive issue but the SNP might be better advised to concentrate its political energy on health and education.
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Schools and hospitals are more important than impractical policies like the smacking ban says Tom Peterkin.

Those with long memories will recall the last attempt to ban smacking in Scotland. Back in September 2001 the then Lib Dem Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace announced a proposal to prevent parents from smacking children under the age of three.

Those with long memories will recall the last attempt to ban smacking in Scotland. Back in September 2001 the then Lib Dem Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace announced a proposal to prevent parents from smacking children under the age of three.

Almost exactly one year later the plans were abandoned by the Labour/Lib Dem executive when it was acknowledged that the proposal did not have enough support from MSPs to succeed.

READ MORE: Smacking ban explained

Over the last decade and a half, attitudes have changed. Back in 2001 the arguments against a smacking ban were articulated in rigorous and courteous fashion by Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the then Tory justice spokesman.

Warnings that a ban would criminalise parents for chastising their children were advanced and the point was made the existing laws on assault were robust enough to deal with violent attacks on youngsters.

Interestingly, the SNP – then in opposition – were of the view that a ban would be a “legal minefield”.

These days, however, the political opposition has not been so forthcoming and securing MSPs’ support for a ban will not be a problem. Nicola Sturgeon’s Government and the Labour Party has said it will back the Green MSP John Finnie’s member’s bill which will ban the smacking of all children.

But while there may be fewer political voices speaking out against a ban, the legal minefield remains.

Among the problems identified when the 2001 proposal was scrutinised by Holyrood’s justice two committee were the difficulties associated with prosecuting offenders given the legal requirement for evidence from two sources.

Securing corroboration when a smack is administered in the home could be fraught with difficulties, as would the possibility of very young toddlers having to give evidence.

Another aspect of this subject that has remained consistent is that the vast majority of parents have absolutely no desire to smack their children. But there can be few who out of sheer frustration with an unruly child have not at least been tempted to resort to administering a light smack.

READ MORE: Scotland bans smacking in UK first

Beyond the walls of Holyrood, there is already resistance building to the idea that mums and dads who succumb to that temptation could be criminalised. Recent polls have also suggested public opinion is strongly against a ban.

When looked at in conjunction with the policy to give all children a named person, it becomes easier to sympathise with those who consider that the SNP is hell bent on interfering with family life.

“The push to outlaw smacking in Scotland would have been a lot easier if it hadn’t been preceded by the named person saga,” was how one political sage summed things up on Twitter this week.

So while outlawing smacking may have political support, there are many practical hurdles to be crossed and who would bet against the proposal being challenged in the courts?

This would not be a new experience for the Scottish Government. Legislation on minimum unit pricing for alcohol and the controversial named person plans are two examples of flagship policies that have become bogged down in legal battles.

Today will see the Scottish Government launch its strategy to tackle obesity. Past pronouncements on this subject suggest that we can expect some form of action to be taken against the marketing of junk food. True to form, that promises to set up a battle royal with the manufacturers of the aforementioned food products.

Well-intentioned headline grabbing initiatives are all very well, but they have to be workable. A similar criticism could be levelled at Ms Sturgeon’s promise to explore a citizen’s income. Again, it is a radical idea. But once the detail is considered, it begins to fall apart.

Earlier this month the First Minister said she would look at the proposal, despite receiving an official civil service briefing back in March, which warned that the policy would require a spending increase on benefits of an eye-watering £12.3 billion.

The same civil service paper also suggested that paying for the policy could require income tax rates to rise to a whopping 50 per cent across all bands. As all this time and effort is expended on well-intentioned notions, really important and difficult challenges remain.

After ten years of SNP power, the education system is still plagued by the attainment gap and teachers are grappling with the vagaries of curriculum for excellence.

Meanwhile, as reported this morning, the NHS is struggling. Audit Scotland’s annual report has identified a litany of failings in the health service. Missed targets and declining performance on key indicators, the perennial challenge of NHS funding, crumbling buildings and, in some cases, a widening inequality gap when it comes to public health. On top of this is a GP service battling low morale and plagued by recruitment and retention problems. Education and health are the fundamental building blocks of a successful society. They are also the most challenging to get right.

Nurturing successful schools, universities, hospitals and GP practices requires more than headline-grabbing window dressing. Producing workable reforms that deliver results requires serious thought and hard work of the most challenging nature.

Perhaps more effort should be expended on educating and treating children – rather than on how their parents punish them.