First smacking ban hit by concerns for ‘good parents’

Former Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace with Jack McConnell.
Former Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace with Jack McConnell.
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The first attempt to outlaw smacking children saw Scottish Government ministers wrestle with concerns that a ban would see “good parents” prosecuted, newly released Cabinet papers have disclosed.

As Holyrood considers a fresh bid to make smacking illegal, the documents outline the difficulties faced by Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition ministers when they tried to introduce a ban 15 years ago.

According to the 2002 Cabinet papers, the then deputy first minister Jim (now Lord) Wallace believed a smacking ban would help Scotland rid its reputation for violence.

“Scotland is by international standards a violent country and if we want to break that cycle we can make a start with the young,” a memorandum he presented to Cabinet said.

“But there is no point in passing a law that will be disobeyed or ridiculed,” it added.

In 2001 the Scottish Executive proposed a ban on smacking children under the age of three. Critics of the plan claimed it was redolent of a “nanny state” and a year later the plan was abandoned after failing to get enough political support.

Cabinet papers released today reveal that both Labour and Lib Dem MSPs were divided on the issue.

Mr Wallace also looked at changing the age limit from three to two years in an attempt to make the ban more palatable to sceptical members of the public.

In another memo to Cabinet, Mr Wallace anticipated that a forthcoming report by Holyrood’s justice committee would be “hostile” to the ban.

He said MSPs on the committee had concerns that a ban would be “oppressive” to parents and doubts over whether it was a good way to protect children.

He acknowledged that some people questioned whether there was any need for legislation given that the Scottish Executive was unable to point to “large numbers of cases which existing law could not cover”.

Citing another problem ­identified by the proposal’s critics, the memo listed “the risk that good parents will be liable to investigation and prosecution. Executive reassurances that police and prosecutors would exercise proper discretion in ‘trivial’ cases seemed to cut little ice.”

Similar concerns have been raised by those objecting to the current proposal to ban smacking, which is in the form of a member’s bill from the Green MSP John Finnie.

Last night Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith MSP said: “Attempts to introduce a complete ban on smacking are fraught with legal difficulties, not least of which is the fact that any ban would be unenforceable.

“A complete ban would criminalise thousands of parents, which is exactly why the current law of reasonable chastisement had majority parliamentary support the last time and why most parents also support the existing law.”

A spokesman for Be Reasonable, which is opposing the proposed bill, said: “Nothing much changes – politicians were wrong to try and criminalise parents for smacking then – and they’re still wrong. But still they persist in trying to foist this unpopular legislation on an unwilling electorate.

“The attitude of the public is quite clear. The most recent opinion poll undertaken indicates that around three quarters of parents oppose having a ban on smacking introduced in this country.”

Mr Wallace suggested that lowering the age threshold at which smacking would be illegal from three years to two would “probably command more support” and sought the views of the Cabinet. He warned, however, that altering the legislation would be seen as “a significant climbdown by the Executive”. In the end, his suggestion was not taken up.

Another paper saw Mr Wallace acknowledge that it was “not clear” that Justice 2 committee members had been reassured that “otherwise good parents” would not be prosecuted for “trivial smacks”.

He went on to say that his own Lib Dem party were divided on the issue. “The issues had been discussed at some length within the Liberal Democrat Party’s Parliamentary Group but there was no consensus within the group.

“Some members thought that the age related provision should be dropped altogether, some thought it should be reduced to two and others thought that a decision should be deferred and the position reviewed.”

The Labour minister Patricia Ferguson said the Labour Parliamentary Group was also divided and some Labour MSPs believed the ban was unworkable.

“Some felt that the appropriate course was to enforce the existing legislation and to support that with an educational campaign.

“Some thought an age-related ban would be unworkable, regardless of the age specified, and some supported the provision currently included in the Bill.”