The Welsh Government wants to remove the common law defence of reasonable punishment which is currently available to parental figures if accused of assault or battery against a child.
If passed the Children (Wales) Bill would act as the first divergence of core criminal law between Wales and England, where parents would still be able to legally physically punish a child as long as it is deemed “reasonable”.
The Government-led bill is being supported by a number of organisations including the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Action for Children, and comes as a private members bill in Scotland is currently being considered by MSPs which would remove the defence of “justifiable assault” in Scots law.
Wales’ deputy minister for health and social services, Julie Morgan, said: “We are sending a clear message that the physical punishment of children is not acceptable in Wales.
“What may have been deemed as appropriate in the past is no longer acceptable. Our children must feel safe and be treated with dignity.
“As one of the most progressive nations in the world when it comes to promoting children’s rights, I am proud this Welsh Government is legislating to bring an end to the physical punishment of children in Wales, further protecting children’s rights.”
The bill will now be scrutinised by AMs, with Welsh Government sources confident it will be passed by the National Assembly and brought into law after achieving Royal Assent by Spring 2020.
The Government says the legislation will be accompanied by an awareness-raising campaign and support for parents.
Research published last year found 81% of parents of young children in Wales disagreed that “it is sometimes necessary to smack a naughty child”, while the Parental Attitudes Towards Managing Young Children’s Behaviour 2017 survey found only 11% of parents with young children reported they had smacked their children in the last six months.
The legal defence of “reasonable chastisement” has been used in law since 1860 and is currently available in England and Wales for parents or adults acting in loco parentis against charges of common assault.
The most recent figures available show between 2005 and 2007 there were 12 cases where the use of the defence resulted in an acquittal of a defendant or a discontinuation of proceedings against them in England and Wales.
Wales would join the 54 countries around the world which have already banned the physical punishment of children, including Greece, Latvia, Albania, DR Congo, Kenya, with Sweden being the first to do so back in 1979.
Viv Laing, head of policy at NSPCC Cymru, said: “It’s wrong that children in Wales have less protection from assault and that a legal defence which does not exist when an adult is hit can be used to justify striking a child.
“We have long campaigned for equal protection for children and we strongly believe a change in the law is a common-sense move. Closing this loophole brings Wales in line with dozens of countries across the world and is simply about fairness and equality for our children.”
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “When a parent raises a hand to a defenceless child, whether that’s a smack, slap or another physically harmful behaviour, they have lost control.
“Research tells us that children who are physically punished are more likely to have poorer mental health and physical well-being and when they grow up, are more likely to engage in self-destructive or antisocial behaviour. Hurting a child isn’t acceptable and it is a form of child abuse.”
But the plans have been criticised by the campaign group Be Reasonable - backed by The Christian Institute and The Family Education Trust - which said the legislation would criminalise parents.
Spokeswoman Lowri Turner said: “It is disappointing that the Welsh Government has decided to press on with this unnecessary piece of legislation that will do nothing to protect children, but will criminalise loving parents.
“As we have seen from a slew of Freedom of Information requests, parents suspected of smacking face suspension, investigation by the police and social services, and prosecution.”