Scotland’s smacking ban misses the big issue in child abuse – Tom Wood

So Scotland has become the first part of the UK to make smacking children illegal – or, to be precise, to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement.

Adults can no longer use the defence of 'reasonable chastisement' if they assault their children (Picture: John Devlin)
Adults can no longer use the defence of 'reasonable chastisement' if they assault their children (Picture: John Devlin)

Bravo, who could gainsay such a virtuous cause? All violence is unacceptable. But, before we get down to serious self-congratulation, let’s reflect for a moment.

The mark of an advanced society is not how many laws you can pass but how few you can get by with. So there are three common-sense tests before adding yet more legislation to our bulging law books.

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First, what is the problem we seek to address? Second, is there no existing remedy in law? And last, is the new legislation thought through and practical?

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Smacking ban: what is Scotland’s new law on physical discipline and punishment o...

How many times has the defence of reasonable chastisement actually been used – very few, I suspect. So is there a problem to solve in the first place?

A few years ago, I served as chair of two local authority child protection committees.

First, some important perspective – 98 per cent of the children in these areas were healthy, happy and grew into fine young people. But the remaining two per cent were troubled in a number of ways.

They and their families urgently needed help. While the percentages differ across Scotland, it’s important to remember that we are speaking about a small minority.

But of that small, troubled minority, physical abuse was not the big issue, the main problem was physical and emotional neglect. No bruises, just old-fashioned hunger, dirt and isolation – more damaging and pernicious than any slap on the backside.

This is the cold reality for many of Scotland’s abused children.

So what about other legal remedies? Well, there are options. The common law of assault with aggravation for the status of the victim fits the bill and, in statute, the Children and Young Persons legislation has protected our minors since 1936.

In my long police service, I never found there was a lack of law when dealing with abused children; I often found there was a lack of evidence, which brings me to the last test – practicality.

Despite the ballyhoo, I suspect our new anti-smacking legislation will be little used. Assaults on children rarely happen in public and, by definition, the victims are rarely in a position to report them when they do.

But it is in the nature of things that one or two will fall foul. Inevitably some beleaguered mum struggling to cope with a tantrum in a supermarket aisle will come under the baleful eye of one of the unco guid. Another problem for our overstretched police and criminal justice system!

However, let’s not be churlish. It is good that our politicians are focusing on the vital area of child protection. Our neglected and marginalised children, though in the tiny minority, desperately need our help.

They and their families need a hand up – with no new legislation required.

Tom Wood is a writer, former Deputy Chief Constable and chair of child protection committees

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