"The UK should ban smacking of children"

PUBLISHED: 01 Jan 2014

AUTHOR: David Bowden

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While corporal punishment of children was heavily restricted in the UK by the Children’s Act of 2004, it remains legal for parents or guardians to use ‘reasonable chastisement’ to discipline under-18s in their care. The continued existence of this provision, however, remains highly contentious. In December 2013 Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, re-opened the debate by stating her personal view that the UK government should seek a total ban, on the basis that it was ‘counter-evidential’ to forbid the use of violence against other adults but not children [Ref: Independent].  Supporters of a full ban on smacking, including campaigns groups such as the NSPCC, argue that the UK’s support for smacking has drawn censure from the UN and that its underlying principle of ‘might is right’ has no place in 21st century parenting [Ref: Yahoo News]. Yet others argue that parents should feel legitimate in using mild physical force to discipline their children and that a ban would represent excessive interference by the state into private family life. In 2011, following the London riots, Labour MP David Lammy argued that parents’ fears they would be prosecuted for smacking their children had contributed to social breakdown and a crisis in adult authority [Ref: BBC News]. Other politicians, including Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Justice Minister Chris Grayling, have offered their support for the current law and point towards strong public opinion on the issue [Ref: Daily Mail]. Should the government follow the lead of 22 other European countries and afford equal legal protection to children from physical force? Or is it important to defend the right of parents to exercise discipline in raising their children as they see fit?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is ‘reasonable chastisement’?
Under the Children Act 2004 parents, or those acting in loco parentis, are able to administer physical force provided it does not leave grazing, bruising, swelling or breaking of skin and cannot be used as a defence in serious assault charges [Ref: The Times] – in Scotland the use of an implement is expressly forbidden. In 2010 the Singleton Report tightened this up further, but upheld parents’ right to issue a ‘mild smack’ [Ref: BBC News]. Campaigners maintain, however, that even this current freedom exposes children to a range of potential harms and impairs child development [Ref: Al Jazeera], although the extent of this is heavily disputed [Ref: Herald Scotland]. As one supporter of the ban notes, this is a debate less about the evidential question of harm than it is about the principles: should society endorse and protect the use of force against children as part of modern parenting? [Ref: New Statesman].

Spare the rod, spoil the child?
Proponents of a ban argue that smacking based upon outdated notions of discipline: pointing towards corporal punishment’s increasing unacceptability in other aspects of life [Ref:]. Furthermore it is maintained that it is less effective than other forms of discipline, and that the current law encourages unnecessary uses of force [Ref: Huffington Post]. As others note, however, there is no strong evidence to suggest the current law allows ‘violent assault’ against minors beyond its current provisions [Ref: Independent]. It is argued that the ban’s supporters are guilty of elevating personal preferences over parenting styles that are not necessarily any more or less enlightened than the non-violent alternatives they espouse [Ref: Telegraph]. Given the government states it does not ‘condone’ smacking as a method, are they justified in allowing it to be used?

The state and the family
For many the debate over smacking is about much more than the act itself. Attempts by politicians to associate restrictions on smacking with the London riots have been criticised by numerous campaigners as being simplistic and opportunistic [Ref: Guardian]. Nonetheless, several of the writers on both sides express a strong anxiety that the state has gone too far in undermining the authority of parents at the expense of protecting children who, after all, are widely accepted as needing adult supervision and guidance [Ref: spiked]. In practice, the ban’s implementation would remove what many perceive as a grey area yet would also require considerably more state intervention into child-care and family life. Should the government follow numerous other Western countries in acting to provide equality for potentially vulnerable children at the risk of criminalising adults? Or should society affirm the right of parents to administer appropriate discipline at their discretion, even if many may consider it distasteful?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Ban smacking of children…now

Lindsay Whittle Huffington Post 10 September 2013

Smacking: an acceptable form of child abuse

Siobhan Courtney Al Jazeera 16 March 2013

Why David Lammy is wrong about smacking

Zoe Williams Guardian 30 January 2012


So smacking kids is wrong – and doping them is right?

Cristina Odone Telegraph 3 February 2013

I was smacked as a child. It shouldn’t be illegal

Ellie Rose Independent 5 October 2012


How the nationalisation of parenting stoked the riots

Jennie Bristow spiked 17 July 2012

Slap happy

Vicky Allan Herald Scotland 7 November 2010

This had the smack of good sense my lords

Simon Jenkins The Times 7 July 2004


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Smacking your child – a place for the law?

Alicia Jones Current Legal Issues Blog 13 January 2014

Physical punishment of children

Department of Education 1 June 2012

Should smacking be banned?

Bonnie Gardiner YouGov 22 February 2012

Smacking ban led to riots - Lammy

LBC 29 January 2012

The Chief Adviser on the Safety of Children

Sir Roger Singleton HM Government March 2010

Is it legal? A parent’s guide to the law

Family & Parenting Institute October 2007

Children Act 2004

HM Government 2004


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Smacking ban led to riots - Lammy

LBC 29 January 2012

Should the law on smacking be relaxed?

Channel 4 News 29 January 2012

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