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Will England ban parents smacking their children and why is the law relating to physical punishment different in Scotland and Wales?



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The issue of whether parents should be allowed to smack their children is back in the news.

While parents in some parts of the UK are now banned from physically punishing their offspring, England has not yet followed suit - so what exactly does the law say and is it likely to change?

Parents in England should not smack their children except where this may amount to 'reasonable punishment' says the law. Photo: Stock image.
Parents in England should not smack their children except where this may amount to 'reasonable punishment' says the law. Photo: Stock image.

What does the law say about smacking?

It is unlawful for a parent to smack their child in England except where this may amount to 'reasonable punishment'.

This defence is included in section 58 of the the Children's Act 2004 - but the law is somewhat grey in that it doesn't define exactly what 'reasonable punishment' might consist of.

Whether a smack amounts to 'reasonable punishment' would most likely depend on the circumstances of each case and would need to take other factors into consideration, say legal experts, such as the age of the child and the nature of the smack used.

However parents are not able to rely on such a defence if they used severe physical punishment or excessive force against their child. If that led to wounding and left a physical mark, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or was deemed to be child cruelty then under any of these offences parents can be charged with a criminal offence and could face prison.

Despite there being a defence for parents in England, it is illegal for teachers, nursery workers or child care workers to smack another person’s child.

People in Wales are asked to report any incidents where children are seen being physically punished by their parents. Image: iStock photo.
People in Wales are asked to report any incidents where children are seen being physically punished by their parents. Image: iStock photo.

Where is smacking illegal in the UK?

Last month Wales became the second part of the UK to bring in a ban on smacking and slapping children, with people now instructed to contact the authorities if they see a parent or carer using any form of physical punishment.

The new legislation removed the 'reasonable punishment' defence, currently still available in England, and now stops parents in Wales smacking, slapping, shaking, or hitting their offspring. Parents can now face criminal or civil charges if they are caught punishing their child physically in any way.

The new law applies to both residents and visitors to Wales, with the Welsh Labour government saying it was a move that would 'protect children's rights'.

Scotland was the first to ban the physical punishment of under 16s by their parents back in 2020, giving children the same protection from assault as adults. It is only England and Northern Ireland which have yet to follow suit.

Labour leader Keir Starmer wants to see a ban on smacking in England
Labour leader Keir Starmer wants to see a ban on smacking in England

What's happened this week?

Despite calls last month for England to follow Wales in banning physical punishment - with Labour leader Keir Starmer among those calling for the law here to be changed - the government shows few signs of wanting to do so.

The issue of smacking children is back in the headlines after the Children's Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza said in an interview that she felt children deserved the same protection from assault as adults.

She told Times Radio: “I absolutely abhor, and I’m against, violence of any kind against children. Because children are more vulnerable than adults, I think we do need to ensure that their rights are supported."

Her comments are supported by children's charities including the NSPCC, which would like to see all children protected against physical punishment of any form.

Speaking last month when Wales banned smacking, the charity's CEO Sir Peter Wanless, said: "Public attitudes to physical punishment are changing and the law needs to follow suit. Westminster now needs to follow its neighbours and tackle this legal anomaly."

Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi

Dame de Souza's comments prompted the government's education secretary Nadhim Zahawi to respond - saying that he felt it was up to parents to decide how to discipline their children.

He firmly rejected calls for England to follow Scotland and Wales with a smacking ban and said he didn't want to "end up in a world where the state is nannying people about how they bring up their children​".

The issue however did prompt a call from some ministers, including some Conservative MPs, for a proper debate in parliament about the issue.



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