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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The timing of the debate is not the responsibility of the Chair and was decided by the House earlier. Had the Minister been out of order in any of the things that she said, I would not have allowed her to say them.

New Clause 12

Reasonable punishment

'(1)   Battery of a child cannot be justified in any proceedings on the grounds that it constituted reasonable punishment.

(2)   Battery of a child is not unlawful if the act amounts to the use of reasonable force in order to—

(a)   avert an immediate danger to the child or any other person;

(b)   avert an immediate danger to property; or

(c)   prevent the commission of a crime, or an act which would be a crime if the child had reached the age of criminal responsibility.

(3)   For the purpose of subsections (1) and (2), "child" means a person under the age of 18.

(4)   Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (c.12) (cruelty to persons under sixteen) is amended as follows.

(5)   At the end of subsection (7) insert "subject to subsection (8)".

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(6)   After subsection (7) insert—

"(8)   Corporal punishment administered to a child cannot be justified in any proceedings on the grounds that it was administered in pursuance of a right exercisable by virtue of subsection (7).

(9)   For the purpose of subsection (8), administering corporal punishment to a child means doing anything for the purpose of punishing that child which would constitute unlawful battery.".'.—[Mr. Hinchliffe.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) (Lab): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 23, in page 37, line 18, leave out clause 56.

No. 39, in page 37, line 33, at end insert—

'(6)   Two years after the commencement of this section, the Secretary of State shall undertake a review of the effect of the provisions of subsections (1) to (5) on the number of convictions for the offences specified in subsection (2).

(7)   As soon as practicable after the completion of the review under subsection (6) the Secretary of State shall lay before each House of Parliament a report on the outcome of the review.'.

Mr. Hinchliffe: I want to begin by repeating the warm welcome that I gave on Second Reading for the broad thrust of the Bill. In general, it is a very positive measure. With some minor amendments, it could represent a genuinely historic step forward in children's welfare.

New clause 12 deals with the physical chastisement of children. I accept that this is a highly contentious matter for some, and that it generates strong feelings among a significant number of people. I also accept that it is not any easy matter for any Government to address, as some people will accuse them of establishing a so-called nanny state and of interfering in the private domain of the family. I am therefore very grateful to the ministerial team responsible for the Bill for their willingness to listen, over a long period of time, to the concerns and arguments of those of us who believe that children should have equal protection in law from assault.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friends the Minister for Children and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for the time that they have devoted to this issue. I am also grateful to those who are—shall we say—at even higher levels of the Government for a dialogue that has ensured that serious thought has been given to how we can make progress in respect of protecting children.

I shall not dwell on the outcome of our dialogue, save to say that it is unfortunate that Labour members have been whipped to vote against a new clause that has the overwhelming support of every child protection agency in the country. For some, this is an abstract academic issue, but for many hon. Members, and myself, it is about the basic human rights of a significant proportion of our population. Our arguments are based not on policy briefings from worthy organisations but on the experience that some of us have gained from working in child protection with vulnerable and abused youngsters. Our strength of feeling comes from the certain knowledge that our laws and society could do a great deal more to ensure their well-being.
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4.30 pm

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend told the House that a range of child protection agencies supported his amendment. Is he aware that Lord Laming, the author of the Victoria Climbié report that led to the introduction of the Bill, does not support his amendment and, indeed, supports the Government's position?

Mr. Hinchliffe: Lord Laming appeared before the Health Committee, and we discussed the matter. I do not know why he does not support the amendment, bearing in mind the fact that the escalation of injuries to this girl stemmed from what might be termed "gentle smacking". His personal perspective differs significantly from that of his predecessor, Sir William Utting, who was a strong supporter of the arguments that I shall make.

I am the first to agree that the vast majority of children, even most of those whose parents use physical chastisement, are probably better treated now than at any other time in history. For a minority whom the current law does not protect properly, however, the reality is very different. It is a scandal and a disgrace that in 21st century Britain, at least one child every week—more than 80 children every year—dies at the hands of their parents or carers. Compared with many similar countries, our record on child deaths is appalling.

Like my colleagues who have worked in child protection, I do not just think that there is a connection between our shocking levels of child deaths and laws permitting so-called reasonable chastisement; I know that there is. I have witnessed in individual cases the progression from what is now called "gentle smacking" to serious injury and, in a couple of instances, death from shaking, hitting, punching and beating. I have direct experience of the inability of a child protection agency to stop a child suffering serious beating because of a court's acceptance of the reasonable chastisement defence.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that those serious injuries and deaths are already illegal, and that the problem is the behaviour of parents who commit illegal acts, not the behaviour of the vast majority of parents who are trying to keep their children within reasonable bounds of discipline?

Mr. Hinchliffe: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to expand my argument, I will address that point.

New clause 12 seeks to right a long-standing wrong for children. It has the modest aim of giving children equal protection from assault, but has substantial potential to reduce all forms of violence. Equal protection means what it says; hitting a child will be unlawful to exactly the same extent as hitting an adult. Some adults and, sadly, even some Government Ministers are fond of using the term "smacking" to make them feel more comfortable with what they are condoning or defending. Children, however, tell it as it is; smacking is hitting, and smacking hurts. It does not just cause physical pain, but hurts inside too.

The new clause would criminalise hitting to exactly the same extent as hitting adults. That is equality, and children, who are far more fragile and vulnerable than
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us, deserve nothing less. Some members of the Government have said that they do not want parents to be criminalised for hitting their children. If they mean that they will not apply the criminal law on assault equally to assault by parents on children, we are on opposite sides of the fence. If they mean that they do not want parents to be drawn into the criminal justice system, charged and prosecuted for minor assaults on children, we are on the same side. No one in their right mind would think it constructive, apart from in very exceptional circumstances, to pursue parents into court for trivial assaults. Prosecution of parents is seldom in the interests of their dependent children, but that cannot be used as an excuse for leaving the law unclear, and sending the message that hitting children, unlike hitting adults, is acceptable.

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