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Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): The hon. Gentleman will know that since the law was changed in Germany in 2000, not one parent has been criminalised. Does he agree that the issue at the heart of the Bill is summed up in the film of Roald Dahl's "Matilda", in which Danny DeVito says to his daughter, "I'm big and you're small. I'm right and you're wrong"? It is not only about quality, but about defending the most vulnerable in society. It is plainly wrong that a 13-stone, 40-year-old man can hit a four-stone seven-year-old child. We just have to change the law.

Mr. Hinchliffe: I did not see the film, but I agree with its message. The only way to clarify the law and send a clear message that hitting children is at least as wrong and unlawful as hitting anyone else is to give children equal protection by removing the existing defence of reasonable chastisement altogether.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab): Through an honest sleight of hand, my hon. Friend has elided smacking and hitting. Most responsible parents are well able to distinguish between smacking that does not cause lasting harm and hitting, which certainly would. When he listed the ways in which those 80 children met their tragic deaths, he identified shaking and other forms of assault, but did not refer to smacking. It is clear to most reasonable people that assault is a different kettle of fish from disciplining a child in a loving family environment.

Mr. Hinchliffe: My hon. Friend gets us into the heart of the debate. I have been in court when the same point has been raised in individual cases. Is a smack in the mouth a hit? What is the difference between a smack and a hit? What is a gentle smack and what is a more serious, heavier smack? There are different smacks from different people. I weigh 16 stone. If I smacked my hon. Friend, it would be different from someone who was 10 stone smacking him. We need to consider how difficult it is for the courts to come to terms with the doubts that he raises.

To pursue the point further, I have argued that we need to get rid of the reasonable chastisement defence. Those who cannot accept what I believe to be a common-sense approach have been scaremongering that it is unworkable or that the child protection police and prosecution services will pursue prosecutions for so-called gentle smacks.
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The evidence of the Director of Public Prosecutions has been grossly misrepresented. In his evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, he said, reasonably enough, that he could not guarantee that parents would never be prosecuted for minor assaults on their children. He stated:

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): How does the hon. Gentleman square the DPP's view with the Crown Prosecution Service allegedly telling the Government that the new clause would criminalise a huge number of people?

Mr. Hinchliffe: The view of the CPS appears to be contradicted by what the DPP told the Joint Committee and also what the Association of Chief Police Officers said to me last week.

The DPP did not say that equal protection was unworkable. He said that Parliament should decide. Two tests have to be satisfied before any prosecution goes ahead: the evidential test and the public interest test. The public interest test invariably includes consideration of the best interests of the affected child. It is hard to understand how charging and prosecuting a parent for a minor assault that causes no injury is going to pass the tests and go ahead except in extreme circumstances. That does not render the law meaningless. On the contrary, it shows it to be sensitive.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend's arguments are very persuasive; we pursued many of them in both my Select Committee and his. However, the proposals would bring a big change in our law. Does not he think that trying the new system for two years, monitoring it and then making a judgment would give us a means of transition for people we represent who are unpersuaded? Would not that be a more positive way forward?

Mr. Hinchliffe: If by "the new system" my hon. Friend means the one included in the Bill by the House of Lords, I shall be going through exactly what all the agencies concerned with child protection are saying about clause 56.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hinchliffe: No, I am sorry, but I have to make some progress. Other Members want to speak in this brief debate.

All the associations representing those who will need to work on equal protection are agreed that it is workable and safe; all of them. I have met and talked
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with representatives of the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Association of Chief Police Officers, social workers, the NSPCC, health visitors and paediatricians. They all believe emphatically—to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—that clause 56 is unworkable and unsafe.

The position of the police is especially worthy of note. The House will recall that in the Lords debate on equal protection Lord Condon—who, as Paul Condon, was a distinguished Metropolitan Police Commissioner—said that he was absolutely certain that the status quo should not prevail and that parliamentarians

He said that peers

Only last week, I met Chief Constable Terence Grange, who speaks for ACPO on child protection matters. Subsequently, he wrote to me, setting out the association's views on the serious problems that would arise for the police should clause 56 become law. I have a copy of his letter if anybody wants to look at it. He stated:

In addressing specifically the removal of the reasonable chastisement defence, Chief Constable Grange stated that

Chief Constable Grange concludes his letter on behalf of ACPO by saying that

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As Chief Constable Grange indicates, the police must work closely with members of the medical profession on such matters. It is important to note that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which represents paediatricians involved in child protection, is a signatory to a multi-agency statement that claims that clause 56 is unsafe and unworkable and that supports equal protection. Other signatories to the statement include the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, the NSPCC, the British Association of Social Workers and the Association of Directors of Social Services.

4.45 pm

Mr. Steve Love of the children and families committee of the ADSS wrote to me on behalf of the association to state its clear views. He said:

He continued:

In the light of such clear statements from all those in the front line of child protection, the scaremongering about the reform is frankly unacceptable. If there are still people in 2004 who want to defend hitting children, they should do so honestly, rather than hiding behind the misrepresented effects of reform that have been peddled over the past few weeks.

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