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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Part of the hon. Gentleman's argument is the idea that children should be equally protected from being hit or smacked, whichever word one chooses to use. However, there is a difference between a child and a parent. A parent has a duty of care to a child and carries that out by putting it to bed, giving it food, looking after it and giving it moral guidance and help with discipline so that it may become a proper civilised adult. Smacking might be appropriate in that context. Why does he want to influence the relationship between a responsible parent and a child who may well need proper guidance?

Mr. Hinchliffe: We could argue on that basis that perhaps people with learning difficulties lack a sense of reason. Should we thus suggest smacking them, because that is exactly the same argument?

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans) (Lab): May I offer my hon. Friend some support? As a father of seven children, I believe that I have more parenting skills than most in the House, and I say, "Don't smack children."

Mr. Hinchliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
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I want to conclude in a moment so that other hon. Members have the opportunity to speak. People who oppose new clause 12 because of the risk that a parent might, in exceptional circumstances, be prosecuted for what is perceived as a minor assault should not fool themselves that they have the backing of those charged with a responsibility for child protection; clearly, they do not. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has heard evidence on the matter from the Director of Public Prosecutions and others. In its 19th report in September, it emphasised the fact that equal protection would provide more legal certainty than clause 56. No one has challenged the law of assault against adults as not providing legal certainty. No one would suggest that we should decriminalise the minor slapping of women, confused elderly people or those with learning difficulties, who, like young children, might have limited powers of reasoning. I am merely proposing to extend the existing law to cover children equally. We have already extended equal protection to children in schools, nurseries and so on. This is the last logical step in establishing equality.

Colleagues who have looked at debates on the Bill in the House of Lords will have seen that some particularly absurd examples were cited. One Member asked whether we really wanted to criminalise the exasperated parent who smacks her child to stop him running into the road for the fourth time. Well, do we really want to decriminalise the exasperated but loving daughter who smacks her confused father who is suffering from dementia and who is also straying into the road for the fourth time? Again, we must not confuse the law, which must be clear and take sensible common-sense approaches to prosecution. All assault and battery should be unlawful. In either of the examples, can anyone seriously envisage the perpetrators being dragged off to court?

If there are not to be wholesale prosecutions, some will ask what is the point of changing the law if we are not going to enforce it. Let us be clear that removal of the defence will make prosecution easier in cases where it is necessary to protect children from significant harm and doing so is in the child's best interests. At the moment, the law inhibits the child protection system at every stage. Most importantly, it inhibits those working with families in intervening early with clear and supportive messages, rather than waiting for significant injury.

The concept of prosecution and punishment is just one purpose of the law. Prosecution in this area is a demonstration of the law and the system failing to protect the child. The higher purpose of the law and its particular purpose when dealing with the private sphere of the family is to set a standard, send a clear signal, educate, change the culture, change individual attitudes and satisfy human rights.

Through its policies on the physical punishment of children, Britain is in breach of its obligations under both the United Nations convention on the rights of the child—signed up to by a Conservative Government some years ago—and the United Nations convention on human rights. Twelve countries have already introduced equal protection. If they can do it, so can we. The new clause has the support outside Parliament of the largest and broadest alliance ever assembled to pursue an issue on behalf of children. We should listen to its argument,
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and in particular to the unanimous voice of our child protection agencies, and vote to ensure that the welfare of our children is properly safeguarded in law.

Mrs. Brooke: We have just heard a comprehensive run-through of most of the main arguments, and as time is limited and many hon. Members want to speak, I shall not repeat them. I want to reflect on the fact that the defence of reasonable chastisement has been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights and a judgment has been made. The Joint Committee on Human Rights in this place believes that something must change as a result of that judgment.

In accepting that something must change, let us consider the amendment agreed in the House of Lords, which now forms clause 56. I regard it effectively as a sticking plaster. I am sure that legalistically it addresses the fundamental issue that we are in breach of various conventions, but as the Joint Committee on Human Rights says, it is likely that there will be further incompatibilities in future. So, if anything, clause 56 would be only a temporary fix and does not tackle the main issue. If we think about it, putting a sticking plaster on something makes one feel better and more comfortable. I worry that clause 56 makes people feel a little better because they think that they are tackling the worst of abuses and that therefore things will be all right. That concerns me greatly. For that reason, I support new clause 12, but I do not do so lightly. It has taken me quite a long time to come round to that and to have the courage to speak up on it.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): What would happen where a parent had smacked a child in the privacy of the home, just the two of them? How would the child have protection? Is the idea that the child would know about this law, go to the police, and then the police would have to adjudicate between parent and child, one saying yes and the other no? How far will the intrusion go and could it be successful for the child?

Mrs. Brooke: I shall continue with my points and address that question at an appropriate point rather than diverting from my main issue at this stage.

I was saying that I do not support the new clause lightly. I have given it a great deal of thought and I am aware that many people will disagree with this approach, but it is an opportunity to show leadership. So much of the legislation in which I have been involved has been reactive. We constantly try to do something in our criminal justice system about bad behaviour, violence and physical assault, but this is an opportunity to start at the root causes.

What does physical punishment achieve? Research shows that it does not change behaviour but suppresses it, and suppressing behaviour almost certainly means that it comes out in another form, particularly when the person who administers or might administer the punishment is not around. That creates the potential for children to hit out at one another in the playground. After all, what have they seen in the home? What are their role models? Any form of physical punishment sets that lead.

Until I became a Member of Parliament, I had not realised that some children, particularly in certain home settings, see types of behaviour that I could not even
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comprehend—I am referring to cases of sexual abuse—yet they become a norm. We are talking about norm referencing here. Any form of violence within the home has a spin-off effect outside the home and in future family relationships.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con) rose—

Miss Kirkbride rose—

Mrs. Brooke: I shall continue my argument, if hon. Members do not mind. I am sure that they will have plenty of opportunity to speak later.

Physical punishment is ineffective and has other consequences. There is also the important point about equality for children and adults, which I see in terms of the respect that we have for one another as individuals, and that respect is broken down.

Mr. Malins: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Brooke: I shall continue the points that I am making.

If we stop and think carefully, we are not making a positive contribution. It is often said, "It never did me any harm," but the research shows overwhelmingly that physical punishment certainly does no one any good. We have a positive opportunity to show real leadership and set a change in culture for the 2lst century. People will not change their behaviour overnight. It will be gradual and any move along these lines needs an enormous amount of support and parental education.

Let us consider a familiar scenario. In a busy shopping centre one inevitably comes across a parent who is having an extremely frustrating time with a youngster. They are pushed to the limit of their endurance and perhaps hit their child round the head or hit hard, and I flinch when I see that. I imagine that that applies to most people. I understand the situation because, as a parent, I have been pushed to the limit of endurance, too. We can all acknowledge that. We are not considering criminalising normal behaviour.

5 pm

Other countries take a sensible approach. It is accepted that it takes time to moderate behaviour and that one cannot simply go from one control system to another without supporting education. However, we could be proud of our leadership if we accepted the new clause. I do not view it as an example of being a nanny state because we would set the foundations for improving behaviour in society and for some of the values that we all support. We see violence on the streets, and perhaps we have set the bad example.

In answer to the point that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made, senseless criminalisation has not occurred in other countries. It is worth attending briefings by representatives of Germany and Sweden. Europe has a long history of making improvements in this respect. Deaths from abuse have more or less disappeared in Sweden, where
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the problem is managed so much better. I ask all hon. Members to examine their consciences and consider supporting new clause 12.

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