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Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I want to speak about amendment No. 39, which I framed after discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), who, as a trustee of ChildLine, has done much to help vulnerable children. I want to put on record my thanks to him for his work on behalf of vulnerable children throughout the United Kingdom.

The law, which allows reasonable chastisement of a child, fails to protect children who are physically abused. It allows their abusers a loophole at trial and prevents other cases from coming to trial. The alterations that were made in another place present an unsatisfactory compromise, allowing children to be hit but placing a physical marker on how hard they can be hit and in what way. That is dangerous because children mark in many different ways for different lengths of time, and shaking and blows to the head often do not offer the physical proof that would have to be brought as evidence to ensure a conviction. The proposal is impractical because it will place doctors and paediatricians in a difficult position in determining what constitutes minor bruising and thus whether a child is covered by the new law. That is unsatisfactory.

However, although my hon. Friend and I believe that the current law fails to protect a child, we acknowledge the need to bring the public with us. That is why we propose, as a practical way forward, a Government review two years after the introduction of clause 56. It should be followed by a report to the House for our consideration. I stress that, if the review shows that the child abuse statistics have not dramatically improved, legislation will need to be reconsidered. That should happen only after we have had a proper time to consider the effectiveness of the proposals.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I want clause 56 to be removed from the Bill because, like the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I believe that it worsens the position. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the need for a careful, measured and consistent approach to assist those who care for children and he mentioned several agencies that supported his careful, measured and consistent approach. The group that he did not mention in that connection was those who have the greatest responsibility for bringing up children: parents. I am not fortunate enough to be a parent, but I have no doubt that the best way to bring up children is with their two natural parents. Not all of us achieve that aspiration—we do not, of course, condemn those who do not achieve it—but parents have a unique relationship with their children and a unique responsibility to bring them up as citizens of tomorrow, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) suggested. We know that the overwhelming majority of parents not only do their best, but do an excellent job of bringing up children. Just as we make mistakes from time to time in our personal and political lives, so, under much greater pressure than us, do parents.

Mr. Malins : Does my hon. Friend agree that if the defence of reasonable chastisement is abolished, it will
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criminalise millions of decent, loving parents who use a smack from time to time, whereas those few parents who assault their children horribly and are guilty of a criminal act will simply take no notice?

Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The police and other agencies currently face the difficulty of tracking down and securing convictions against those who horribly abuse their children.

Mr. Llwyd: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the recent "Children are Unbeatable!" alliance poll, in which 74 per cent. of parents—the figure for parents under 24 is 76 per cent.—said that they are against beating and smacking?

Mr. Turner: I am aware of that poll. It did not mention "beating"; it talked about "hitting". It was taken in 2004.

Mr. Llwyd: This year.

Mr. Turner: Yes; the poll is up to date. The definition of "hitting" adopted in the preamble to the poll included a slap or smack, but when the actual question was asked, the poll did not use the words "slapping" or "smacking"—it used the word "hitting", in the sense of hitting not a child but family members. That is the perverted way in which the questions were asked on behalf of the "Children are Unbeatable!" alliance.

Many other surveys have been undertaken. MORI conducted a survey for the National Family and Parenting Institute, which claimed after that survey that only one in five parents think that smacking is an effective way to teach children the difference between right and wrong. However, parents were not asked whether smacking is an effective way to teach children the difference between right and wrong, but whether it is the most effective way, and one in five parents think it the most effective method.

A British Market Research Bureau survey in July 2004 found that 85 per cent. of respondents think that parents should have the right sometimes to smack their children. In a survey undertaken on behalf of the Department of Health in 1998, 88 per cent. of respondents agreed that it is sometimes necessary for parents to smack their children. Let us examine all the surveys, rather than just one.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to confirm the findings that he has just set out. I conducted a survey on the issue in my constituency, where 89 per cent. of respondents said that they do not want to see smacking banned. However, 71 per cent. wanted the law clarified to distinguish between smacking and hitting—the distinction is between disciplining a child in a loving relationship and assaulting and abusing a child. My constituents want to see the law make that distinction, and I am slightly disappointed that the hon. Gentleman does not.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which brings me neatly on to what is wrong with clause 56. The amendment that Lord Lester
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moved in the other place throws the law on smacking into confusion. It removes the reasonable chastisement defence in three cases—wounding, grievous bodily harm and cruelty. That is entirely justifiable, but it will make no difference because a court is unlikely to accept that chastisement with such effects is reasonable. Indeed, the reasonable chastisement defence has been attempted in only 11 cases since 2001, and in only five of those was a conviction not secured. Lord Lester's amendment would retain the reasonable chastisement defence for assault and for battery, but abolish it for assault causing actual bodily harm. That is the nub of the problem, because the definition of assault causing actual bodily harm includes tenderness and bruising; and, as the hon. Member for Wakefield said, some children bruise more easily than others.

It follows that a parent who administers a quick slap in a supermarket, perhaps to foreshorten the sort of childish tantrums to which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) referred, will be guilty of a criminal offence if it causes actual bodily harm such as tenderness. That is not to say that they will be prosecuted, but they will be criminalised. The hon. Member for Wakefield agrees with me about that.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The question also arises as to whether this will result in a misuse of police resources. Does my hon. Friend agree that if a member of the public saw a child being struck in a public place, and then reported that matter to the police, the police would have to make detailed inquiries to discover whether there was an underlying case of abuse in that particular case?

Mr. Turner: I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. The hon. Member for Wakefield says that the police are recording such reports now, so we can imagine how many more there would be if there were even more confusion about what the law means, which would be the result of Lord Lester's amendment.

Mr. Simon Thomas: The hon. Gentleman has made the case that clause 56 is rubbish and does not hold water, so we can at least agree on that. He now wants to rely on the ancient common law defence of reasonable chastisement. Is he aware that that defence once applied to wives and servants as well? In what sense does he think that we should, in the 21st century, extend a protection that allows children to be, in his own words, bruised or harmed?

Mr. Turner: I should have thought that there is an obvious difference between a child who is not yet, or is in the process of becoming, a moral being and a wife or a servant, who, one would hope, already is. The loving relationship that parents have with their child is part of what informs the way in which they bring them up. It may be argued—indeed, it was put to me by members of the Isle of Wight youth council, who lobbied me vigorously and eloquently last Wednesday—that no one will be charged with this offence. There are prosecuting guidelines, and the police and social services have discretion. The problem with the guidelines, however, is that the authority has discretion whether to apply the
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law, and different authorities, even those operating on the same guidelines, can reach different and perfectly reasonable conclusions about how to apply the law.

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