HL Deb 19 December 2001 vol 630 cc239-41
Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a voluntary association with the NSPCC.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what are their plans for protecting children from physical abuse by adults.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, physical abuse covers a spectrum of violent behaviour against children. We recognise in the Working together to safeguard children inter-agency child protection guidelines that such behaviour could include hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child.

As with all other forms of child abuse and neglect the Government are highly committed to protecting children from physical abuse through encouraging, resourcing and monitoring the operation of effective child protection procedures across the country.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Can he tell the House why the Government have chosen to ignore the advice of nearly all child protection professionals who say that a ban on hitting children is necessary in order to protect them from abuse? Does he recognise that there is a good deal of public support for such a ban since MORI found that nearly eight out of 10 parents would support a ban on hitting children provided that caring parents would not be criminalised for trivial smacks? Does he accept that such a ban working in that commonsense way exists already in nine other European countries and that it protects vulnerable children as well as caring parents?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No, my Lords, I do not accept that. Physical punishment by parents is best left to the judgment of parents with the protection of the law against violent assault. The defence of reasonable chastisement provides a proper balance. As far as concerns public consultation, the noble Baroness will know of the omnibus survey by the Office for National Statistics in 1998. It stated that 88 per cent of respondents were of the view that it was sometimes necessary to smack a naughty child, while only 8 per cent disagreed. At the end of the day it is surely better to leave the matter to the judgment of parents, alongside offering support to parents in the job that they do in bringing up children, within the safeguards of the current law.

Baroness David

My Lords, the Government have accepted "zero tolerance" as their target for domestic violence against women in the home. Why do they still persist in giving children less protection than adults and sending a "carry on smacking" message to parents? Surely the Government should give a lead on this matter.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, in relation to the physical punishment of children, surely the views of parents need to play a major part in this consideration. The consultation undertaken by the Government shows that the great majority of parents wish to retain the possibility of a reasonable use of physical punishment in bringing up their children. For the law to intervene and actually say to parents that they could under no circumstances use physical punishment would be extremely counterproductive. It would criminalise many people and it is not a sensible route down which to go.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what has happened to the idea, which has been much trailed in recent times, of a reviewable sentence? I have raised the issue over the past 10 years or so. It has been raised by a number of recent reports. It was first suggested—I am sure the Minister will appreciate—by the Home Secretary, Mr R A Butler, who had a committee dealing particularly with the mentally affected prisoner. Has anything been done to put a reviewable sentence in place and thereby achieve an indeterminate sentence, which has many advantages over the life sentence?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that question was somewhat wide of the Starred Question.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the experience of Victoria Climbié shows that something much more fundamental needs to be addressed than whether or not parents can tap their children if they misbehave? Should we not be directing our attention at the failure of all the systems designed to note and react to the evident signs of physical abuse which she was showing?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord. That is why the Government have toughened up the guidance on safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. We must learn the lessons of these tragic cases. At the same we should not underestimate the general improvements that have been made in child protection procedures nor the fact that the great majority of social workers do a difficult job sometimes under pressurised circumstances. The way through is to ensure that child protection procedures are operated effectively and that we continue to increase resources to personal social services. The establishment of a general social care council to regulate social workers will ensure a higher degree of professionalism and support within the social work profession.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned that nine other countries have laws against physical abuse towards children. Can the Minister say what the impact of those laws has been?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my understanding is that the evidence is not altogether clear. Certainly it is not enough on its own to justify a total ban. After the consultation that we have undertaken we have reached a sensible conclusion. It allows parents who wish to to use reasonable chastisement but retains the full protection of the law for children when violent assaults take place.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that in the vast majority of cases where parents use physical punishment it is either because they have been severely provoked by their children or, much more commonly, because they do not know how to discipline their children in any other way? Would it not be better to put the cart before the horse and help parents to understand and to know the ways in which it is possible to guide children and to set boundaries for them before introducing a law?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not disagree with the noble Lord. The Government have taken a number of steps to ensure that people are supported in their role as parents, including establishing a national parent helpline and the National Family and Parenting Institute. In addition, the Sure Start schemes in local communities have also provided a number of interesting and valid programmes to support parents in what can often be a challenging and difficult role.

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