New children's bill: striking back

18 March 2020

Lecturer Michelle Moseley looks at the new law in Wales that has put an end to the physical punishment of children.

The Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) Wales Bill was passed by the National Assembly for Wales on 28 January. The bill was initially introduced in the Senedd in March 2019 by Julie Morgan, deputy minister for health and social services, and is scheduled for royal assent later this year.

The deputy minister has been campaigning for more than 20 years to afford children the same rights as adults in Wales over physical punishment. The bill has been a long time coming, especially considering the progress in protecting children worldwide from physical punishment. Efforts to end it began in 1979, the UN’s first International Year of the Child.

Defending the defenceless

Sweden was the first country to end physical punishment of children, followed by Finland and Norway in 1983 and 1987. Wales has now joined 60 countries worldwide in ending physical punishment. They join Ireland and Scotland from a UK perspective, as well as Jersey, in protecting children’s rights and risk of significant harm from physical punishment. Ireland ended physical punishment against children in 2015, and Scotland and Jersey followed in 2019. But there is no new evidence to suggest that England and Northern Ireland are following the other home nations in changing their law on ‘reasonable punishment’.

In Wales, parents, carers and adults with parental capacity will no longer be able to punish children physically. This will allow children to have the same protection as adults if an act of physical punishment occurs. Of course, children should and must have this protection and their rights upheld. What right does have an adult have to physically chastise a child? If an adult hits another adult they have the right to press charges and take matters further. A child who is potentially defenceless – depending on their age – should be afforded the same rights and the same protection.

In Wales, parents and carers will no longer be able to punish children physically. This will allow children the same protection as adults 

No more hitting

Physical abuse is defined as the ‘hitting, slapping, over[use] or misuse of medication, undue restraint or inappropriate sanctions’ (Welsh Government, 2019a). A tap, slap or smack is often minimised by carers and parents. The debate throughout the progress of the bill raised concerns about the criminalisation of parents for smacking their child. This is not the intention of the rewording: the act of physical chastisement is a loss of control, or an impulse due to a certain behaviour displayed by the child. Being subjected to a smack or hit causes distress and, if this occurs frequently, can have a detrimental effect on the development of children, both emotionally and physically. This is very much supported by the work around epigenetics and adverse childhood experiences (Center on the Developing Child, 2020; Bellis et al, 2015).

There are many strategies for parenting and disciplining a child – physical punishment should not be one of them. A tap or smack can escalate into a hit and a more serious injury especially if a child or young person retaliates. The word ‘discipline’ is taken from a Latin derivative of ‘disciple’; this word is linked to ‘following’ and leading by example. What sort of example is given by hitting a child? The new bill will offer clarity to parents and carers. Currently, the law defends a hit by deeming that if a mark is left, it is significant harm. Reasonable punishment can mean so many different things to individuals. Smacking (however light) is not okay and hitting is not okay, especially as these behaviours can escalate.

Attitudes to smacking have changed over the last 20 years, particularly recently. In a 2018 Welsh survey, 81% of parents feel it is ‘not acceptable to smack a naughty child’ compared with the significantly lower amount of 71% in 2015 (Welsh Government, 2019b). Sixty countries worldwide have now committed to protecting children against physical punishment. As a nation we have to advocate for our children and our future generations, and respect what is set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Unicef, 1989). Sally Holland, children’s commissioner for Wales, stated on social media how proud she was of Wales taking this step forward and what a significant day it was in protecting children’s rights.

Educating parents and carers

A change in attitude and law will reflect positively on children’s health and development and allow them that best start in life. It will nurture them through their first 1000 days to allow them to meet their full potential as they progress through childhood. Support around disciplining children is available from specialist community public health nursing teams: health visitors, school nurses and nursery nurses. I welcome the bill and see it as positive step in the protection of children from physical chastisement. It is an opportunity to educate parents and carers, provide them with a clear message and offer support where needed. An awareness-raising campaign will now commence for the next two years with the aim of preparing agencies, and informing and educating parents as well as the general public about the new law, which will come into force in 2022. Julie Morgan says: ‘Physical punishment has no place here in Wales – there is no such thing as a loving smack and no justifiable reason for a big person to hit a little person. I’m delighted we have voted to change the law to help protect our children and future generations’ (Welsh Government, 2020).  

Michelle Moseley is a lecturer in primary care and public health nursing at the School of Healthcare Sciences, Cardiff University.


Still smacking? The rest of the UK and jersey

England: Parents and carers retain right to ‘reasonable punishment’, which is assessed by taking into account the child’s age and force of the smack. It is illegal for teachers, nursery workers and babysitters to hit children in their care.

Northern Ireland: As in England, parents retain defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’.

Scotland: Ended physical punishment in all settings, including the home, under the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act 2019, which will come into force in November this year. 

Jersey: Ended physical punishment in all settings, including the home, under the Children and Education (Amendment) Jersey Law, which is expected to come into force in April this year.


Center on the Developing Child. (2019) Epigenetics and child development: how children’s experiences affect their genes. See: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/what-is-epigenetics-and-how-does-it-relate-to-child-development (accessed 18 February 2020).

Bellis MA, Ashton K, Hughes K, Ford K, Bishop J, Paranjothy S. (2015) Welsh adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study: adverse childhood experiences and their impact on health harming behaviours in the Welsh adult population. See: http://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/2648/1/ACE%20Report%20FINAL%20%28E%29.pdf (accessed 18 February 2020).

Unicef. (1989) United Nations convention on the rights of the child. See: https://downloads.unicef.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/UNCRC_united_nations_convention_on_the_rights_of_the_child.pdf?_ga=2.29014524.1315273235.1582042378-1448256512.1581502987 (accessed 18 February 2020).

Welsh Government. (2020) Wales votes to end the physical punishment of children. See: gov.wales/wales-votes-end-physical-punishment-children (accessed 18 February 2020).

Welsh Government. (2019a) Wales safeguarding procedures. See: safeguarding.wales/chi/c1/c1.p4.html (accessed 18 February 2020).

Welsh Government. (2019b) Wales takes the next step to end the physical punishment of children. See: gov.wales/wales-takes-next-step-end-physical-punishment-children (accessed 18 February 2020).

Image credit | iStock




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