NewsSmacking: time to stop

Smacking: time to stop

Children in Wales have been given the same protection from assault as adults. Is there any sign that England and Northern Ireland will follow suit? Journalist Kaye McIntosh reports.

The attitude of ‘My parents smacked me and it never did me any harm’ is increasingly outdated. A poll in March showed that 68% of adults think physically disciplining a child isn’t acceptable, and 64% said it’s time to change the law in England to give children the same protection against assault as adults. More than half (58%) thought it was already illegal to physically punish a child, and only 20% knew that it’s still legal in England and Northern Ireland (NSPCC, 2022).

More than 60 countries have banned the physical punishment of children, and smacking was outlawed in Wales in March and in Scotland in 2020. Yet England and Northern Ireland still allow parents – as well as carers who have been given permission – to inflict ‘reasonable punishment’ on children. So is there any chance governments there will act and make the ban UK-wide?

The evidence

Dr Anja Heilmann, from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, certainly hopes so. ‘The evidence is clear. Smacking children is harmful,’ she says. What’s more, ‘physical punishment doesn’t have any beneficial effects’. Instead, her review of 69 studies found that it is linked to increased antisocial behaviours such as aggression (Heilman et al, 2021).

Anja’s team found that the more parents smack, the worse the outcome. Previous research has been criticised for being unable to show whether hitting causes poor outcomes, or poor behaviour leads to parents smacking. But Anja says: ‘We only looked at studies that followed the same children over time and took initial behaviour into account. So what’s left is the net effect.’

Most children live in countries where physical punishment is allowed, with 63% of children aged two to four regularly hit by their parents (Heilmann, 2021). ‘But you can see an acceleration in the rates at which countries have legislated,’ Anja says. ‘I hope this trend continues.’

Janet Taylor, chair of the CPHVA Executive, agrees. ‘We don’t see that smacking a child has any place in behaviour management at all.’ While some actions are ‘non-negotiable’, these can be achieved by positive reinforcement.

Children’s rights

Rachel Thomas, head of policy and public affairs at the office of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, says presentation was key to the success of the Welsh ban: ‘The consultation documents were unapologetically framed in a way that showed all children deserve the same legal protection as adults from any criminal offence, including assault.’

That helped to tackle ‘some of the arguments that come from other avenues, like parents’ rights or religious rights. It was strongly and proudly stated that this was a commitment that was part of the government’s wider work on children’s rights,’ Rachel adds.

The Welsh Government is legally obliged to have due regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) when developing legislation and policy (Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure, 2011). ‘The government must have regard to children’s rights in exercising all of their functions,’ Rachel says. ‘There isn’t a similar legal commitment in England. It’s not the sort of topic that will come up on the doorstep for politicians. It won’t make it into manifestos.’

Scotland took a different approach. Joanna Barrett, NSPCC associate head of policy, devolved nations, says: ‘We were able to frame it as an issue of public health. At a population level, this is harmful to children. So we need to change the law to protect them.’ Rather than a clash between parents’ and child rights, it’s ‘just like smoking in public places or wearing seat belts in cars’.

Rachel says: ‘One of the concerns people had was that the ban would just be symbolic. But what we know from other countries is that you can make cultural changes or you can make legislative changes, or you can do both. The evidence is that, if you do both, the change is accelerated.’

Another criticism was that child protection services might be overwhelmed. But in nations such as New Zealand and Ireland – which banned smacking in 2007 and 2015 respectively – referrals have not spiked, Rachel adds. ‘The point is to improve outcomes for parents and children. Referring parents to statutory services where that’s not warranted isn’t the aim,’ she says.

HVs are the frontline, going into every home. You can’t overstate the importance of a strong and effective HV workforce

On the ground

So what difference does the law make to health professionals? Health visitors and community nurses, says Joanna, ‘are absolutely fundamental to the prevention of abuse. They are the frontline, going into every home. You can’t overstate the importance of a strong and effective HV workforce.’

So what can an HV in Scotland do if they see a parent smack a child? Joanna says it has to be ‘a proportionate response’ to families. If there is a risk of significant harm, safeguarding procedures come into play, but short of that it’s ‘promoting the conversation about where the boundaries are and what is acceptable behaviour. What’s changed is that we can give the message that physical punishment is not going to be tolerated in this country.’

It’s trickier in England and Northern Ireland. Janet, who is also a public health nurse manager at South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust in Belfast, says if a health professional sees a child being smacked, they should intervene. ‘Challenge the parent,’ she says. ‘Establish whether you have any other concerns or if this is just parents who lost it in the moment. Take notes. You’d be very clear with the parent that this isn’t the best way to manage behaviour.’

The ban in Scotland isn’t just fine words. The government has pledged £500m for family support services up until the next election, due in 2026. Mary Glasgow, head of policy at charity Children 1st, who spearheaded the campaign to ban smacking, says the funding will boost practical, emotional and financial help. ‘The hope is that you’ll find a whole network of organisations and agencies who understand that the best way to keep children and families safe is support at an early stage,’ Mary says.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)

Article 19 of the UNCRC says children have the right to be protected from being hurt or badly treated and that it is the duty of the state to help make sure children are protected.

Wales also has a package of support. The Parenting: Give It Time campaign offers advice and support, including a confidential helpline (Welsh Government, 2021).

Now England and Northern Ireland must follow the other nations’ lead, says Rachel. She points to the UN, which recommended outlawing physical punishment to the UK Government back in 2002. ‘That’s where Wales took its lead from and we would encourage other countries, particularly those close to home in England and Northern Ireland to do the same.’

There is little sign of progress in England. ‘The government does not condone any violence towards children and has clear laws in place to prevent it. We are supporting teachers, social workers and all safeguarding professionals to spot the signs of abuse or neglect more quickly, and our statutory framework for safeguarding children in England makes clear what organisations should do to keep children safe,’ a spokesperson at the Department for Education told regional news website ChronicleLive in March.

But the NSPCC is planning to take on Westminster and Northern Ireland. Joanna says: ‘There are glimmers of some political interest. We are absolutely going to be making the case that there shouldn’t be any more delay. We will be seeking to build support among other organisations, particularly those who have been supportive in Wales and Scotland.’

In Scotland, key to success was building a broad coalition of organisations from Children 1st, the NSPCC and Barnardos to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and others. For now, practitioners and parents in England and Northern Ireland can only watch this space.

What the law says

England and Northern Ireland

The use of physical force against children by parents, or people authorised by parents, such as babysitters, is allowed as long as it constitutes ‘reasonable punishment’ and does not meet the threshold for actual or grievous bodily harm (Children Act, 2004). Reasonable punishment is not clearly defined, but smacking that causes temporary reddening of the skin is likely to be considered reasonable.


Before November 2020, parents and carers could use physical punishment to discipline under-16s providing it was considered ‘reasonable chastisement’ by law. The ‘justifiable assault’ defence can no longer be upheld in court and physical punishment is outlawed.


The first part of the British Isles to ban smacking, in April 2020. The law change ended the defence of reasonable chastisement, meaning parents, carers and legal guardians could face prosecution for any use of physical punishment.


Children have the same protection from assault as adults. The Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act 2020 ends the common law defence of ‘reasonable punishment’, which used to allow parents to use physical force. Parents, or anyone who is responsible for a child while the parents are absent, can now face criminal or civil charges if they are found to have physically disciplined a young person.


Children Act 2004. (2004) See: (accessed 21 June 2022).

Heilman  A, Mehay A, Watt RG et al. (2021) Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies. The Lancet 398(10297): 355-64. 

NSPCC. (2022) Majority believe it’s unacceptable to physically punish a child. See: (accessed 21 June 2022).

Rights of children and young persons (Wales) measure 2011. (2011) See: (accessed 21 June 2022).

UN. (1989) Convention on the rights of the child. See: (accessed 21 June 2022).

Welsh Government. (2021) Taking care of you and your family. See: (accessed 21 June 2022).

Image credit | Shutterstock


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