Indefensible that we are still allowed to assault our children

"There are some things where Scotland is doing very, very well and there are some things that are absolutely shocking, where Scotland is coming last in the world. We still in Scotland say that it's okay for a parent or carer to assault a child for the purpose of physical punishment. I think it really goes against the basic values that we hold in Scotland in terms of human dignity and respect for children.”

These recent comments by Bruce Adamson, Scotland's new children's commissioner, underline the need to revisit our outdated attitude towards smacking.

The physical punishment of children is illegal 52 countries.  My proposal to give children equal protection from assault will make Scotland country number 53.

Over the last few months I have been consulting on my proposed Member’s Bill which seeks to provide children in Scotland with equal protection from assault. I believe that if we are serious about making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up then we must take a big step forward and get rid of the ‘justifiable assault’ defence.

My proposition is a simple one. I want children to have the same legal protection from assault as adults. As the law currently stands those in charge of children can exercise the defence of ‘justifiable assault’ when inflicting physical punishment on a child. My bill would remove this defence.

My intention is that this bill brings about a behavioural change in Scottish society, much like the mandatory wearing of seatbelts or the prohibition of smoking in public places. These policies led to behavioural change which in turn meant Scotland became a safer and healthier country.

Evidence from those countries which already prohibit physical punishment suggests that while there is some evidence that changes to the law led to an increase in reporting of alleged offences, there is no evidence that this has led to significant numbers of prosecutions or of parents being convicted of an offence.

Sweden led the way in 1979. In the years since, many other countries have followed Sweden’s lead, including 21 members of the EU, and other European countries such as Norway and Iceland. As it stands, the United Kingdom is one of only six EU member states that have not changed the law.

There are countries from Africa, Asia, South America and Central America, which have implemented a ban on the physical punishment of children. The most recent countries to introduce a full ban are Greenland, Peru, the Republic of Ireland, Paraguay, Slovenia and Lithuania.

This is not a provocative policy that will lead to the criminalisation of parents or interfere in family life as some claim. Rather it provides children the necessary protections to flourish in a healthy environment, encourages the building of stronger relationships between children, their parents, and others who care for them.

The evidence from countries where physical punishment is no longer permitted suggests that it is legislative change that has proved to be the catalyst for wider changes in both societal attitudes and behaviours.

While many will claim that “it didn’t do me any harm” there are plenty who have suffered serious injury. I believe we must put the health and wellbeing of all our children first.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, of University College London, in his forward for “Equally Protected?”, a 2015 review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children, said: “The international evidence could not be any clearer – physical punishment has the potential to damage children and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse.” He goes on to state: “There is an urgent need for Scotland and the rest of the UK to comply with international human rights law and to prohibit all forms of physical punishment.”


In recent years much great work has been done in Scotland to tackle domestic violence. There clearly remains much more work to be done on the subject. By highlighting that violence in the home is completely unacceptable we can change behaviours.

I believe removing the defence of ‘justifiable assault’ from Scots law would take away the last ‘acceptable’ use of violence in the home, and reinforce the message that violence is unacceptable in today’s Scotland.

The Church of Scotland and The Scottish Association of Police Superintendents have both been extremely supportive of my proposed bill, for which I am extremely grateful.

I also must place on record my thanks to Barnardo’s, Children 1st and The NSPCC who have all been extremely supportive in getting my proposal to this stage.

My consultation is open for another week, with submissions accepted until 4th August. I would encourage everyone to respond to the consultation and ensure that your voice is heard. The consultation has already received well over 300 responses.

For more information and to respond please visit the Equal Protection section of my website.

This article first appeared in The National.