Time to give all children in Scotland the same level of protection from assault as adults

I’m sure all of us want Scotland to be among the most progressive, socially just, and equal nations in the world. We all want our children to be happy, healthy and to give them the very best start in life. Yet in 2017, we still afford children less protection from assault than adults.

Scotland cannot be thought of as the best place in the world for children to grow up while our law gives children less protection from assault than everyone else. We know conclusively that permitting the physical punishment of children can be detrimental to children’s long term health and wellbeing.

It is an anomaly within Scots law which should now be remedied.

That is why I have launched a consultation on my proposal for a Bill to give all children in Scotland the same level of protection from assault as adults. Simply put: equal protection. This will be achieved by ending the current legal position that the physical punishment of children can be defended as “justifiable assault”.

In 1991, the UK ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly states that children should be protected from all forms of violence, including physical punishment. Since then, the UK and Scottish Governments have been failing in their duties to protect children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is a scrutiny body of international experts, frequently reviews the implementation on the Convention. The Committee has repeatedly called on the UK including Scotland to reform the law to prevent physical punishment of children, most recently in 2016.

Today, the accepted norms of previous generations are no longer experiences we would wish for our own children and grandchildren. Just as other legal changes have reflected changes to attitudes about what’s acceptable in society – such as using seatbelts in cars, or smoking in public places. Attitudes in Scotland towards physical punishment are changing.

Surveys have shown that the majority of parents in Scotland don’t like physical punishment and that they don’t think it works. Parents know how important it is to build strong, healthy relationships with their children. We know from international evidence and what families say that physical punishment can prevent these relationships forming. It makes a child’s behaviour worse and can lead to increased conflict between children and parents. A robust body of international evidence shows they are right, and that there is a negative impact of physical punishment on children for families, communities and society.

Rev Dr Richard Frazer of the Church of Scotland spoke at the launch of my consultation on the need to work toward ending the acceptance of violence within our society: “We believe that the resort to violence should fade from being acceptable as we come to understand its negative impact.”

Another excellent contribution to the launch event was from Chief Superintendent Gordon Crossan, President of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents who broke away from his pre prepared speech to draw attention to Isla, the young child of an audience member, and ask the powerful question “at what point does it become acceptable to hit Isla?”  

I don’t believe it would ever be acceptable and by removing the defence of justifiable assault in Scotland we will send a clear message to all of society that violence in the home is no longer acceptable.

I believe that giving children equal protection against assault will send a clear message to all of us about how we treat each other as human beings, and underpin Scotland’s efforts to reduce violence across the whole of society.

It is important to note that this proposal does not mean introducing a new law. Rather is about expanding the same law that protects adults from assault to children, giving them equal protection from assault. The same careful considerations - including the vital public interest test - that police and prosecutors use to determine whether to take forward a case of assault against an adult would continue to apply to any cases involving children.  That said, there is convincing evidence from countries, such as Sweden, Norway and others which have changed the law, that the passage of legislation in combination with public awareness campaigns leads to a change in public attitudes but not an increase in criminal proceedings against parents.

I would like to thank NSPCC, Children 1st, Barnardo’s and the office of the Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland and Parliamentary staff for all their work and support to bring this proposal to public consultation and the Church of Scotland, police and others for their support for my proposal.

I would encourage you to have your say on this important issue by responding to my consultation, which is open until 4 August. You can add your views here.

This article first appeared in the National.