Education Secretary rejects calls for ban on smacking children

‘We’ve got to trust parents’: Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi rejects calls for ban on smacking children in England as he says there is a ‘big difference’ between a ‘light smack on arm’ and child abuse

  • Nadhim Zahawi responded to comments by England’s Children’s Commissioner
  • Dame Rachel de Souza yesterday signalled her support for a child smacking ban
  • Dame Rachel said she ‘admires’ that a ban exists in law in Scotland and Wales
  • Mr Zahawi said parents in England must be ‘trusted’ in disciplining their children

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has today rejected calls for a smacking ban in England, saying parents must be ‘trusted’ in how they choose to discipline their own children.

Responding to comments by England’s Children’s Commissioner, who last night signalled her support for changing the law, Mr Zahawi said parents should be ‘entitled’ to discipline their kids.

The Education Secretary, who revealed his wife Lana had ‘on occasion’ smacked their nine-year-old daughter when she was being naughty, said there was a ‘very big difference’ between a ‘light smack on the arm’ and child abuse.  

‘My very strong view is that actually we have got to trust parents on this and parents being able to discipline their children is something that they should be entitled to do,’ Mr Zahawi told Times Radio: 

‘We have got to just make sure we don’t end up in a world where the state is nannying people about how they bring up their children.’

His comments came after the Children’s Commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza, signalled her support for changing the law to give children the same protection from assault as adults. 

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (pictured) has today rejected calls for a smacking ban in England, saying parents must be ‘trusted’ in how they choose to discipline their own children

Responding to comments by England’s Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza (pictured), who last night signalled her support for changing the law, Mr Zahawi said parents should be ‘entitled’ to discipline their kids

Dame Rachel last night said she ‘absolutely abhors’ violence and ‘admires’ that a law banning the punishment exists in Scotland and Wales.

‘I’m against violence of any kind against children,’ she told Times Radio. ‘Because children are more vulnerable than adults, I think we do need to ensure that their rights are supported.’

Parents in England and Northern Ireland have a legal defence for smacking if the action constitutes ‘reasonable punishment’.

Scotland banned the physical punishment in 2020 and the Welsh parliament introduced a ban last month.

Dame Rachel said: ‘I certainly admire Scotland and Wales moving on this. It’s certainly something that I think we should consider.’

However a government source indicated there were no plans to change the law.

‘Most people would say a light smack on the arm from a parent to a child isn’t child abuse,’ the source said.

‘We trust parents to discipline their children, when necessary, in the way they think is right.

‘We’ve purposely not interfered in that too much. Child abuse is an entirely separate matter.’

Tory critics have argued a proposed ban on smacking would criminalise parents and be an overreach by the ‘nanny state’.

But Dame Rachel added: ‘I think we’ve got a great opportunity to look, watch it, as it’s embedded [in Wales], and I would be supportive – certainly, from what I’ve seen so far – I would be supportive if our government decided to do the same.’

More than 60 nations have legislated against the physical punishment of children, outlawing smacking, slapping and shaking.

England is one of four European countries where parents can legally use physical force against children if it is ‘reasonable punishment’.

However experts have long called for England to change its law, saying smacking brings no benefits and can make children’s behaviour worse. 

Research published in The Lancet last year evaluated 69 studies into corporal punishment conducted over the past 20 years.

It found under-16s who have been hit by parents are more likely to be aggressive, anti-social and display behavioural problems. The more frequently children are smacked, the worse their behaviour.

Lead author Dr Anja Heilmann, from the UCL department of epidemiology and public health, said following the report’s release: ‘Physical punishment is ineffective and harmful, and has no benefits for children and their families. This could not be clearer from the evidence we present.

‘We see a definitive link between physical punishment and behavioural problems such as aggression and anti-social behaviour.

‘This is a public health issue. But physical punishment is not only harmful – it also violates children’s human rights.’

Joanna Barrett, from the NSPCC, speaking at the time of the report, said: ‘This is yet another significant study that shows physical punishment is harmful to children.

‘It cannot be right that in 2021 children are the only group in society that it is legally acceptable to assault in England. The case for reform is beyond doubt.’ 

However campaigners say it should be down to parents to decide how to discipline their children.

The Be Reasonable campaign, which opposes smacking bans, said: ‘Parents who love their children should be trusted to decide when a smack on the bum is appropriate. Ordinary mums and dads are fed up of so-called experts demonising their parenting.’

Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, added: ‘There is an important issue of parental freedom at stake here. A blanket ban on smacking would be a damaging invasion of government into family life.’

Earlier this month, Dame Rachel warned how online pornography is as dangerous to youngsters as handing them a weapon. 

‘We’ll look back in 20 years and be absolutely stunned that our children were exposed to so much harm online,’ she said. 

‘I wouldn’t leave a weapon laying around in the offline world and yet we’re doing something equally as dangerous in the online world.

‘I’m seeing eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds – a massive percentage of underage children – on these websites and social media… If parents actually knew what their children were seeing they would be really worried.’ 

The Education Secretary, who revealed his wife Lana had ‘on occasion’ smacked their nine-year-old daughter when she was being naughty, said there was a ‘very big difference’ between a ‘light smack on the arm’ and child abuse. Library image

With almost half of children exposed to inappropriate content on social media and free-to-use websites, Dame Rachel is urging the Government to crack down on porn purveyors.  

Another young girl described being harassed for naked selfies up to ten times a night.

‘The difference is that when I was at school something might happen… but we could go home and it was over, whereas it is 24/7 now,’ said Dame Rachel, a mother-of-one who was appointed Children’s Commissioner a year ago. 

The daughter of a Scunthorpe steelworker father and Hungarian refugee mother, Dame Rachel, 54, worked in schools for 30 years, carving out a reputation as a traditionalist who insisted on discipline.

She banned mobile phones in classrooms and famously deployed teachers to drag children out of bed to attend classes.

She is determined to act on the estimated 100,000 ‘ghost children’ who have vanished from the education system since the start of the pandemic, and is working with the Government to introduce a unique identifier number for each child to help track missing youngsters.

Reflecting on her childhood, Dame Rachel said there were times when she and her siblings would rely on free school meals and ‘didn’t know where dinner was coming from’. She added, however, that what her parents lacked financially, they made up for in love – a quality that she believes passionately is the bedrock of family life.

‘When children talk to me about family, that’s what they’re talking about,’ she said.

‘They’re talking about love and that is what it is all about. I think it somehow inoculates children from some of the harms they face.’

Dame Rachel – whose grandfather was a Ukrainian journalist expelled from his homeland during the Soviet era – earlier this month visited sick children evacuated from Ukraine to Britain. 

‘Any child that comes into this country, I’ve got an interest in,’ she said.

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