Children’s doctors in Northern Ireland and England are calling for equal protection for children and young people against physical assault, such as smacking, hitting, and slapping.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) published a landmark report on Wednesday, April 17 that lays out the health, education, and legal case for a legislative change to remove the “reasonable punishment” defence and to prohibit all physical punishment of children in all circumstances in England and Northern Ireland. 

RCPCH says that the negative health impacts of physical punishment in childhood are well documented. Children who experience physical punishment are nearly three times (2.6x) as likely to develop poorer mental health and are more than twice (2.3x) as likely to experience serious physical assault and abuse.

Physical punishment also increases the likelihood of behavioural problems in childhood, poorer relationships with parents and family, and instances of aggression later in life. 

Currently in England and Northern Ireland, a parent can use the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ to justify physically punishing a child in certain circumstances, for example by slapping, smacking, or hitting. Adults in both countries are rightly protected in law from all forms of physical assault; however, children do not have this same protection in all circumstances.

RCPCH notes that Scotland and Wales are among more than 60 other countries around the world that have brought in measures to give children the same protection from assault that adults have, fully protecting children’s rights to be protected from violence. This means there is a discrepancy across the UK regarding the rights of the child.

Internationally, 65 states have full prohibition of physical punishment of children. 27 more states have committed to reforming their laws to achieve a complete legal ban.

The report, "Equal protection from assault in England and Northern Ireland: The health, education, and legal case for legislative change to remove the “reasonable punishment” defence and to prohibit all physical punishment of children," highlights the range of harms to children and safeguarding complications that current legislation around physical punishment creates, as well as key recommendations for Governments in Westminster and Stormont. 

RCPCH recommendations include:

  • The Secretary of State for Education in England commencing the legislative process necessary to change the law to remove the reasonable punishment defence (as set out in Section 3 of the report) in sufficient time to conclude enactment of these prior to the next UK general election.
  • The Education and Health Ministers for Northern Ireland leading the Northern Ireland Assembly in amending the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006) to remove the reasonable punishment defence from Northern Irish Law.
  • All political parties incorporating the removal of the reasonable punishment defence in their general election party manifesto, and if appointed to UK Government, signal the legislative change will be enacted in the first wave of new legislation after formation of the new Parliament, with a specific commitment set out in the King’s speech.

Professor Andrew Rowland, RCPCH Officer for Child Protection and Consultant Paediatrician, said: “The laws around physical punishment as they stand are unjust and dangerously vague. They create a grey area in which some forms of physical punishment may be lawful, and some are not.

"As a paediatrician working in child protection services, I am regularly faced with situations where it is alleged that physical punishment has been used against a child.

"The vague nature of the laws make it extremely challenging to talk to families about what the rules are around physical punishment of children, thus making it more difficult to talk about the best interests of their children. This lack of legislative clarity can even add an extra layer of complexity when trying to identify cases of child abuse. 

“No one can deny that our society’s views on punishment have changed over the past few decades, with 67% of voting adults agreeing that physical punishment of children is unacceptable.

"We have extensive evidence which shows the range of harms that physical punishment has on a child, including the learned belief that violence is accepted and even encouraged by society.

"For many children, this belief can lead to further instances of violence and harm later in life. Research and history show us that violence is often cyclical in nature; it is up to us as adults to break that cycle for our children. 

“There must be no grey areas when it comes to safeguarding children. Changing the laws in England and Northern Ireland will give us absolute clarity and ensure there are no instances where it is acceptable or lawful to smack a child.

"Ahead of a UK General Election, this is the perfect opportunity for all political parties in England and Northern Ireland to make meaningful commitments on this important children’s rights issue, and signal to young people and those who serve them that championing their wellbeing and safety will be a priority for any incoming government.”

Bess Herbert, Advocacy Specialist at End Corporal Punishment, said: “The science on physical punishment of children is now settled. Hundreds of studies have found that it is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes, including physical harm, poorer mental and physical health, atypical brain function, lower cognitive development and educational outcomes, school dropout, increased aggression and poor moral internalisation, and perpetration of violence and anti-social behaviour in adulthood.

“Happily, 65 countries have now passed laws prohibiting physical punishment of children, and their experience shows that this legal reform can play a powerful role in reducing the prevalence of physical punishment and other forms of violence against children, often positively impacting extremely large numbers of children. 

“Experience also shows that laws prohibiting physical punishment are most effective when they are well communicated and implemented, through a comprehensive and sustained programme that ensures parents and carers, professionals, children and the public understand the new law, and are supported to adopt positive and healthy ways of raising children.

“I hope that England and Northern Ireland will soon join the ever-growing number of countries that have taken this fundamental step in protecting children, upholding their rights, and supporting healthy and positive child raising."