THE task facing the Executive in arriving at its compromise about how far the law should go in outlawing physical punishment is evident from the complete lack of consensus in the 220 responses to last year's consultative exercise.
Some 34 per cent opposed any physical punishment and called for a total ban, 17 per cent supported the right of parents to discipline their children and 43 per cent were prepared to go along with the Executive's proposals for some changes, although often reluctantly.
Reaction from the Children Are Unbeatable umbrella group, representing more than 20 organisations, was unreservedly hostile. It favours a total ban and said: "We think there is a potential difficulty in banning smacking of children under three when a child of three can be smacked. It makes no sense."
Responses from the education world, including the primary and secondary heads' associations and education authorities, were overwhelmingly in favour of allowing parents to continue to discipline children, providing this did not amount to "inhuman or degrading treatment".
Smacking was better than alternatives such as sarcasm or the withdrawal of affection, according to Falkirk Council's education department. East Renfrewshire took the very precise view that it was "not reasonable" to physically punish children who are aged less than two years and six months or who are over seven.
The majority of pupils in six primaries in East Dunbartonshire agreed with "reasonable physical punishment" by parents as a last resort, but 70 per cent of secondary children were against and believed that alternatives such as shouting or grounding were sufficient.
A survey of almost 2,000 pupils by Glasgow found that only 36 per cent of those in primary 6 believed it should be against the law for parents to smack children. The figure rose to 48 per cent of S2 pupils but at S6 fell away to 18 per cent.
The view from the Scottish Out of School Care Network, in line with most children's groups, was that there was "no such thing as reasonable physical punishment".
Fears that prosecuting parents for smacking their children could lead to them being "criminalised" were answered by a compromise from Kathleen Marshall, a child law consultant, who suggested publicity to highlight current practice which is that "minor assaults" on children are rarely prosecuted.
But the Scottish Parent Teacher Council said legislation that could not be enforced or was not intended to be enforced brought the law into disrepute. The council said the law should reflect the prevailing view in society which it believed was that parents should continue to be allowed to exercise reasonable punishment.
FACTS BEHIND THE POLITICS
Statistics from the children's hearings show an 11 per cent increase to 72,457 in the number of referrals to the reporter between 1998-99, mainly for youngsters in need of care and protection.
* The number of children looked after by local authorities rose by almost 4 per cent in 1999 to 11,191.
* Almost 7,000 children are referred to local authorities for child protection inquiries every year and more than 2,300 are on local child protection registers.