A smack in the eye

14th September 2001 at 01:00
IT is probably inevitable, under the scrutiny that accompanies our new Scottish democracy, that it often looks like the Executive could pick a fight in an empty room. The Section 2A furore was one such pugilistic bout. The smacking of children could turn out to be another.

Inevitably the reaction to the Executive's proposals (page six) runs the gamut from the fundamentalists who hold dear to Ephesians chapter 6, verse 4 and will brook no state "interference" in family life, to children's pressure groups who believe all smacking is tantamount to assault and must be outlawed as it would be for adults.

The only tests that make any sense in analysing the Executive's proposals are - do they amount to unwarranted intrusion into parents' relations with their children and, if not, are they workable in any case? The truth is that family life is not currently immune from legislative intrusion largely because of the need, sadly, to protect children; and one person's smack can be another's violent shake. So the argument that big brother or the nanny state, depending on your relative of choice, is about to take an unprecedented step across family thresholds does not wash.

But that does not lead us to the conclusion that the Executive has got it right. There are two peculiar features which are a rather hapless attempt to square this circle and keep the European Court of Human Rights at bay. One is the decision to let the courts decide what is "reasonable" chastisement of a child and the other to ban all physical punishment of children under the age of three. If the courts are the arbiters, what is the point of setting what is bound to be an arbitrary cut-off point where, according to the Justice Minister, children aged two years and 365 days will be unable to understand their punishment while those aged three years and a day will?

Surely, instead of seeking to square as many pressure groups as it can, the Executive should simply have treated children as adults, banned all forms of assault on all ages of children and then let the courts "intervene" in family life where the law is flouted.

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