THE Scottish Executive has been urged to lead a public debate on the the physical punishment of children and the alternatives that should be promoted.
Compromise proposals, published last week, aim to ban physical punishment of children up to the age of three and also outlaw any punishment which involves blows to the head, shaking a child or using implements. Corporal punishment would be banned in childcare centres, by childminders and in private pre-school centres.
Parents would keep a right of "reasonable chastisement", as defined by the courts. This test will include factors such as the nature and context of the punishment, its duration and frequency, its physical and mental effects, and the sex, age and state of health of the child.
Ministers believe these measures will keep Scotland on the right side of the European Court of Human Rights.
Jim Wallace, Justice Minister, said three-quarters of those who responded to the consultative paper published last year were in favour of further restrictions. Mr Wallace defended the proposed age limit of three, saying that before this age "it is very doubtful that a child would understand why he or she was being punished".
Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, said there had to be a balance between "the rights of parents to exercise their parental responsibility to bring up their children safely without undue interference from the state (and) protecting the rights of children".
These plans have ended up satisfying very few - from those with a fundamentalist position who believe discipline should be entirely a matter for parents, to children's rights activists who take the view that no physical punishment is acceptable and that includes smacking. A "middle way" that emerged in the responses to the Executive's consultation paper was that while the law should not run ahead of public opinion, there should be an attempt to change opinion in favour of a ban.
Alan McLean, the noted educational psychologist in Glasgow, said he favoured the right of parents to continue with "reasonable punishment". But there should be a public debate on "the goals of punishment in general, what makes punishment reasonable and effective, the limitations and difficulties of punishment and, most importantly, the importance of prevention".
Kathleen Marshall, a child law consultant, argued that "no parental right has an autonomous existence" and said the law should make it clear that physical punishment was unacceptable.
The Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, which staffs the children's hearings system, said it had "strong reservations" about physical punishment. It added, however: "A complete ban on hitting children would be culturally, and practically for parents, hard to maintain but should perhaps be something we strive to achieve."
Steps should be taken to promote other forms of discipline, reporters say.
The Scottish Association of Children's Panels, which represents panel members, agreed that there must be a "working towards an acceptance that physical punishment of children is unwise and can be counter-productive". In the meantime parental chastisement should be confined to "one slap occasionally".
Leader, page 24