Alex Cole-Hamilton: There’s no such thing as ‘justifiable assault’

Parents are allowed to hit their child thanks to the legal defence of 'justifiable assault'. Picture: John Devlin
Parents are allowed to hit their child thanks to the legal defence of 'justifiable assault'. Picture: John Devlin
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“When you were little your mum was in the hospital having your sister, you wouldn’t eat your dinner and had a meltdown so I slapped your legs. You turned around and you bit me in the face.”

So said my dad over the phone after hearing me argue for an end to the physical punishment of children on Radio Scotland one morning some ten years ago.

Alex Cole Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western. Picture: Greg Macvean

Alex Cole Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western. Picture: Greg Macvean

His point was that in that moment he realised his actions had legitimised violence as an extension of anger in my two-year-old eyes. He never hit me or my siblings again.

This week, Green MSP John Finnie, laid his Private Member’s Bill before the Scottish Parliament to end the use of physical punishment of children in Scotland. I am a co-signatory to his Bill and very proud to be so.

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People talk about it being a ban on smacking, but all it really seeks to do is to extend the same protections to children that adults currently enjoy – the fundamental right to live a life without fear of violence. There is no law in Scotland which states you have the right to hit your child, but parents are enabled to do through the legal defence of ‘justifiable assault’. People hit their kids and the law isn’t interested, only because they could claim the assault was justified on the grounds of punishment.

Seems ok? Not when I tell you that a similar defence used to apply to the hitting of women and of servants but we happily repealed those eons ago.

This all boils down to the fact that children are now the only sentient creature in Scottish society you can strike in anger with legal impunity. That puts us out of kilter with international human rights treaties. We’re signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which demands we protect children from physical punishment, and as such in every examination by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, it’s a big red cross on our report card.

In fact we are becoming increasingly isolated in the international community on this. We are one of only six of the EU’s 28 states that continue to permit the physical punishment of children and we’re part of an ever diminishing pool of countries on the world stage as well. Even South Sudan – that unlikely bastion of human rights – has extended this protection to its children ahead of us.

Every one of those countries has been through the arguments our nation is about to have, so let me address some of those head on.

“This is nanny state gone mad and will see legions of decent parents marched through the courts.” This isn’t about criminalising parents, it’s about culture change. There has been no detectable uptick in prosecutions of parents in the countries where this is operating already, parents just make different decisions as to how to discipline their kids.

“If my child were to put its hand in a fire or run into traffic, I need to be able stop them with a smack.” There has been no detectable uptick in the number of kids running into traffic or putting their hands in fires in Germany, or Belgium, or Scandanavia for that matter. Parents just make different choices on how to warn their kids.

“If parents can’t smack their kids, the kids will behave badly.” Quite the reverse is true actually and this is where we come back to my dad’s revelation. Senior police officers have spoken out in favour of this change precisely because they recognise that physical punishment at home can and does legitimise violence on our streets.

We may have a way to go in terms of winning the public round to our point of view here, but sometimes policy needs to lead public opinion rather than follow it. At the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western