Support in the UK for legal reform to ban physical punishment and remove the “reasonable punishment” defence

Complete removal of the defence of "reasonable punishment" under section 58 has been recommended by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2009), all four Children's Commissioners (2006), the Commission on the Family and Wellbeing of Children (2005), the National Assembly for Wales (2004), the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (2003) and the House of Commons Health Select Committee (2003).


The Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance, an alliance of organisations and individuals campaigning for the reform of the law on assault to give children the same protection as adults, also seeks the active promotion of positive, non-violent forms of discipline. The Alliance's aims are supported by more than 600 organisations and projects in the UK, including five Royal Colleges of medicine and 37 Local Safeguarding Children Boards. This makes it the largest UK alliance on a children's issue ever. Many prominent individuals have also signed up in support.


Supporting organisations working in the fields of child protection, domestic violence, parenting and health have jointly signed statements with the arguments for banning smacking that relate to these specialisms.


The Alliance includes all the major children's charities, the vast majority of professional organizations working with children and families and a number of church organizations and faith groups. Locally, the alliance is supported by many Local Safeguarding Children Boards, Sure Start projects, Children's Centres and Youth Offending Teams.


Views from Sure Start projects

A 2007 survey of parenting professionals in Sure Start centres found:

  • Three-quarters (77%) believe that banning smacking would help them achieve their professional aims. Only 10% considered it would not help.
  • Over 90% think that section 58, allowing common assaults of children to be justified as "reasonable punishment" is inconsistent with the promotion of positive parenting.
  • Over 80% believe section 58 actively hinders their work with children, with a fifth of this number saying it hinders their work “a lot”). Only 1% said it helped them.[1]


Once they have accepted that it is time to abandon all forms of violence to children, organisations and individuals become passionate in their support. Nonetheless many told us that they signed up to the aims of Children Are Unbeatable! only after a period of intense internal debate. Physical punishment has deep roots in our culture and upbringing and most of us find it difficult to be wholly objective about it. Thus public opinion polls show ambivalent views, for example showing little support for physical punishment as a disciplinary measure but a reluctance to outlaw it.


What supporting organisations say about section 58

Action for Children:

"Section 58 sends out a message about the acceptability of violence against children and young people, as well as being complex and difficult to explain in practice... For example, NCH runs a number of parenting programmes and has extensive experience of deterring parents from using physical punishment and encouraging positive, non-violent disciplines – Section 58 represents a real obstacle to this work. Another example is working with families where domestic violence is an issue. Section 58 makes it very difficult to send out a clear message of zero tolerance to violence."[2]


AFRUCA – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse:

"Section 58 dangerously encourages parents committed to physical punishment, or those with the intention of harming children, to use forms of it which although highly dangerous, do not leave marks on victims. In addition, the specific vulnerability of black and African Children needs to be highlighted. This is simply because black skin pigmentation and tone does not easily show bruising and marks unless extreme force is applied. Section 58 therefore hampers protection for children of black and African origin."


British Association of Social Workers:

"Are we teaching perpetrators to become more skilled in physical abuse, perfecting the art of not leaving bruises? ... Section 58 compromises good practice and conversely, in some cases, encourages adults to be more clandestine making physical abuse harder to detect and prove."


Community Practitioners' and Health Visitors' Association:

"Section 58 has added confusion in this area, for families and for those working with them. The only clear message it has provided is that "smacking" is still lawful... We are also concerned that some parents may have picked up from the media that while smacking remains lawful, they must be careful not to "mark" their children. This could actually lead to more dangerous forms of physical punishment – shaking, hitting round the head and so on...We feel Ministers are under-estimating the huge value of clear law as an educational tool and a foundation for child protection and for the promotion of positive non-violent child-rearing."


Family and Parenting Institute:

"In this country it is illegal to hit another adult, even to punish them for a crime or misdemeanour. The FPI believes that giving people who are smaller and weaker fewer rights to protection in this regard is unacceptable. The argument that parents have a 'right' in their own home to discipline their children as they choose, in other words that parents have proprietorial rights over children and a consequent right to hit them, recalls arguments that were once used in relation to husband and wives."


Family Links:

"The lack of clear leadership by the government that any form of physical punishment of a child is unacceptable makes the task of those working with parents much harder. Parents who believe 'smacking has a place in disciplining children' feel justified in continuing this detrimental aspect of child behaviour and ever more resistant to attending parenting courses."



"The NSPCC's study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect in the UK found that while the majority of parents used lighter forms of physical punishment, a significant number do not. There are hundreds of thousands of children who are growing up in families where they are smacked regularly and heavily, and the culture of violence in these families needs to be tackled as a priority."


Parentline Plus:

"Physical punishment is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. This message has to be put across to parents as clearly as possible and not fudged as it is under section 58... The parents who continue to use physical punishment without getting 'caught' are the ones who need to be targeted by a public education campaign to teach them more effective strategies for disciplining their children... Section 58 undermines our promotion of positive discipline – we have to sit on the fence by not condoning the actions but wanting to maintain our contact with the parents in the hope that our advice will encourage them to change their habits."



"As long as parents are lawfully able to assault their children then young people learn that it is acceptable to use violence as a means to control another person... The Government did not request evidence that hitting women was wrong when it sought to introduce the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), so it is unclear why the Government is seeking evidence that hitting children is wrong."


Royal College of Nursing:

"Many of our members advised that parents do not know how to discipline their child and so they continue to draw on their own experience and perpetuate the learned behaviour from their childhood. Some know that they should not smack but don't know what else to do and either resort to smacking or 'giving in' to the child. With education and information on behaviour management (toddler taming) this cycle can be broken... This, however, needs to be backed by a clear and consistent message to remove confusion currently in existence."


The Children's Society

"Physical punishment is often used as a means to silence children. Removing the defence that section 58 provides would make it easier for children to identify abusive behaviour towards them... The law does not have eyes and ears into the homes of every child but it can send out a very clear message that hitting children is wrong: a message that children need to hear, so they can speak up about being abused and hurt."


Women's Aid Federation of England:

"At the same time as acknowledging the harm that can come from witnessing violence by including 'impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another' in the definition of significant harm (section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002), the Government denies children and young people full protection from experiencing violence under section 58."


[1] Ref

[2] All quotations in this section are from the organisations’ submissions to the 2006-7 government consultation on section 58 of the Children Act 2004

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