Equal Protection Bill

By John Finnie MSP

“There are some things where Scotland is doing very, very well and there are some things that are absolutely shocking, where Scotland is coming last in the world. We still in Scotland say that it’s okay for a parent or carer to assault a child for the purpose of physical punishment. I think it really goes against the basic values that we hold in Scotland in terms of human dignity and respect for children.”

These recent comments by Bruce Adamson, Scotland’s new Children’s Commissioner, underline the need to revisit our outdated attitude towards smacking.

The physical punishment of children is illegal in 52 countries. My proposal to give children equal protection from assault would make Scotland country number 53.

I believe that if we are serious about making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up then we must take a big step forward and get rid of the “justifiable assault” defence.

My proposition is a simple one. I want children to have the same legal protection from assault as adults. As the law currently stands, those in charge of children can exercise the defence of “justifiable assault” when inflicting physical punishment on a child. My bill would remove this defence.

My intention is that this bill brings about a behavioural change in Scottish society, much like the mandatory wearing of seatbelts or the prohibition of smoking in public places. These policies led to behavioural change which in turn meant Scotland became a safer and healthier country.

Sweden led the way in 1979. In the years since, many other countries have followed Sweden’s lead, including 21 members of the EU, and other European countries such as Norway and Iceland. As it stands, the United Kingdom is one of only six EU member states that have not changed the law.

This is not a provocative policy that will lead to the criminalisation of parents or interfere in family life as some claim. Rather it provides children the necessary protections to flourish in a healthy environment encourages the building of stronger relationships between children, their parents, and others who care for them.

The evidence from countries where physical punishment is no longer permitted suggests that it is legislative change that has proved to be the catalyst for wider changes in both societal attitudes and behaviours. While many will claim that “it didn’t do me any harm” there are plenty who have suffered serious injury. I believe we must put the health and wellbeing of all our children first.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, of University College London, in his forward for Equally Protected?, a 2015 review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children, said: “The international evidence could not be any clearer – physical punishment has the potential to damage children and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse.”

In recent years much great work has been done in Scotland to tackle domestic violence. There clearly remains much more work to be done on the subject. By highlighting that violence in the home is completely unacceptable we can change behaviours.

I believe removing the defence of “justifiable assault” from Scots law would take away the last “acceptable” use of violence in the home, and reinforce the message that violence is unacceptable in today’s Scotland.

John Finnie is an MSP for the Highlands and Islands parliamentary region. His Proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill was lodged to the Scottish Parliament in May 2017.

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