“Election season is upon us once again in Northern Ireland. As ever our children – almost a quarter of the population – do not have the right to vote in the upcoming polls but, more surprisingly, they also do not enjoy the same protection as adults under the law.
This is because of the laws around physical punishment, legislation which the NSPCC in Northern Ireland believes must be changed as a priority when the new Northern Ireland Assembly takes shape.
“We know that the “smacking debate” has always provoked strong feelings – both for and against but we believe, as a matter of urgency, the law in Northern Ireland permitting adults to strike children should be changed, bringing us in line with the dozens of other countries which have done the same, including the Republic of Ireland, Germany and Spain.
“The Welsh Government has said it will legislate to remove the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ and the issue is also being debated in Scotland.
“We appreciate that parenting can be challenging and it is clear that children need boundaries and controls on their behaviour. The issue has always been how best to impose these boundaries on children when they misbehave.
“Under the law, in a case of common assault against a child, the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ can be used by parents and guardians. But that same defence does not exist in a case of common assault against an adult. This is wrong. The NSPCC has long campaigned for this anomaly in the law to be removed so children have exactly the same legal protection as adults against assault.
“It is already against the law in Northern Ireland (as in the rest of the UK) for teachers, nursery workers and child care workers to smack another person’s child. The NSPCC believes that the current loophole in the law should be closed. Everyone should be clear that physically disciplining a child is as wrong as hitting an adult.
“Alongside this, there is an ever-increasing body of evidence that smacking of children is not an effective form of discipline. We recognise that the key is getting better support for parents and families who need help.
“With this in mind, we believe that the much needed change to the law on physical punishment should be accompanied by a positive parenting strategy to help parents know that there are safer and more positive alternatives to physical punishment. Stormont should ensure a range of initiatives are put in place to support parents find other, more effective, ways to control their children.
“There has been much progress in child protection and children’s rights and, in fact, recent research by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People has shown that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to protect children from physical punishment.
“At the NSPCC in Northern Ireland we believe the time has come to take this important next step in child protection and give children here the same protection from assault as adults.
“Our Helpline is, as always, available on 0808 800 5000 to advise anyone who has concerns about a child.”
Head of the NSPCC in Northern Ireland.