- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

LONDON — British lawmakers yesterday voted against a ban on parents spanking their children, but decided to tighten existing rules.

After a three-hour debate in the House of Lords, peers rejected the ban by a vote of 250-75.

Instead, they voted 226-91 to allow moderate spanking, but make it easier to prosecute parents who physically or mentally abuse their children by spanking.

The amendment must be approved by lawmakers in Parliament’s lower chamber, the House of Commons, before becoming law.

Britain is out of step on the issue with several European countries, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Austria, where all physical punishment of children is illegal.

Pressure groups say children must have the same legal protection from being hit as adults, and have called for the law to be changed. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has repeatedly shied away from a ban, fearing it will be accused of intruding into family affairs.

The current law dates back to a case in 1860, when a judge ruled that physical punishment of children should be allowed as a “reasonable chastisement.”

Campaigners say the ruling is ambiguous, and two parliamentary committees have said it is too often used as a legal defense to excuse violent behavior that goes far beyond a spanking.

In the House of Lords yesterday, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Anthony Lester successfully proposed a measure to allow moderate spanking, but remove the “reasonable chastisement” defense if parents harm a child physically or mentally. If the amendment is also approved by the Commons, the new law will make it easier for authorities to prosecute violent parents.

Several peers called for an outright ban.

“Smacking can lead to battering, which can lead to death,” said Liberal Democrat peer Lord Martin Thomas. “We are presented with medical reports, social service records, school records, and one can see the route to death, which starts with the initial smack.”

Independent peer Lord Desmond Ackner disagreed. “I think we are overlooking that parents have a unique relationship with their children, and in order to fulfill their parental responsibilities, they have powers which they don’t possess in relation to anyone else,” he said.

Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith backed Mr. Lester’s measure and said it would “have the effect of preventing harm to children without criminalizing parents for minor disciplinary steps.”

Mr. Blair’s government ordered its Labor peers to vote against a ban, but allowed them a free vote on Mr. Lester’s amendment.

“The government wants an outcome that maintains the balance between the parent’s right to discipline and protecting the child,” said Mr. Blair’s official spokesman.

“That is why we don’t want to criminalize parents. That is why we are opposed to outright bans.”

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