Scotland to introduce equal protection for children

Date: 29th October 2017
Category: Equal protection from violence

Scotland is expected to become the first UK nation to introduce equal protection for children after John Finnie MSPs' Bill received the backing of Scottish Government.

The Bill will remove the defence of 'justifiable assault' from Scottish law, giving children the same legal protection as adults. Together and members have campaigned for equal protection for many years.

The Equal Protection Bill

The Scottish government announcement to ensure the Equal Protection Bill becomes law comes after a campaign led by John Finnie MSP, the justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, who launched the member's Bill earlier this year. The law on equal protection will be applied to "parents and others caring for or in charge of children".

A three-month public consultation on Finnie's proposed bill, which took place over the summer, received an overwhelmingly positive response from organisations and individuals, including the Scottish Police Federation, Unicef UK and the NSPCC.

Background to the law

Law reform to abolish all physical punishment of children is an obligation under international law by both European and United Nations human rights monitoring bodies. The proposed Bill would bring Scotland in line with international standards, as articulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and implemented in almost all other European countries.

In the UK, it is still legal for a parent or carer to physcially punish their child if it constitutes "reasonable chastisement" (or 'justifiable assault' in Scotland).

The UK's children's commissioners

The children's commissioners of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have all called for a UK-wide change in the law after the Scottish government confirmed its support for equal protection for children.

Sally Holland, the children's commissioner for Wales, expressed her disappointment that a legal defence for hitting children still existed throughout the UK. The defence of "reasonable chastisement", which applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, mirrors the Scottish principle of "justifiable assault". The Labour party in Wales made the removal of the defence a manifesto pledge in May's Welsh assembly elections.

Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland's commissioner for children and young people, said: "Assaults on children have never been right, and it is certainly not right now that protection from assault as a child may depend on where you live in the UK."

She added: "I am confident that while Scotland may be the first in the UK to ban this, it most certainly won't be the last. I will be doing everything in my power to make sure Northern Ireland follows suit in due course and combines legal reform with improved support for parents."

Describing the current legal defence as "untenable", Bruce Adamson, the children's and young people's commissioner for Scotland, said: "Across the political spectrum, there is recognition that this is not only an obligation in human rights law and the right thing to do, but it is something we should have done many years ago.

"Scotland has the potential to be the first country in the UK to bring about the legal change necessary to provide children with equal protection from assault. If we pride ourselves on being a progressive country, a country which values children and is committed to offering them the best outcomes in life, then we need to make sure that this legislative change happens at the very earliest opportunity."

Scottish government and political response

Explaining the decision to support the member's bill to give children equal protection from assault, a Scottish government spokesperson said: "Mr Finnie's proposals are not a Scottish government bill; however, we will ensure the proposals become law. We believe physical punishment can have negative effects on children, which can last long after the physical pain has died away. We support positive parenting through, for example, funding for family support services."

The bill received a further boost as Scottish Labour said supporting it was "the right thing to do". The party's education spokesman, Iain Gray, said: "Labour MSPs have discussed John Finnie's bill and do believe that the time has come to provide children with the same protection as adults under the law."

"Giving children full protection against assault will send a clear message to all of us about how we treat each other and underpin Scotland's efforts to reduce violence."

A Scottish Conservative spokesman said the party would "consider the bill very carefully", but added: "In general terms, however, we believe the current legislation which permits reasonable chastisement has worked well and that remains our current position."

Next steps

A spokeswoman for Barnardo's Scotland, the Children & Young People's Commissioner Scotland, Children 1st and NSPCC Scotland said:

"The cross-party political support we have seen in the last two days since John Finnie lodged his final proposal on Equal Protection for children has been overwhelming. MSPs from across the chamber have been standing up for children by pledging their support to the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill.

"These 22 signatures and counting mean that the Bill can be introduced to Parliament and this is fantastic news.

"This Bill is about giving children the same protection from assault within the law as adults. The Bill will not change the way that Police and Social Work deal with assault against children. Rather it establishes the principle that assault can never be 'justifiable'. We look forward to working with MSPs and the Scottish Government during the passage of this Bill to ensure this happens at the earliest opportunity."

The Bill can now be introduced to parliament through the normal three-stage scrutiny process.

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