Smacking ban was ‘lightbulb moment’ in Ireland, says former senator

The introduction of a ban on smacking children in Ireland was a “lightbulb moment”, a politician behind the move has told MSPs as Scotland considers adopting similar legislation.

Jillian van Turnhout, a former Irish senator, had campaigned to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement in Irish law – which had remained in place following the repeal in 2000 of a law which allowed force to be used against children.

The campaign was a success, leading to the ban being brought in in December 2015.

MSPs in Scotland are currently considering taking similar action which would remove the defence of “justifiable assault” in Scots law.

“When we changed the law in Ireland, we realised that it was the law catching up with how parents were parenting their children today,” said Ms van Turnhout, speaking at the Scottish Parliament’s Equalties and Human Rights Committee on Thursday.

“The day I walked into the chamber (in Ireland’s national parliament), I didn’t know if I had a single colleague with me in the change of law.

“But I went in knowing that even if I was the only person who said ‘it is not ok to hit a child’, children in Ireland would know that somebody believed it is not ok for them to be hit.

“Much to my surprise, every single member of the Irish Parliament chose to support the law by not calling for a vote at any stage on it. For me, it was really a collectively powerful moment.”

Ms van Turnhout said the process was not easy, with some members of Parliament, as well as some civil society organisations and members of the public, telling her the “time was not right” for a change in the law.

She added: “What was fascinating for me, it was really a lightbulb moment – the second we changed our law, the same colleagues looked me in the face without any irony and said: ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago? This makes so much sense’.”

Dr Lucy Reynolds, a consultant paediatrician speaking in support of a ban, said that violence against children had the potential to cause harm in the long-term.

She said: “If you hit children, you are teaching them to expect either to dominate or to be dominated through physical violence and I don’t want our children to be taught that.”

Critics of the proposals say a ban on smacking would be an invasion of family life and could lead to an increase in the number of parents being prosecuted.

However, Police Scotland chief superintendent John McKenzie said there was no evidence of a rise in the number of prosecutions following legislation being brought in across other countries.

He said: “The evidence seems to suggest that there is no indication that it results in increased prosecutions. There is a suggestion that it results in increased reporting.

“The bill is a removal of a statutory defence of justifiable assault. So I cannot see how that then in itself would criminalise parents.”

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