Equal protection

Universal Children’s Day: It’s time to give children Equal Protection

Universal Children’s Day is an important date in the calendar of any Children’s Commissioner. It was established by the United Nations in 1954 to encourage understanding between children and promote children’s welfare around the world. It is held on 20 November, the same day the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

Universal Children’s Day is a good day to stop and think about what we achieved for children’s rights each year and what still needs to change. In Wales since last November we have seen new rights for looked after children to stay in their foster homes after the age of 18 until they are ready to leave. We have seen the government accept all of the recommendations of the Donaldson review of education, ‘Successful Futures’ that puts children’s wellbeing at the heart of education. So, some positive steps forward.

It is however very frustrating that we have still retained the right for parents and some other carers to claim that when they hit their children it is ‘reasonable punishment’. There is no similar defence in the law when an adult is subject to a common assault. Usually when we make laws that are different for children we do it to give them more protection. This is why we have age limits on smoking, drinking, driving and sexual consent. The law on common assault – what we usually call ‘smacking’ – is the only one I can think if where we give children less protection from harm than adults.

I suspect that in 30 years’ time we will find it hard to believe we were even having this debate in Wales. No-one finds it acceptable any more for a teacher to punish a child by hitting them, yet this is was entirely normal in the 1970s. Domestic abuse is no longer socially acceptable. So, our cultures can change and just as we already find it hard to remember what it was like to sit in a smoke-filled pub or café, so I believe we will shock our grandchildren with stories about how it used to be legal for parents to hit children.

It is not only unfair to give children less protection than adults. It is also bad for children. Every time a child is hit, however mildly, we are giving the message that hitting is an acceptable way to sort out problems and that they deserve to be hit. Both are messages we don’t want to see carried on into their adult relationships. We know from countless research studies that children who are smacked are more likely to develop problems in their behaviour and emotional health. Parenting that sets clear boundaries and is neither too strict nor overly laid back helps children have the best outcomes in terms of their happiness, behaviour and educational success.

I am really pleased that the Welsh Government is promoting positive parenting through campaigns and in schemes like Flying Start. However, evidence from other countries shows that the best way to rapidly change parenting behaviour is to change the law as well as promote positive parenting.

Wales has a really good record on children’s rights. We were the first country in the UK to have a Children’s Commissioner and the first to bring the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child into our laws. Most Assembly Members that I have spoken to say that they favour a change in the law. My ambition is that Wales will be the first country in the UK to give children equal protection to adults from physical assault, following the example of Ireland earlier this month.

Come on Wales. Ymlaen!