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Stormont to debate Naomi Long's smacking ban

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Naomi Long

Naomi Long

Naomi Long

The Stormont Executive is to be asked to back new legislation banning the smacking of children.

Justice Minister Naomi Long is to include the ban in a new bill and plans to press her ministerial colleagues for support in the next few months.

The Alliance leader revealed she has not been able to make the progress on the Executive she wanted to, partly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But she also acknowledged concerns that the move could lead to the prosecutions and potential criminalisation of parents in the province.

Mrs Long stressed changes to the current law would have implications beyond her Justice Department to health and education.

"Engagement with key Executive colleagues who share policy responsibility for this issue has not progressed as I would have liked," she said.

"I understand and appreciate that the response to the pandemic has taken priority. However, the issue of physical punishment of children is not a trivial matter and I will continue to press for key Executive colleagues to engage on this important issue."

Following a survey by the Children's and Young People's Commissioner earlier this year, which found a majority of parents here support the ban, the minister is developing legislative proposals as part of the Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

"These proposals will require Executive approval and I intend to seek this in the coming months," she said.

It is almost 20 years since the Executive, in 2002, examined a consultation paper on the issue of clarifying existing legislation and removing a legal defence given to parents in England, Wales and Ireland - 'reasonable chastisement'. Scotland then also removed it. Mrs Long, who supports taking steps to remove the defence, argued: "The current law creates uncertainty, it can provide shelter to abusive parents and fails to provide equal protection to children.

"I appreciate that some people have concerns that the removal of this defence may lead to the prosecutions and potential criminalisation of parents."

An academic study last year by University College London concluded children in Northern Ireland should be afforded the same legal protections.

Natalie Whelehan, of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said the NI Assembly was "behind the curve" on the issue.

"Physical punishment is never reasonable nor justifiable. We know it leaves children feeling scared and helpless while some tell us of their inability to sleep or eat and others turn to binge drinking and self harming as a way to cope," she warned.

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Naomi Long

Naomi Long

Naomi Long

Mrs Long explained: "In essence, if a parent or adult smacks a child and is prosecuted, they can defend themselves in terms of 'reasonable chastisement' but only provided that the harm is minor.

"Anything which causes more than transitory or minor discomfort is unlawful and can result in prosecution.

"The availability of a reasonable chastisement defence means that there can be uncertainty as to what constitutes a minor harm and potential child abuse cases may be missed."

And in an Assembly written answer she added: "It is important to note that any change to the current law will require fresh approaches to supporting parents, and extends well beyond the reaches of the criminal justice system. A change to the law will require broad Executive agreement, recognising that its ramifications would extend to areas such as health, parenting strategies and family law."


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