Engage: Social workers welcome new legislation outlawing physical punishment of children in Wales

Here in Wales we are entering a historic period which will see children’s rights further protected thanks to new Welsh Government legislation.

The Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act 2020 will remove an archaic legal defence by outlawing the physical punishment of children when it comes into force in Wales on 21 March 2022.

As representatives of the social worker teams within Gwynedd and Ynys Mon Councils, we are committed to delivering the best possible outcomes for children and families and this legislation will help our professionals greatly in this endeavour.

It is important to be clear, this legislation does not create a new offence; it simply removes an outdated legal defence. The legislation resolves a grey area for those of us working with children, parents and carers, by making it crystal clear the physical punishment of children will be illegal in Wales.

Llyr ap Rhisiart, said: “I fully support this legislation. In simple terms this law gives children and young people in Wales the same protection from assault as adults for the first time. We have the right as adults to be protected under the law from assault and this new law does that for children too.

Elliw Hughes, added: “Hitting a child is already an assault, but having the defence of reasonable punishment meant there was a defence that could be used if a parent or carer were charged with assaulting a child.

“Our thresholds in terms of our professional judgements on assessing risk of significant harm will not change as a result of this legislation, but I await to see how it will impact on our work going forward. There is a lot of discussion ongoing looking at how our statutory role weaves into that undertaken by the police for example, once this law comes into force.

“We have already used the fact the legislation is coming in as part of our discussions with parents and stakeholders. For example, if we are contacted by a school who have concerns around physical punishment, we would advise them to speak to the parent to say things are changing and soon it will no longer be legal to physically punish a child. It is a good way to start a discussion now about positive parenting techniques and not after the law has changed.

“Gwynedd and Ynys Mon are working together to inform and promote positive parenting techniques to parents, to lessen the potential for problems down the line once the law comes into force next March.

Llyr added: “Focussing on support for positive parenting and parenting skills is really important, as the “carrot” alongside the “stick” provided by the new legislation. I am really pleases that government and services in Wales are looking at this: we already provide a lot of support for parents, but we need to try and make sure it is available for everyone who needs it. It’s about changing society’s culture in a way. There is quite a lot of work which needs to take place to do that and it’s not going to happen overnight. But hopefully it’s the start of a change in the way children are disciplined. We need to encourage parents to try to use alternatives to physical punishment.”

Elliw commented: “Positive parenting is something we have been working on for a number of years here in Gwynedd and Ynys Mon. Hitting a child does not lead to a positive long-term change in behaviour and we’ve always put a focus on positive parenting techniques, but the law has brought the importance of that strategy to the fore.

Llyr, added: “Gwynedd and Ynys Mon were one of the first local authorities to make use of the Incredible Years/Blynyddoedd Rhyfeddol parenting programme developed by Bangor University over 20 years ago. This award-winning programme supports young children and their families with positive parenting skills and has been the foundation for the children’s department of both local authorities for quite some time.

“The messages to parents have not changed since I started working as a social worker. We need to move from a smack to other means of discipline and I’ve often thought it would be much easier if all new parents were required to take a course in parenting techniques.

“It has been difficult to connect with harder-to-reach audiences over the past year as a direct result of Covid. As is often the case, those who you think would benefit from the support are not the ones who reach out for support.

Elliw, said: “Physical punishment has a major impact on a child in one way or another and we work alongside police, GPs and schools as a team approach to spotting trauma. Children learn from their life experiences and if the life experience is about getting hit then they will grow up following the same pattern in their life. When there are difficult situations, they will hit out.

“However, in saying that, I think there has been a shift over the last ten years in society. Younger parents will openly challenge their own parents on how to discipline their children if in their care. Grandparents today are also generally younger and come from a cohort where physical punishment was already a thing of the past and many have already changed their mentality.

“What does concern me is that we have a lot of families moving into the area from England where it won’t be against the law to use physical punishment. We also had a case of a family from overseas who smacked their child in a GP surgery, so we need to do a bit of work to help people who choose to visit or live in the area to know things are different here in Wales. We want to avoid anybody falling foul of the law.

“2020 may have been an odd year but it was a good year for putting children centre stage here in Wales by passing this law; removing any ambiguity in the law, which comes into force in March 2022, has to be a good thing.”

About the Authors

Elliw Hughes is a Social Worker, Cyngor Gwynedd Council and Llyr ap Rhisiart is a Social Worker, Cyngor Ynys Mon Council.

Picture (c) Freepik.