Children First Report Stage with Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly TD, Wednesday 21 October 2015
Minister, you are always welcome to the Seanad but I have to admit that today you are particularly welcome.
One of the first objectives I set when I became a member of the Seanad in 2011 was for Ireland to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement. When the Seanad took Committee Stage of the Children First Bill on 23 September I tabled an amendment, with thanks to the expert help of Dr Fergus Ryan, to the same purpose as the amendment before us today. You said “If I have my way we will have this defence of “reasonable chastisement” removed from the Statute Book.”
And here we are today. Minister, I am extremely aware and thankful for all the work done by you personally, by officials and advisors across Government cooperating and working together to bring about the amendment tabled here before us. I would like to extend my particular thanks to the officials of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I would also like to thank my Assistant and Researcher Amy McArdle, for all her work and support. I was also heartened at Committee Stage to receive cross party and independents’ support. Thank you.
On 23 September I cited a number of international and national experts and I don’t intend to repeat myself today but ask that my words at Committee Stage be included in any documenting of how Ireland brought about the abolition of the defence of reasonable chastisement. Over the years there have been notable voices to the fore calling for the Ireland to take this step.
Of special note I must thank:
- the Children’s Rights Alliance, in particular Tanya Ward and Maria Corbett who have been steadfast in their support and in ensuring the support of a wide range of children and youth organisations;
- the ISPCC, driven by the experience of children calling into their ChildLine service, have always prioritised ending a culture of violence against children in Ireland.
- the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Professor Geoffrey Shannon who has, through his reports, repeatedly called on us as legislators to repeal the defence of reasonable chastisement.
For the global leadership they have provided at an International level I want to thank :
- Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children;
- Peter Newell of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children;
- and Ireland’s academics who have shone a light on Ireland’s international obligations, in particular Prof Ursula Kilkelly, UCC.
I also must thank Jenny and Michael Hassett, my Mum and Dad. Since 23 September I have had a lot of time to reflect and probe why I am so passionate about this issue. It is of course rooted in my own childhood. My memories brought me back to a particular primary school teacher who would on occasion whack someone in our class across the ears with a ruler. I remember telling my Mum and she said that if I was ever hit I was to stand up calmly, walk out of the class, go to the office of the school secretary and ask for my parents to be called to come and collect me. I was lucky. My parents were ‘ahead of their time’, they respected me as an independent rights holder. Thanks Mum for being here today to share this momentous occasion.
Why do we as a society accept that we even debate if and when it is okay to hit someone? Let alone when that someone is smaller than us and probably doesn’t understand why they are being hit? Very often when we discuss the issue of corporal punishment, violence against children or so called ‘slapping’ you can almost feel an invisible line appear in people’s heads about their tolerance level. They say, “you know I am only talking about a tap not a thump, a slap not a belt, a smack not a whack”. And of course this issue is wrapped up in how we were raised – all too often the knee-jerk reaction “it never did me any harm” is heard. I would add “it never did you any good either”!
This invisible line is extremely subjective and it leaves children vulnerable. When someone hits a child it is not from a rational place. The decision is made in a heightened emotional state, when we are stressed, when we are tired and let’s face it least able to engage sound and reasoned judgement. The invisible line gets blurred. In extreme cases it gets rubbed out completely.One way or the other, the existence of the invisible line means children are all too often exposed to an escalation of violence.
The excuse “I got a terrible fright when she ran out on the road and so I just hit her to show how wrong it is” is used in relation to children. We all get frights in our life but my first reaction is not to hit someone – so why do we culturally accept that it is okay when it is a child? A caller to the Last Word on TodayFM summed it up by saying “my Grandmother has Alzheimer’s and she is as likely to walk out into traffic or harm herself. Should I use that as a reason to slap her?”
Of course I understand the importance of supporting parents in the vital role they play in their child’s life. We need to ensure parents have access to supports and resources when they need them. We know that the majority of parents in Ireland already believe that we have a ban on corporal punishment. However, I know that some parents are anxious about this change in the law and I would like to reassure them that we all want the best for their children, for the children of Ireland. To this end, I would like to take this moment to thank Laura Haugh of Mummy pages for their unequivocal support of this amendment.
I would also like to point to an excellent book for any parents who are anxious, developed by a leading advocate in this area, Paul Gilligan. His book “Raising Emotionally Healthy Children” is a great resource that provides lots of advice and support.
By abolishing the defence of reasonable chastisement we are giving life to the Children’s Amendment in our Constitution, Article 42A.1 states: The State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and shall, as far as practicable, by its laws protect and vindicate those rights. We know that corporal punishment:
- Can cause serious harm to children;
- Teaches children that violence is an acceptable way of solving conflicts;
- Is ineffective as a means of discipline and there are positive ways to teach, correct or discipline children which are better for the child’s development and health;
- Makes it more difficult to protect children from severe abuse if some forms of violence are legitimate.
With this amendment today we are ensuring that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law.
This ancient defence of “reasonable chastisement” is not an Irish invention; it came to us from English common law. Through its colonial past, England has been responsible for rooting this legal defence in over 70 countries and territories throughout the world. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the “reasonable punishment” defence still allows parents and some other carers to justify common assault on children; in Scotland there is another variation – the defence of “justifiable assault”.
In this action being taken today, the Government is putting children first and providing leadership that will hopefully give confidence to the Government at Westminster, the devolved UK administrations and other countries across the globe to discard these archaic and disreputable defences and give full respect to children’s dignity.
We will be the 20th EU Member State to effectively ban corporal punishment in our jurisdiction and in doing so I hope the remaining European Governments will follow. Irish law is being brought into step with parents, children’s rights advocates and international best practice. With this amendment we have a way to unite and agree that all citizens are equal.
There must never be a defence for violence against children. I am honoured to have championed and secured the effective ban on the physical punishment of children in Ireland.
In page 5, line 12, to delete “and to provide for related matters.” and substitute the following:
“to provide for the abolition of the common law defence of reasonable chastisement and, for that purpose, to amend the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997; and to provide for related matters.”.
—Government & Senator Jillian van Turnhout.
In page 20, after line 21, to insert the following:
Abolition of defence of reasonable chastisement
The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 is amended by the insertion of the following section after section 24:
“24A. (1) The common law defence of reasonable chastisement is abolished.
(2) Subsection (1) shall not apply in respect of proceedings brought against a person for an offence consisting in whole or in part of any act done by the person before the commencement of section 28 of the Children First Act 2015, whether those proceedings were brought before, on or after such commencement.
(3) This section shall not affect the operation of section 24.”.”.
—Government & Senator Jillian van Turnhout.