London (CNSNews.com) - The British government ventured into the deep waters of corporal punishment Tuesday, publishing a so-called "consultation paper" to discuss when, how and if English parents should smack their children.
It quickly prompted criticism, both from family groups who feel parents should have the right to discipline children by spanking them or hitting them, and from children's charities, which want corporal punishment outlawed altogether.
The guidance will only apply to parents in England. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will review the matter independently.
The document was prompted by a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 1998 that a boy caned by his stepfather had suffered "inhuman or degrading" treatment. Countries such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Austria and Norway have outlawed all physical punishment of children.
Corporal punishment in British state schools was banned 14 years ago, and private sector schools were compelled to follow suit last year.
In issuing the paper today, Health Minister John Hutton made it clear the government was not considering outlawing all corporal punishment by parents, but he said it was seeking ways of protecting children from abuse while supporting parents in the task of bringing up children.
The government, he said, was calling for the views of "everyone with the welfare of children at heart" on how existing laws could be amended to protect children from "harsh, degrading and inappropriate" punishment.
One of the issues the paper raises is whether the use of an implement - a belt, cane or slipper for example - should be considered "reasonable chastisement," or banned.
Hutton said the government would also be looking at ways of promoting alternative forms of discipline.
"We understand the importance of encouraging non-physical methods of discipline when parents are bringing up their children," he said.
But Valerie Riches of Family and Youth Concern told CNSNews.com a poll her group commissioned last year showed that 87 percent of British children "believed in smacking children."
Of the 13 percent who wanted the practice banned, one-fifth had no children, and another one-third admitted having smacked their own children, she said, concluding that parental support was "very, very high."
It was generally organizations and pressure groups rather than parents themselves, she said, who thought parents who smacked their children should be "had up for assault."
One of these groups is a California-based body called Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education, which said Tuesday any steps to outlaw the use of implements to beat children while allowing corporal punishment in general to continue was "a well-intended but fainthearted reform."
The organization's executive director, Jordan Riak, told CNSNews.com that by giving people "a list of what is impermissible, one gives them, by implication, a list of what is permissible."
"If canes and straps are out, then fists and kicks are okay, they'll reason."
Riak said every civilized nation should "give children the same unqualified legal protection against being assaulted and battered that adults take for granted. No loopholes. No special exemptions. No timid half measures."
Paul Hetherington of Save the Children in London told CNSNews.com the charity believed smacking "should be banned completely."
While the government's stated intention not to do so was a disappointment, he said Save the Children welcomed what it saw as a step in the right direction.
In particular it approved of the government's commitment to raising public awareness on the issue of punishment alternatives.
Hetherington said alternatives to smacking could include "sanctions" such as grounding or the removal of privileges. "It's very important to get down to a child's level. We as adults tower over children. We need to get down to their level, talk and discuss things."
Hetherington conceded that smacking a child usually "works" in the short-term, but said doing so sent out the wrong message, that violence was needed to achieve results.
But Riches of Family and Youth Concern disagreed. "It's very interesting that research from America shows exactly the opposite, that in fact [smacking] can be beneficial - as long as it's within reason of course, we're not talking about striking children," she said.
"In fact it's much better than harsh words, better than shutting a child away. Children respond much better; it's quickly over. So long as it's done in what's called a loving environment ... there's no damage done at all."
While Family and Youth Concern cited public survey results to back its viewpoint, Save the Children also points to polls, including one by Gallup, which found that more than 50 percent of parents doubted whether smacking worked.
Yet another, commissioned by the Times Educational Supplement late last year, found that 51 percent of parents wanted to see a return of corporal punishment in schools, and two-thirds believed school discipline had become worse over the past 10 years.