Children’s rights campaigners have expressed dismay after the government’s preferred candidate to become the next children’s commissioner was unable to express a view on whether there should be a ban on the use of corporal punishment in England.
Dame Rachel de Souza was giving evidence to MPs on the Commons education committee before her almost certain appointment when she was asked if she would follow the lead of children’s commissioners in Scotland and Wales and seek a legal ban in England.
Although smacking is already illegal in England, parents can claim a defence of “reasonable punishment” under section 58 of the Children Act 2004. That defence has been removed in Wales and Scotland, making England an outlier. The current children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, has campaigned for a similar change in the law in England.
De Souza told the committee: “I would need to look into this properly. But at the moment my answer to that would be the most important thing is safeguarding children and we need to make sure that all children are safeguarded, and then any questions about that need to flow out of that.”
The Conservative MP David Simmonds, who posed the question to de Souza, said given that it was one of the central planks of children’s commissioners in Wales, Scotland and internationally, “having a view about it soon would be quite a positive thing”.
Carolyne Willow, director of the children’s rights group Article 39, questioned how anyone in the children’s rights movement could not have a view on the repeal of the reasonable chastisement defence.
“This is the only statutory, national post whose sole function is to promote and protect the rights of children, in accordance with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and with complete independence from government,” said Willow.
“What kind of rights champion for children doesn’t have a view on whether the law should allow them to be hit?”
De Souza, who has close links with the Conservative party and is the founding chief executive of the Inspiration Trust chain of academies, is expected to have her appointment confirmed by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, and will take over the role in February.