One year on - the campaign that led Scotland to end the physical punishment of children in law



First published in the Herald last year, our Chief Executive Mary Glasgow reflects on the cracking campaign that led to Scotland becoming the first country in the UK to end the physical punishment of children in law, exactly a year ago today.


"Today Scotland can, again, hold its head up as a leader among nations, as the first country in the UK to end physical punishment of children. 
This is a defining moment for our children, our families, our communities and for every generation that follows us. 


Outside the Parliament yesterday one man from Edinburgh told me it’s a moment he has been waiting for, for nearly fifty years. 


For while Scotland is again blazing a trail for the rest of the UK to follow in doing right by children and families,  fifty-seven countries, most recently Ireland, South Africa and Kosovo, have gone before us. Like Scotland’s politicians, they have recognised the overwhelming evidence that physical punishment doesn’t work, can damage family relationships and can cause children life-long harm. 


In voting to end physical punishment yesterday, MSPs were listening not only to the scientific evidence, but more importantly to the voices of Scots of all ages who said they wanted to see the law change.  Hundreds of folk from across the country from Kirkwall to Innerleithen signed our petition to say they wanted children to have the same protection from assault as adults. Many of them shared their own stories of being physically punished as a child and described how it affected them in later life and “how the memories never go away.” 


Our political leaders have long talked of their ambitions to end violence and make Scotland the best country in the world to grow up in. By passing the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) Bill they have taken a momentous step forward so that reality is now much closer to the rhetoric. 


It is humbling to be leading Children 1st, Scotland’s national children’s charity at the culmination of such a long and hard-fought campaign to ensure that children’s right to live safe from all forms of violence is recognised in Scots law.  For Children 1st, this work began in the 1980s when, our then Chief Executive Arthur Wood CBE, started to campaign against corporal punishment in schools.  Since then campaigners from Children 1st and other children’s charities have consistently championed the view that Scottish law needs to protect every child from every level of physical harm. 


There have been many moments before yesterday when they came close.  There were moments when Scotland might have become the 14th or 53rd country in the world to end physical punishment of children. In 1998 when the Scotland Act embedded human rights at the heart of the Scottish Parliament, it felt as if the progressive, family friendly early days of devolution might be the perfect opportunity to introduce the change that many children and families were already looking for.  The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child had twice condemned the United Kingdom for its failure to legislate to protect children from all forms of violence, including physical punishment, in 1995 and 1998.  As the part of the UK that had pioneered the idea that addressing children’s needs was as important as addressing their deeds and introduced the children’s hearings system, it seemed that the early days of devolution would give us a chance to again blaze a trail by ending physical punishment. 


In 2002 then Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace introduced a proposal to outlaw the smacking of any child under the age of three, as part of the wide-ranging Criminal Justice Bill.  However, it was not to be. Instead of introducing clarity which protected every child from all forms of assault, the Bill ended up including a fudge as the politicians of the day debated whether it was ok if a child was hit on the legs but not the arm, or how bad the bruising on a child’s would have to be for it to be outlawed. 


Despite the setback of the Criminal Justice Scotland Bill campaigners continued in their unwavering determination to end physical punishment. 
In 2015 the Herald published a front page exclusive, based on a review of the international evidence on physical punishment commissioned by ourselves, Barnardo’s Scotland, NSPCC Scotland and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner. The study by University College London found that the evidence that children were harmed by physical punishment was unequivocal. The accompanying editorial concluded that “Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs any of us will do. Outlawing smacking, if handled the right way, could make it easier not harder.” 


The research provided the catalyst for the three charities and the Commissioner to build a new campaign to finally bring an end to the physical punishment of children, which has had the voices of children, families and civic society at its heart  Since 2015 hundreds of voices including the Children’s Parliament, the Scottish Youth Parliament ,the congregation of the Church of Scotland and the Federation of Public Health have joined us. Lots of little actions have created a clamour for change on behalf of Scotland’s children and families.  Sitting with children in the Chamber yesterday, I felt proud and inspired of the country they will grow up in. 


Thanks to the clear-sightedness and courage of our politicians, particularly John Finnie and the Scottish Green Party, they are assured that every future generation of children will be protected from any and all levels of physical violence."



Mary Glasgow
Chief Executive
Children 1st, Scotland’s national children’s charity


The Children (Equal Protection from Assault) Scotland Act will come into force next month on 7th November 2020 and we are working closely with the Scottish Government and partners to ensure there is support available for families.
Our Children 1st Parentline service is here for any family who is struggling and needs help or support with any issue that affects their children.