Newsmaker: Children's champion - Peter Newell, Co-ordinator, Children are Unbeatable!

John Plummer

Smacking children is one of the most emotive subjects, except, it appears, to the man leading the campaign to ban it. "I find the subject deeply boring," confesses Peter Newell, co-ordinator of the Children are Unbeatable! Alliance. "There is no intellectual stimulation in it. But having started the campaign, I can't stop now."

Newell's ennui hasn't prevented him from getting the job done, so much so that he and the alliance's 400 members could soon be free to pursue other avenues. The Children Bill, which is expected to become law by autumn, could remove the 'reasonable chastisement' defence that shields adults who hit children from prosecution. If it does, the alliance will disband.

"It would be very satisfying to take an organisation out of existence because it has achieved its aim," says Newell, 63, who is the organisation's only full-time member of staff. The £80,000 it receives from the NSPCC, Save the Children and Barnardo's pays for him and three part-time employees.

It is, he says, a matter of when, rather than if, smacking is banned.

Given that the bill's initial draft failed to mention reasonable chastisement, his confidence is surprising.

The campaign suffered a further setback last month when the House of Lords voted against adding an amendment to the bill removing the 'reasonable chastisement' defence.

This leaves the alliance with a few months at most to convert politicians wary of upsetting the many adults who were brought up to believe that a good slap never did them any harm. "This Government seems particularly sensitive to the state of public opinion, but this is one of those occasions when it should listen to professional opinion and the human-rights argument, and lead not follow," says Newell.

So far, 10 European countries have responded to calls by the Council of Europe, which was founded in 1949 to defend human rights, to abolish corporal punishment. "The equality focus is important," says Newell. "Pressure from the Council of Europe's human-rights mechanisms is becoming stronger and stronger, and will soon be irresistible."

Newell describes the law as a barometer of how society values children.

"The assumption that adults can hit them is a reflection of their low status," he says. "The extraordinary thing is that so many adults are resistant to giving children the same protection they have to being hit."

The problem is that a high proportion of us do hit children. A Government poll in the mid-1990s revealed that three-quarters of mothers strike their children before they reach the age of one. Smacking is normal behaviour: the alliance is trying to jolt people into realising that the consequence is not discipline but injury and abuse.

"When you are challenging something that has previously been generally accepted, it is much more difficult than challenging extreme forms of violence," says Newell. "It tends to be trivialised.

If children are asked how they feel about being smacked, which they have only just begun to be, they certainly don't trivialise it."

The way out for the Government, he says, is to issue a free vote on reasonable chastisement. If it does, he is convinced the majority of MPs will support abolition, and ministers will be spared much of the flak that would accompany a whipped vote. "We have very strong support in Parliament," he says.

The pro-smacking brigade regard a ban as wishy-washy liberalism gone mad, and claim it would lead to courtroom chaos. Newell wants parents to be prosecuted only when "it is both necessary and in the interests of the child, which will be a pretty small number of cases".

Newell hopes that by bringing to justice the most serious child-beaters - who in some cases get away with near-murder on the grounds of reasonable chastisement - he will change attitudes. He cites Sweden as an example of how the law can be used effectively, where legal protection of children followed by a public education campaign, reduced attacks on minors.

"The law should be perceived, first and foremost, as an educational instrument," he says. "If you are in a supermarket and see a toddler having a tantrum, the looks from other people tend to be supportive of that child being smacked.

"We want to reach the point where people believe that slapping children will not help the situation." Newell has three children, which helps him to avoid the accusation thrown at childless supporters of a ban that 'they don't know what it's like to bring up kids'. "It's part of the CV to have children," he jokes. He says he has never hit them and was himself spared any blows as a child. "Although I did have my hair pulled once," he smiles.

Children's rights have been a major part of his life since he left the Times Educational Supplement in 1971. He has campaigned for 12 years to establish a children's commissioner, but was far from impressed by the "weak model" for the proposed commissioner's post announced by the Government last year.

"What they are setting up has no more power than a voluntary organisation," he says. "If the position is to be taken seriously, it needs to have some powers that NGOs don't have. It genuinely puzzles me.

"The criticism has been unanimous about the lack of power and the lack of independence. I'm confident that the Bill will leave the House of Lords looking quite different to how it looks now."

Newell holds a great deal of faith in the power of argument and the willingness of politicians to listen, the same politicians who have been heavily criticised in recent months for watering down their child-friendly rhetoric.

The next few months are important to him - and are crucial to children.

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