Key signals protection for parents

14:58, Aug 29 2009

POLICE and Child Youth and Family officials will be warned to not prosecute parents for lightly smacking their children.

Prime Minister John Key told the Sunday Star-Times in Sydney yesterday he was planning to introduce "increased safeguards" to prevent parents who gave their children "minor" or "inconsequential" smacks from being either investigated or prosecuted.

Key's move is designed to appease the "Vote No" campaigners, who were yesterday celebrating an overwhelming win in the citizens-initiated referendum asking: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Of the more than 1.6 million New Zealanders who voted (a 54% turnout), 88% said smacking children should not be a criminal offence. The "Yes" campaign attracted 12% of the vote.

"What I am wanting to ensure," Key said, "is that parents have a level of comfort that the police and Child Youth and Family follow the intent of parliament, and that they can feel comfortable that in bringing up their children they are not going to be dragged before the courts for a minor or inconsequential smack."

Key said that although police had statutory independence from the government, cabinet had some options to direct them, which would be outlined tomorrow.

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Given the referendum results, campaigners are baying for the law to be changed back or at least amended, allowing parents to use an open hand to smack their children on the bottom or hand.

Key got himself into an awkward political position on the issue after cutting a deal in 2007 with then Prime Minister Helen Clark to ban the use of force as a "corrective" measure. He has repeatedly said he does not believe police are prosecuting parents unnecessarily and that he remained comfortable the law was working.

Four police reports had said the law change in 2007 has had "minimal impact on police activity" and another was due for release early this week. Key said that report would also show a similar result.

Sending the issue back to parliament would consume the country at a time when there were bigger issues to deal with, he said.

Family First, which led the "Vote No" campaign, said the result was clear-cut and justified changing the law "so that good parents are not treated as breaking the law for light smacking". It also wants the government to establish a Royal Commission into child abuse to identify and target the real causes.

"The 87.6% of New Zealanders who voted no are not people who are demanding the right to assault and beat children," says Bob McCoskrie, national director of Family First.

"They are simply Kiwis who want to tackle the tougher issues of family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, violence in our media, poverty and stress, and weak family ties."

McCoskrie also urged the Families Commission to represent the voice of families, not politicians, and call for the anti-smacking law to be amended.

Although McCoskrie personally thinks it is OK for a parent to use a wooden spoon to discipline their children, he believes it would be clearer if it was written into the law that it was all right to use an open hand to smack a child on the bottom and the hands.

"I've always thought it would be better to give parents certainty and just say use your hand, and then you know exactly what the force is. At the same time, I hear mums say they prefer the wooden spoon and sometimes that has the same effect as an open-hand smack. I do have a problem with belts... we should stay right clear of that level just to avoid any doubt."

McCoskrie said the "Vote No" camp spent $49,100 on its campaign, within the legal $50,000 cap for a referendum.

Deborah Morris-Travers, spokeswoman for the "Yes Vote" coalition, said photographs in newspapers yesterday of no-supporters celebrating were offensive.

"I just think it's really distasteful to be celebrating the fact that a large number of New Zealand adults have said they don't want children to have legal protection from assault."

Sunday Star Times