A ban we DO need: on foolish politicians and trendy agendas…

By Graham Grant

THERE are a few things that remain unbanned in Scotland despite the best efforts of our prohibitionist parliamentarians.

You can still drive – although petrol and diesel vehicles will be phased out by 2032 – and smoke, but not in a car with children, or in public buildings.

Drinking is still possible for now, but is becoming more costly because of minimum pricing, and pubs are closing due to the drastic reduction in the drink-drive limit.

Banning is a recurring tic of devolved politics in Scotland, sometimes with a rather Puritanical subtext, such as a planned crackdown on lap-dancing (now seen as a violent act against women).

That doesn’t extend of course to other vices, such as drugs – the SNP is a vocal cheerleader for heroin ‘shooting galleries’, offering taxpayer-funded ‘fixes’, despite the inconvenient fact of their illegality, and fines for people caught with small amounts of cannabis.

Back in the early years of Holyrood, there was even a Fur Farming (Prohibition) (Scotland) Bill, a ground-breaking legislative move – particularly given that there is no fur farming in Scotland…

MSPs tend not to ban the things we’d really like to see the back of, such as potholes, or Patrick Harvie, but then where’s the fun in that? Far better to extend the boundaries of state control ever-further into the sanctity of family life (witness the appalling Named Person scheme).

Now another ban beckons, and this one looks familiar – a ban on smacking, in the form of an Equal Protection Bill, published by Green MSP John Finnie and aimed at ‘prohibiting the physical punishment of children by parents and others caring for or in charge of children’.

It has won the backing of the SNP and is now official government policy, with cross-party support, though there are some voices of dissent, including Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, who warns that criminalising parents is ‘unnecessary, undesirable and unenforceable’.

Aficionados of Scottish politics might recall that 16 years ago there was another abortive attempt to ban smacking, which saw officials forced to admit that children under three could face giving evidence against their parents in cases where smacking was alleged.

The Nationalists did not instigate the latest ban – perhaps remembering the public relations fiasco last time around – but they are happy enough to back Mr Finnie.

But maybe there is a more cynical explanation for their arm’s length support of the Bill, which removes the legal defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’.

Campaigners who mount any legal challenge against the move (as they did in the case of Named Person, securing a Supreme Court victory) would target the parliament rather than the Scottish Government – which already has its hands full fending off a judicial review lodged by a former First Minister.

The Be Reasonable campaign, which opposes the smacking ban, points out that ‘more than 140 countries around the world continue to respect parents’ freedom – and responsibility – to discipline their children appropriately’, compared with 51 countries which don’t, which means Scotland is rushing to join a minority.

Parenting technique is hugely subjective – an inexact science based on trial and error – and self-help manuals claiming to offer the most effective way of rearing a child should be given the widest of berths.

Yet government policy is now predicated on the notion that there is indeed a right way and a wrong way – and that ministers, rather than parents, know best.

We should be forgiven for being sceptical that the state is a credible authority on setting parameters for parents, given that the actions of previous governments and local authorities are now the focus of an ongoing statutory inquiry into institutional child abuse.

One of the organisations which championed the smacking ban is Barnardo’s, which accepted last year at a hearing of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI) that abuse had taken place in some of its children’s homes.

The charity will be the subject of fresh scrutiny when SCAI hearings resume in Edinburgh next month.

And any state which could devise Named Person – amounting to mass surveillance of under-18s – and attempt to implement it, despite the UK’s highest court finding that key planks of are unlawful, is not a state that should be trusted to tell any parent how to discipline their children.

This is also a government that condones the routine redaction of official reports on child neglect, abuse and homicide cases, so that the public are fed only a heavily censored version of events, and refuses to sack social workers or health visitors implicated in those scandals.

Accountability should extend to families, but not always, it seems, to ‘corporate parents’.

But there’s also the awkward question of practicality – of how this law will be policed and made to work in the courts.

Admittedly, this is not always this parliament’s strongest suit: it once tried to scrap the historic legal principle of corroboration and was forced into a U-turn after a major outcry, much of it from judges – well, what do they know about the law anyway?

As we revealed on Saturday, the smacking ban itself is set to result in only one prosecution each year – despite costing an estimated £300,000 – while taxpayers will naturally foot the bill for an advertising campaign to make parents aware of the changes (doubtless one that is intensely patronising).

Nicola Sturgeon’s former law professor, Alistair Bonnington, has branded the plan ‘unenforceable’, and unsportingly points out that smacking ‘happens in the privacy of the home and the victim often can’t talk’.

Whatever your view of smacking (and a poll last year suggested nearly three in four do not believe smacking should become a criminal offence), Mr Finnie’s Bill exposes another failing of a parliament that simply cannot stop meddling.

Holyrood has become adept at passing needless legislation – reams of it – when the existing law is normally perfectly sufficient, and creating bad law – for example the now-rescinded ban on sectarian chanting at football matches, once memorably described by a sheriff as ‘mince’.

The ban on smoking in cars when children are present was fine in theory, but police warned it would be virtually unenforceable – a situation that is unlikely to improve given that hundreds of officers face the axe to balance the books of the single police force.

Meanwhile the really pressing problems that most of us would like to see addressed – sluggish economic growth and under-performing schools and hospitals – seem something of an afterthought for our MSPs.

Perhaps that’s because it’s far easier to preach and moralise than to bring about fundamental reform of failing public services.

The smacking ban is just the latest illustration of the disconnect between real public priorities and the virtue-signalling preoccupations of our hand-wringing – and deeply hypocritical – ruling class.

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