Editorial: Let Latta be last word on smacking law

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The Prime Minister's appointment of clinical psychologist Nigel Latta to lead a review of the smacking law was an inspired one. Mr Latta, a noted defender of smacking, has undertaken the work with an open mind and has come to conclusions that should answer the concerns of 87 per cent of those who voted in the recent referendum.

Mr Latta, assisted by Police Commissioner Howard Broad and the head of the Ministry of Social Development, Peter Hughes, has found that smacking as most people know it - light, admonitory, open-handed and instantaneous - remains permissible. Social workers are not alarmed by it and police are not prosecuting it, despite all the claims to the contrary of initiators of the referendum.

The review has found none of their cited cases stood up to closer scrutiny. Police investigations that seemed trivial or frivolous at first glance all turned out to contain more serious elements than the parents had admitted to campaigners such as Family First. Mr Latta said: "In all cases there wasn't one where I thought the only reason [the police] investigated was because of the law change. In every case, when I looked at the police file, it was blindingly obvious why they had."

Mr Latta's findings ought to put to rest the fears of many parents who have been under the misapprehension that the Bradford bill outlawed smacking entirely.

It never did, though it often seemed Sue Bradford was content to leave that impression. A complete ban would have been fine with her.

With both sides of the debate exaggerating the bill's implications for there own purpose it is no wonder most people resented the legislation and probably still treat it as a complete prohibition.

Parents are said to be fearful of smacking a misbehaving child in public because people will think they are breaking the law. That is how damaging the misinformation on this issue has been. Mr Latta might have suffered from it when he lined up with the smacking lobby before the referendum. Now he knows what the law says, and what police and social workers are doing.

The law expressly allows parents to use reasonable force to stop or prevent a child doing something dangerous, disruptive, offensive or persisting in such behaviour. Confusion was created because the law also says smacking is not permitted as a means of "correction" alone. With Mr Latta's report, John Key now doubts that even a light smack purely for that purpose would attract police attention.

If ever there was a needless debate in our politics this has been it. Mr Latta believes the law change will make no difference to good parents or bad. He doubts its message will make much difference in the households Ms Bradford was hoping to reach. Most, if not all, the cases police have taken up would have been investigated under previous law.

It certainly will not help the poor children in violent households that Mr Latta and Mr Key have clarified the new law's enforcement. Permissible "light" discipline is not a distinction violent parents can be left to draw. But now that the concerns of the majority can be laid to rest, the whole subject can safely be left to the discretion of police.

Let it be clear, a parent is perfectly entitled to deliver a light smack to a child throwing a tantrum, being obstinate or obnoxious or plainly misbehaving. There should be no disapproval shown by anyone witnessing reasonable force in these circumstances.

People have been misinformed and misled on this subject for long enough. Let the Latta report be the last word. Common sense has prevailed in law and practice.

- NZ Herald

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