Activist MLAs have attempted to hijack a Bill tackling sexual offences and human trafficking to criminalise parents who smack their children.
In a Justice Committee meeting yesterday, three members voted in favour of proposing an amendment to the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill which would remove the legal defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ from the law, while three voted against.
Without a majority in favour, the Committee will not ask the Executive to amend the Bill.
Out of scope
The vote went ahead despite the Committee having been told in an earlier meeting that removing legal protections for parents who gently smack their children was outside the scope of the Bill.
SDLP MLA Sinéad Bradley asked the Department last week if such an amendment could be added to the Bill. Brian Grzymek, Deputy Director of Criminal Justice Services in the Northern Ireland Office, said the current Bill was not the appropriate place to do so due to its specific focus on sexual offences and trafficking.
Grzymek said: “The aim was not to create more criminals”, adding that “to legislate in this area would be more than a justice issue”.
Despite Grzymek’s explanation, Bradley insisted she would still ‘try to make an amendment fit’ if other avenues were closed.
She and the Green Party’s Rachel Woods have now signalled their intention to introduce an amendment to the Bill in their own names at its next stage, expected in February.
Not enough members in favour on the meeting. Was tied 3-3, so without a majority committee didnt agree. However myself and Sinead and trying it in our own names.
— Rachel Woods MLA (@rachelwoods52) January 20, 2022
It can only be voted on if the Speaker, Alex Maskey, decides it is within scope.
Maskey is MLA for Belfast West, and represented Sinn Fein until becoming Speaker in 2020.
The hijack attempt has the support of Justice Minister Naomi Long, who signalled her intention to ban smacking back in April last year.
The Alliance MLA had pledged it as part of a broad Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, but this was not approved by the Executive.