Hopes of a compromise deal between anti-smacking campaigners, including church leaders in the House of Lords, and the Government grew last night.
Ministers will oppose a change to the Children Bill in the Lords today that would ban all smacking except to prevent immediate danger to children, but they were considering dropping opposition to a compromise banning punishment "that causes physical or mental harm" to children.
Some Christians have defended the right to hit children on the grounds that it constitutes ìBiblical disciplineî, a claim that has been refuted by the theological thinktank Ekklesia amongst others. Church leaders are amongst those driving forward measures to stop parents hitting their children.
Baroness Kathleen Richardson, a former chair of the Methodist Conference and member of the House of Lords, spoke at the weekend on Radio 4's Sunday programme, of her opposition to smacking and her support for a change in the law.
Government lawyers however are now considering the implications of a proposal, from a Liberal Democrat frontbencher, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. A government source said ministers were opposed to a full ban on smacking, but were willing to offer a free vote on the compromise tightening the current law, which allows "reasonable chastisement".
Tony Blair's spokesman said yesterday: "The Prime Minister does not believe that there should be a law banning parents from smacking their children." Ministers accept, however, that the current defence of reasonable chastisement can be used to deflect genuine charges of child abuse.
More than 30 public figures, including the stage and screen directors Richard Eyre and Stephen Frears and the agony aunts Virginia Ironside and Claire Rayner, wrote yesterday to Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, calling on him to support a change in the law. They said the "only way to clarify and modernise the law is to give children equal protection from assault".
A coalition of peers from all parties including church leaders, who are supporting a ban, said yesterday that the issue of smacking was "a serious matter of equality, human rights and child protection". Baroness Whitaker, a Labour peer and one of the sponsors of an amendment introducing a ban, said: "It is also clearly a conscience issue and the government should therefore allow peers a free vote."
A spokesman for the lobby group Children are Unbeatable said more than 100 peers were expected to support a ban on smacking today. But under the change parents would still be able to smack children in exceptional circumstances, such as to stop them walking into a road or harming another child.