The government is launching new legislation to bring up to date existing laws for the protection of children from sexual and other abuse — but not including any attempt to discourage one of the commonest kinds of child abuse, the hitting of children by adults. Adopting the shameful euphemism "smacking" to disguise what is in fact the use of violence against smaller, weaker, least protected and most vulnerable members of our human community, the government refuses to outlaw a practice which has been banned in a large and growing number of civilised European countries. The government thus displays its usual timidity in confronting the predictable outrage of Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers at any hint of interference in their inalienable right to assault those for whose safety and happiness they are responsible, and who can’t imagine a better way of developing their children’s moral sensibilities than inflicting physical pain and psychological humiliation on them, thereby teaching them that violence is a proper and legitimate response to virtually any problem. Of course it’s obviously true that outlawing the hitting of children won’t stop parents continuing to "smack" their kids when their defiant or dangerous behaviour drives weary mothers or angry fathers to lose control of themselves. And equally obviously, a legal ban on hitting children can’t be universally enforceable (although it would be a useful argument to deploy against the people one so often sees bashing their weeping infants in supermarkets and other stressful environments). But the function of law is not only to prevent prohibited behaviour and to punish those who engage in it: there is also an important normative function in declaring that certain kinds of behaviour are unacceptable and unjustifiable, even if we know that they will continue. Just because innumerable drivers break the speed limit on our perilous roads every day of their lives, and it’s plainly impossible to enforce the speed limit at all times on every road, it’s not suggested that there should be no legal limit on the speed at which one’s allowed to drive on the public highway. Many other kinds of illegal behaviour, such as racial discrimination, are similarly commonplace and enforcement of many such laws can only be patchy, but that doesn’t mean there should be no laws against reprehensible and antisocial behaviour. Adults are protected by law from violence against them by other adults: yet children, far more vulnerable than adults, may lawfully be subjected to what the law (dating back to 1860) is pleased to call "reasonable chastisement", a weasel phrase which has constantly enabled serial child-abusers to get away with it. There was a time when husbands were entitled by the law to inflict "reasonable chastisement" on their wives: no doubt when it was proposed to abolish that licence, exactly the same objections were raised to its abolition as those now raised against any proposal to outlaw the use of violence against children. Our failure to ban the "smacking" of children puts us in breach of Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UK in 1991. Yet the opportunity to put matters right is to be lost. Why are we always lagging at the rear when it comes to even modest social reform, and when will a supposedly modernising centre-left government with a huge majority in the House of Commons pluck up its courage to do what every minister must know is right and necessary?