THERESA May been urged to ban smacking in England and Northern Ireland which are poised to become the only parts of the UK where it will be legal to hit a child.

The call was made by a campaign group after a bill was published in Holyrood to outlaw the practice and the Welsh Government announced it was also bringing in legislation to do so.

Anna Hendry, director of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (GI) welcomed the Scottish Government’s announcement that it will support the removal of the defence to the physical punishment of children proposed in the Member’s Bill published by the Green MSP John Finnie this week.

She called on May to bring in legislation for England – and in the absence of a Stormont Assembly – also a separate bill for Northern Ireland.

“The legislation [in Scotland] will...send a clear message that disciplining children with violence is never acceptable and is a violation of their rights,” she said.

“The Welsh Assembly has now committed to publishing legislation in the coming year, leaving England and Northern Ireland with children yet to be fully protected from assault.

“It is essential that these protections are extended in legislation across the UK, which is currently out of step with the rest of Europe.”

Hendry said the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill published by Finnie on Thursday was a major step forward for the UK as a whole and momentum across the world was gathering to recognise the equal rights of children to be protected from assault.

“A growing body of evidence shows even so called ‘mild’ physical punishment can do lasting damage, and there is an urgency to enshrine in legislation the fact that children have a right to be free of assault, as adults are. This requires legislation that leaves no ‘grey area’, and no form of justified assault,” she said.

Hendry added that the legislation would not mean that parents would face criminalisation for minor infractions but the aim of the Bill was to change behaviour and send out a message hitting children was not acceptable.

“Any legislation to protect children would at all times be enacted in their best interests, and in most cases it is not in their interests for a parent to be criminalised,” she said.

Sweden was the first country in the world to prohibit the physical punishment of children, doing so in 1979. Many others have followed its lead, and now 53 countries have prohibited corporal punishment in all settings.

Along with 22 members of the EU, and other European countries such as Norway and Iceland, there are countries from Africa, Asia, South America and Central America which outlaw the practice. New Zealand has also prohibited the use of physical punishment in all settings.

Since 2015 countries to introduce a full prohibition include the Republic of Ireland, Peru, Greenland, Mongolia, Montenegro, Paraguay, Slovenia, Benin and Lithuania.

A further 56 have expressed a commitment to a full prohibition being introduced, including India, Pakistan, Mexico, Thailand, Afghanistan and Turkey. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child defines physical punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light”.