Sometimes I like to kid myself that I live in a civilised country, where people of any shape or size can co-exist and be protected by law. Then I see the debate on smacking – revived at the weekend by former Education Minister David Lammy – and I’m reminded with a jolt that it’s still deemed a parent’s right to physically punish the smallest, most vulnerable people in society. And that society seems okay with that.

According to David Lammy MP, in an interview with LBC Radio, Labour’s decision in 2004 to tighten the smacking law was a factor in last summer’s riots. He argues working-class parents should be able to physically discipline their children to prevent them from joining gangs and getting involved in knife crime.

I think smacking children to discipline them for bad behaviour is wrong. I think physically snatching a child away from a hot oven or a road busy with traffic isn’t.

In England and Wales, the Children Act 2004 says parents can mildly smack their children as long as their action does not cause “reddening of the skin”. Any punishment which causes harm like bruising or cuts can face legal action, with adults facing up to five years in jail.

This legislation on smacking is stricter than in Scotland. Back in 2003, the Scottish Executive intended to make it an offence to smack children under the age of three, or hit those of any age with an “implement” such as a belt, slipper or cane. The latter proposals were adopted, but the ban on smacking toddlers was dropped after the measure was rejected at committee stage.

Lammy’s notion that rebellion in young people and children will be quelled, and not generated, by fear of physical chastisement is ridiculous. The proposal that last summer’s civic unrest, as well as ongoing antisocial and violent behaviour, stems from too few unruly kids getting a clip around the ear is the kind of patronising nonsense which I expect to spew from out-of-touch politicians with no real care or concern as to why some of Britain’s youth are rioting. The notion that smacking should be okay for working class parents in particular is disgusting. Are we okay with men from working class backgrounds hitting their wives and girlfriends?

I think children who are hurt become angry and humiliated, and less likely to behave in a way that meets society’s expectations. Children who are told at school to talk about their fallings outs and find ways to be kind to their playmates, but who then go home and get hit because someone can’t be bothered to explain to them why their behaviour is wrong are well aware of the hypocrisy. I think unemployment, lack of aspiration and cuts to public services will do far, far more damage to good parenting and well-behaved teenagers than whether or not you’re permitted to smack your children.

Lammy’s comments are absurd: being able to physically punish children will do nothing to resolve antisocial behaviour, and probably only encourages it. But what I find almost worse is that this is a debate which is still acceptable today. It’s amazing that society at large seems okay with a violent act by an adult inflicted on a child in a way which would be unacceptable between adults – partners, colleagues, strangers.

Sweden was the first country in the world to ban the physical punishment of children in 1979. Since then, reports of neglect and child abuse have risen. According to Louise Sylwander, Sweden’s first Children’s Ombudsman, there’s no evidence this is because of a corresponding rise in actual cases of abuse in Sweden: instead, it seems the ban has led society to become less tolerant of violence against children, and more confident in reporting children at risk.

Young adults who rioted, who are violent, who carry knives do so for a myriad of complex social and economic reasons, which a decent society should endeavour to resolve. They don’t do it because they’re bad, and because that badness wasn’t beaten out of them at an early enough age. Poverty and poor parenting are issues within this myriad web of causes, but so too is a society that doesn’t care enough, where politicians can lazily pontificate and legislation can fall far too short to protect the vulnerable. Simply, having to resort to smacking is a failure, on every possible level.