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I beg to move, as an amendment to the Lords amendment,
Leave out '"level 4"' and insert '"level 5"'
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member of Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) on getting his Bill through the other place largely in the form in which it was drafted. However, in my view the Bill can still be improved.
Hon. Members will probably be aware that the Bill provides for courts to impose a maximum fine of £400 on anyone found guilty of sending a malicious communication. The Lords amendment increases the fine to a maximum of £1,000, but my amendment seeks to give courts power to impose a maximum fine of £2,000. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has heard what I have to say, he will be prepared to give some ground and move away from the present maximum of £400.
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office gave the reasons why he thought the maximum of £400 was correct:
People do not like this offence, and want to try to stamp it out, but we must get the penalty fixed at the right level. My hon. Friend"—
that is, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood—
suggests that it should be fixed at £400. In the trade that is a level 3 fine, and I think that it is probably about right".—[Official Report, 12 February 1988; Vol. 127, c. 635.]
Did the hon. Gentleman hear his hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) say that if I was a lawyer I would make a fortune?
Knowing the cantankerous nature of the hon. Member for Bolsover and the way in which he is always ready to support a good fight, I have no doubt that if he were a lawyer he would make a fortune.
The scale of fines set down by Parliament for level 1 is £50, for level 2 it is £100 and for level 3—the level to which I referred when quoting my hon. Friend the Minister—it is £400. My amendment seeks to increase the fine to level 5, which is £2,000
There is nothing above that that we could properly debate today.
What is my reason for suggesting this increase to £2,000? It is not a figure that I have plucked out of the air. I should like to refer the House to the Law Commission's report on poison pen letters, published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. The Law Commission set up for this purpose was composed of the following commissioners: the honourable Mr. Justice Ralph Gibson, who was its chairman, Mr. Trevor Aldridge, Mr. Brian Davenport QC, Professor Julian Farrand and Mrs. Brenda Hoggett. The commissioners were charged with examining the scope of the existing provisions of the criminal law for dealing with people who send poison pen letters and similar material. The review that they undertook arose out of the Law Commission's examination of the common law offence of criminal libel and was part of the programme of codification of the criminal law in England and Wales.
In quite a lengthy report, the Law Commission recommended the creation of a new statutory offence to penalise people who send or deliver poison pen letters and similar messages for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety. It concluded that the new offence should be triable only in a magistrates court. It submitted with its report a draft of what it said should be in a Malicious Communications Bill.
I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood based his Bill largely on the Law Commission's report, but he departed from its recommendations in respect of the penalty that was recommended. Paragraph D on page 27 of the Law Commission's report says:
Our working paper proposed that the maximum penalty currently available in magistrates' courts should apply in this case, that is six months' imprisonment or a fine of £2,000"—
for the benefit of the hon. Member for Bolsover, that is level 5—
or both. Only one commentator disagreed with our provisional proposal and suggested that three months' imprisonment might be more appropriate on the grounds that six months appeared excessive in comparison with the maximum penalty for making obscene telephone calls which is at present limited to a maximum fine of £400 (level 3), without the possibility of a sentence of imprisonment being imposed.
Clearly my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood believes that the maximum penalty should be £400 because it is in line with other similar provisions. What does the Law Commission say about this matter? Paragraph 4.48 of its report says:
We must first explain why we favour giving magistrates' courts the power to imprison a person convicted of sending a poison-pen letter. In the working paper we gave two reasons: first, we could conceive of circumstances in very serious cases in which a sentence of imprisonment might be the only suitable form of punishment; secondly, the availability of a number of different types of sentence in magistrates' courts depends upon the existence of the power to imprison in relation to the particular offence of which the defendant has been convicted.
A magistrates court cannot make a hospital order under section 37 of the Mental Health Act 1983 unless the defendant has been convicted of an offence that is punishable by imprisonment. As some of those who will send poison-pen letters are likely to be suffering from a condition of the mind that requires medical treatment or help, I took the view in Committee that it was desirable for powers of imprisonment to be available to magistrates.
The last time that we debated this subject, it was rightly said that imprisonment was not appropriate. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) acknowledged that, as imprisonment is not attached to conviction in cases arising under the Bill, magistrates do not have powers under the Mental Health Act 1983, but there are many other routes by which they can advise that a convicted person should receive help and treatment.
The hon.Gentleman makes a fair point. He canvassed this matter in earlier debates on the subject, and I accept what he says. However, I can envisage occasions when the letter is so malicious and the effect on its recipient so dramatic that courts may decide, even in the absence of any medical condition, that a short period of imprisonment is appropriate.
I defend the Law Commissioner's view, which I share, that imprisonment should he available. That, however, is not the strict purpose of my amendment. I mentioned imprisonment to show the House that respected opinion that has considered this matter—the Law Commission—concluded that we should go further than my amendment. If my amendment is accepted, it will give courts power to impose fines up to £2,000. Those who have examined this subject in detail, who could colloquially be called experts, came to the view that there should be a maximum fine of £2,000 and the provision of imprisonment.
A few moments ago the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) said that the courts should be able to send people to prison for repeated offences or for offences that suggest that they need treatment for a mental condition,. In those circumstances, why is the hon. Gentleman restricting the scope of his amendment to a fine of only £2,000? Why has he not followed the logic of his argument and ensured that, if necessary, the courts should be able to send someone to prison or for mental health treatment?
That is a fair question, but since I became a Member of Parliament in 1983, I have learnt that in this place one takes what one can get and that if one seeks to obtain an amendment that is strictly in line with one's views one may alienate a large number of hon. Members. My amendment is a compromise. It does not go as far as I should like, but it goes further than that provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. It also goes further than those in another place wanted it to go. However, it is a step in the right direction.
The Law Commission, having examined all the alternatives, said in paragraph 4.50 on page 28 of its report:
Accordingly, we recommend that the maximum penalty for the new offence should be six months' imprisonment or a fine of £2,000 … or both.
Having examined all the options, the Law Commission did not equivocate. It came down unreservedly in favour of both imprisonment and a fine of the order that I am urging the House to accept. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) has pointed out, my proposal is more modest than the Law Commission's recommendation.
I did not take part in the previous proceedings, and I am therefore a little confused about what my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) has said. Why has it taken so long to arrive at this position? Can he explain why my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) set a lower level of penalty during the early stages while at this fairly late stage my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North is suggesting a penalty that is in line with the Law Commission's recommendation? That is odd.
I should have thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood would have arrived at that figure straight away. Why are we reaching it by such a roundabout route?
That is not strictly correct. The Bill was debated in Committee of the whole House and I urged my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood to move further up the scale than level 3. In reply, the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) said:
The sending of a malicious communication certainly causes distress to the recipient, but we must not make the penalty out of proportion to the gravity of the offence and out of proportion to other offences already on the statute book. The penalty at level 3 is the same as that for broadly similar offences under the Telecommunications Act 1984 and Public Order Act 1986.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and my hon. Friend the Minister of State declined to go further, despite my entreaties. They said that level 3 was in line with other measures on the statute book. As the other place took a similar view to that which I expressed in Committee, I am taking this opportunity to push my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood a little further. When he has listened to the arguments, I hope that he will agree to give some ground. If he is not prepared to go all the way and accept my amendment, I hope that he will at least agree to accept the Lords amendment.
It seems that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and my hon. Friend the Minister of State are isolated, because the other place appears to support my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight). I am sure that he will receive a great deal of support from hon. Members. I detect that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is attracted by his argument. The Minister of State's judgment is usually impeccable, but it can go astray occasionally. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood are equating this offence with other offences, but my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North begs to differ. He thinks that the offence is different: in its nature, quality and quantity. Is that the right interpretation of my hon. Friend's argument?
I agree with my hon. Friend's last statement, because my hon. Friend the Minister of State went on to say:
We must be consistent and keep the penalties for similar offences in line."—[Official Report, 22 April 1988; Vol. 131, c. 1155.]
I do not want to be unfair, however, to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department.
Is there not an argument that higher penalties should apply to similar offences, such as malicious telephone calls, that can be deeply disturbing to those who receive them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not accept the argument that, as the law provides for lower penalties for other offences, we should go along with them. If I understand him rightly, he is saying that we should consider increasing the penalties for other offences. If that is his point, I wholeheartedly agree with him.
The question for the House is, what is the right penalty. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood drafted his Bill with the best of intentions, but I think that he has got it wrong. The level is too low and we should increase it. I hope that the House will consider accepting the Lords amendment, even if it cannot accept my amendment.
I, too, was not involved in the earlier stages of the Bill, but am I right in assuming that a letter or other article that conveys a message includes a tape-recorded message, in which case the offence, as the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) said, could be very deeply offensive and would justify a heavier punishment?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer, but he has correctly analysed the Bill. It includes tape recordings. It also includes obscene messages put on floppy disks. Such messages would not be read until they were inserted in the computer. The scope of the Bill is fairly wide-ranging and would include obscene messages sent in that way.
I get what can loosely be described as obscene pen letters from Tiny Rowland. He sends them to me on behalf of Lonrho plc to encourage me to send them on to Harrods. I think that he sends them to other Members of Parliament. Would such letters be described as poison pen letters? They are sent by Tiny Rowland to Members of Parliament with a view to causing anxiety and distress at Harrods.
We have to reach a decision about the different levels of penalty. We are not messing around with £400. We are discussing levels 3 and 4, and we could reach level 5. I have to consider the poison pen letters that are sent from Tiny Rowland via me to Harrods. Is that point covered by the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight)? I want to know—
Indeed—on level 5.
Perhaps Tiny Rowland believes that the hon. Member for Bolsover is running for leadership of the Labour party, and that is why he is sending him these missives. The Bill would cover all communications, including those to a Member of Parliament, so if the hon. Gentleman is distressed or caused anxiety by any letter that he receives, were the Bill to become law he could ensure that the sender was properly prosecuted.
The Bill provides that when a letter is sent in the normal course of business that constitutes a defence. I suppose that a Member of Parliament could argue that if his letter was in the proper terms, he had not committed an offence. In my opinion, the defence would not be absolute. I can envisage circumstances in which a Member of Parliament could fall foul of the law.
I am sorry to distress my hon. Friend, but the offence applies only to dunning letters, and I am not sure how often Members of Parliament send dunning letters to their constituents.
I suppose that if a Member of Parliament was also a lawyer who was owed some money, and he wrote on his House of Commons headed paper, that might be covered, but I agree that that is an arguable point.
I have read and reread the Law Commission's report and I can see that it was not hesitant in coming to its recommendation on the level of fine. It is not as if it concluded that it was an arguable case, and that there were weighty arguments in favour of level 3 or level 4. It came down unequivocally and unanimously in favour of level 5. With the greatest respect, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has missed the point to some extent, because, if we agree to level 5, we are not saying that in every case there should be a fine of £2,000. We are saying that we are giving the courts power, if necessary, to impose the larger fine.
I will give an example that will be close to the heart of the hon. Member for Bolsover. It is an example vaguely analogous to the Geoffrey Collier case. A stockbroker who is a millionaire sends a malicious communication designed to cause anxiety and distress—perhaps to do with share dealings or some other business proposition that he wants to force through. He causes so much distress and depression to the recipient that the recipient suffers a complete breakdown in health. Are we to say that the fine of £2,000 is too much in that case?
The main purpose of criminal proceedings is punishment, and the courts of course will consider the person they have before them and find out what his income is. They will pitch the level of the fine to some extent according to that person's wealth. If the courts consider that that person should know better and should be setting an example, they will often decide to impose a very heavy fine. If the courts are dealing with someone very wealthy, who has sent a most obnoxious letter that has caused distress, and perhaps injured the health of the recipient, can we say that £400 is sufficient? I say that it is not.
It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend chose a stockbroker as an example, because, generally, he would be involved in perfectly legitimate and honourable business practices. He would be careful how he writes to people, because his very business depends on good relations with his clients and the public. Will my hon. Friend comment on someone in a powerful position, such as the leader of a trade union, who may well write a letter to one of his members threatening that, if that person does not conform to certain practices, such as an unofficial strike—
Order. If hon. Members wish to make speeches, I wish that they would do it in the usual way—by seeking to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair rather than by making long interventions.
I do not want my hon. Friend to think that I am mounting an attack on stockbrokers. I was merely giving an example of a case in which the courts might want to impose a far heavier fine than £400. As to the case that my hon. Friend mentioned, it would all depend on the wording of the letter and whether there was an unwarranted threat, which is what the Bill requires. It also requires that the information is false and that the sender knows or believes it to be false. The purpose of the communication should be to cause personal distress or anxiety. I can envisage a case of a trade union official exceeding his authority, being particularly offensive and causing distress, and that being covered by the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such a letter would he written by a general secretary or another officer within the rules of the union, or at the instruction of the union's executive council? The letter would not be written in the context in which we have conducted this debate. The hon. Gentleman may take the view that it is unlikely that the Bill would cover such a letter. There may be other ways in which to deal with it.
I agree that such a case is unlikely. I believe that most trade union leaders and officials try to conform to the law. In the normal course of their business, if they sent a letter that is robust but no more, the Bill would not be relevant. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) spoke about a letter which was so offensive and over the top that it would probably be in breach of union rules, but of course there are rogue trade union officials, just as there are rogue stockbrokers. The point of my example, however, was simply to draw attention to the adequacy or otherwise of the proposed level of fine.
I hope that, having heard my examples, the whole House agrees that the proposed level of fine is inadequate. We should send a clear message to the courts that we regard the sending of malicious communications so seriously that we are prepared to empower them to impose very heavy fines when appropriate. Such fines, however, are not mandatory. I believe that level 5 is about right. If my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood cannot go with me all the way, I hope that he will reflect on the matter and perhaps agree to urge the House to accept the Lords amendment.
I am not particularly wedded to my amendment, but I tabled it so that I could urge my hon. Friend to go further than a £400 fine. After the interventions from hon. Members on both sides of the House expressing the apparently unanimous view that the Bill does not go far enough, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood will consider the argument and agree that we should raise the fine from level 3.
There have already been lengthy discussions in this House and in another place about the penalty proposed in my Bill. Concern has been expressed about whether the penalty is sufficiently high to punish adequately or deter those who send malicious communications. In Committee in the House, I resisted an amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) to increase the fine to level 5 on the standard scale to a maximum of £2,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North has now tabled his amendment again. I still believe that a maximum fine of £2,000 is too high.
Sending a malicious communication can cause serious distress and it is right that such an offence should attract a level of penalty that properly reflects the gravity of the offence. However, £2,000 is the highest financial penalty that may normally be awarded by a magistrates' court. As such, it should apply to offences which may be dealt with by a magistrates court, in particular cases which may cause physical hurt or damage to a person or property or cases where a person stands to gain financially from an illegal act.
Sending a malicious communication is serious. We all recognise the misery that that can cause and agree that the action should be punished. That is the purpose of my Bill. However, it is not a requirement of the offence that distress or anxiety should actually be caused. For that reason, I do not believe that the offence falls into the most serious category of offences with which a magistrates court may have to deal. However, I recognise the concern expressed in the reasoned arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North and in another place about the adequacy of a fine of level 3 which I proposed in my Bill. I accept the need to respond to that concern.
When the Bill's sponsor in another place, Lord Campbell of Alloway, sought my views on the possibility of a higher penalty, I was happy on reflection, bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North had argued here, to agree that a penalty at level 4—a maximum fine of £1,000—more accurately reflected the seriousness of the offence. The amendment tabled by Lord Campbell in another place was accepted without opposition. I hope that the House will also welcome it today. In view of that, I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North will consider withdrawing his amendment.
Like other hon. Members, I was not privileged to take part in earlier stages of the Bill. Nevertheless, I am very interested in what is happening and what might happen when the Bill becomes law, as I hope it will. I very much welcome the Bill and applaud the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) for introducing it.
We are now considering the narrow point of the penalties. Having thought about this for some time, I think that level 3 at £400, is about right. All the talk about levels reminds me of a department store. One arrives at level 3 and then goes up to level 4. When my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referred to Harrods, I really felt that I was in a department store—[Interruption.] I hope that I may continue my speech without this dialogue taking place on the Benches before me.
All the discussion this morning has concerned malicious communications which might come from stockbrokers or very well-off people. From my constituency experience, I believe that the majority of malicious communications come from poorer people. I am not knocking or defending those people.
I do not want to stray into too many generalities, but I want to refer to some examples. Very often poison-pen letters and malicious communications arise from neighbourhood problems involving feelings of harassment. For example, a person in one house may feel harassed and pressured by someone living next door or in the flat above. I am sure that I need not remind hon. Members on both sides of the House about this. They need only look in their post-bags or go to their surgeries this evening to find cases where people complain bitterly that they have come to the end of their tether because of the problems caused by a neighbour. I can see hon. Members nodding in agreement.
We would hope that those problems would not normally result in a poison-pen letter of malicious communication, but it occasionally does. I have met constituents who are the persecuted and I have also met the persecutors. I have met people who have received malicious communications and poison-pen letters stemming from the difficulties and friction caused by neighbourhood problems.
We must watch out for another point when we are considering the level of fine. I do not want to see people driven to desperation by the problems that they face in their daily lives then subjected to a fine of £ 1,000 or £2,000.
All hon. Members will recognise the description that my hon. Friend has given of what we will loosely describe as "neighbour" problems. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that Birmingham has established a pilot conciliation scheme with help from one of the universities to try to resolve the problems before they cause people to send abusive or poison-pen letters. Other local authorities might want to consider that scheme in due course.
I am very grateful for that interesting point and I hope that we will consider it.
Many of the people to whom I am referring do not know where to go to make proper complaints. I need not remind hon. Members of the common phrase which constituents use in surgeries, "You are my last resort." My heart always sinks when I hear that. I feel that they have been to everyone else and are now coming to me and I probably have no solution either.
People are not always aware of the fact that the persecutor may have a problem. They may not be aware that a reference to the social services department may be the best course of action. Or, if council tenants are involved, reference to the housing deparment might be the answer.
I believe that the penalty may be over-severe for another category. Some single men and women may be lonely and in some cases unable to go out very often. Those people may spend their time at the window looking up and down the road at their neighbours. They may not invent situations about neighbours, but they might see a young woman going out, temporarily leaving her children in the house. The person watching may think, "How terrible." That person may send a letter which might be construed as a malicious communication. That may sound far-fetched in the rather glorified atmosphere of stockbrokerage that we have just been talking about. However, it is much more the reality than the high-flown kind of malicious communication referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover in terms of his letters from Tiny Rowland.
When Tiny Rowland writes to me, he is not sending me a malicious communication that would cause me anxiety and distress. I never read the letters thoroughly, but it seems to me that he is trying to cause anxiety and distress to the people who own Harrods, by suggesting that they do not really own it and that they got it by dodgy means. I am being used as the middle man in the exercise, and I know that other hon. Members get these letters in brown envelopes. Would that come within the general ambit of the Bill and, if so, would that alter my hon. Friend's view about the appropriate level of fine?
Then there is another consideration—
I have never had a communication from Tiny Rowland, or perhaps I have, but have thrown it away unopened. That is a slightly different scenario from the one that we are discussing.
I am worried about setting fine levels at £1,000 or £2,000 rather than £400, which was the level originally in the Bill. I am sure that the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) gave the matter a great deal of thought and took advice before fixing the fines at level 3, and did not merely pluck the figure out of the air. Even if the maximum is to be £1,000 or £2,000, there may be variations within those sums. We all know that different magistrates see cases in different ways, just as judges do. We know how the sentences given for rape vary. I am not straying from discussion of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I am discussing the level of sentences. We are often outraged that a short sentence is given by one judge in a nasty case, whereas an appropriately long sentence is given in another case. There may be a similar unevenness in fines. The result will be that some poor old gentleman—not Tiny Rowland —or some poor old lady or young woman will be fined more than he or she can afford.
The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) was asked why we did not go the whole hog. I assure the Minister that no pun is intended, incidentally.
That was my other point. Has my hon. Friend considered the question of non-payment? We hear constantly that the prisons are full and that the number of prisoners is at an all-time record. The Prime Minister was elected on the basis of law and order, but the prisons are so full that prisoners are breaking out. The Prime Minister 'was going to set the people free, but the prisoners got out. If fines were set at level 5—£2,000—more people might be unable to pay. If they fell into contempt of court, they would be pushed into gaol and add to the numbers in prison. That is why I am still considering whether to support the original provision or the amendment. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can help me. In my case, the jury is still out.
Surely, the point is something of a red herring. If a defendant cannot meet a fine due to a change in circumstances, there is provision for the courts to review the weekly payment, and they invariably do so. Only if the defendant makes it quite clear to the court that he is not prepared to pay the fine or if his behavour is so perverse that he is putting other things—such as his own entertainment—before the payment of the fine, is he sent to prison. Prison is not really a threat to a person who makes a reasonable effort to discharge the fine imposed by the court.
The hon. Gentleman does not live in the kind of world that I live in. I am not talking about stockbrokers or the well off. It is stupid and wrong to write a poison pen letter and to be caught and fined. However, the guilty person might be a pensioner or be receiving income support. He might be paying back other debts, such as bills for gas and electricity. Such people find it difficult to pay fines, with the best will in the world, and they end up in prison.
All hon. Members acknowledge that our prisons are overcrowded. One has only to look at Holloway, for example, where many women are on remand, often for petty offences such as shop-lifting and non-payment of fines.
It is true that I have not been to Holloway for a year or 14 months. When I spoke of it as being overcrowded, I did not mean that there were six persons to a cell. However, the constant complaint at Holloway, which often comes from the Prison Officers Association, is that there are too few prison officers to deal with the number of prisoners and there is a distinct feeling that many of the women who are there for non-payment of fines or similar offences should not be there at all. That point is linked to my argument. I mentioned Holloway because it is a London prison and I know something about it. There are other prisons which are overcrowded and, even if Holloway is not technically overcrowded at the moment, it could become overcrowded.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting point. The prison statistics for England and Wales for 1986 show that fine defaulters accounted for 22 per cent. of receptions under sentence, and that was 1 per cent. more than in the previous year. About 1·3 million men were fined in 1986—I do not have the figure for women.
My hon. Friend has reinforced my argument. I am worried about the level of fines that could be imposed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said that he was waiting for the jury. I have made up my mind that £400 is the right amount. For that reason, I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Sherwood support the Lords amendment, because it sets fines too high. We should keep to the level of fines proposed by the Bill, at least for the time being, and see how that works. If the fines do not do the job that they are intended to do, it would be possible to increase them at a later stage.
When I say that my jury is still out, it is because I am considering tactics. We have three choices: £400, £1,000, as proposed in the other place, and £2,000, as proposed by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight). There are only two Lobbies in the House, the Aye Lobby and the No Lobby. I think that my hon. Friend is bordering on accepting the lower level of fine, just as I am. We may, however, finish up throwing out the baby with the bath water and having an even more censorious fine. We must consider not just our reasons for wanting the lower level but which way to vote to get the lowest possible level on offer.
Those fines are too low. On the whole, £400 is right. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has made a good point—we do not have three Lobbies. We shall probably end up deciding between a fine of £400, as originally in the Bill, and a fine of £1,000, unless the hon. Member for Derby, North pushes his amendment for a fine of £2,000. I have come to the conclusion—or talked or read myself to the conclusion—that the best idea is to stick to the £400 and see how we go. The measure is an innovation—one which we should all welcome and on which we should congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood. We should not go over the top but should stick to the £400.
As my hon. Friend has said, the level of fine has ebbed and flowed. When I am making up my mind, I have to consider which decision will least benefit the lawyers. I always do that whenever a vote is to be taken, especially when lawyers are involved. They have different levels as well. I want to know before I walk through the Lobby whether my decision will enable the lawyers to get a big fat bonus. Their level in this matter has not yet been disclosed. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will explain. The hon. Gentleman may well be able to argue that the legal payments are not a consideration, but that point must weigh in my mind. I do not want to vote for a measure and then, a few years later, have someone say to me, "You walked through the Lobby, Skinner"—
You are bound to say that, Sir, because you have a different job. You will not have to go through the Lobby. You will sit in the Chair and no one from Doncaster will come to see you in two or three years' time and ask, "What did you do, Harold, on the day in question when the House lined the pockets of the lawyers?" You will be able to dodge the column. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) and I will have to listen to all the complaints at our surgeries. Before we decide, I want to know whether this measure will fill the pockets of the lawyers, because there are many in this place.
I take my hon. Friend's point. I am not a lawyer and I am always dropping dangers in terms of what lawyers think should be done. Should we not also consider the need to keep the fine low? I do not know where we stand on, for example, legal aid. A poor person who is up for prosecution and who goes to a lawyer will want legal aid. Will he be entitled to it?
Will the hon. Lady consider the point that the levels which we are discussing are maxima and judges will have the discretion to award fines up to those levels? Therefore, the hon. Lady's point about income levels, which I understand, could be catered for. I am sure that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) agree that we want to ensure that effective fines can be applied to the wealthy while allowing the use of discretion to take account of people on lower incomes. If we follow the hon. Lady's recommendation, we may lose out on penalising the wealthy.
If there is a maximum, magistrates and judges have to decide what to impose. Sometimes they go for the jugular and impose the heaviest sentence. I am concerned about having a fine of £1,000 or £2,000 because it may result in poor people being penalised. I acknowledge that they should not have committed these acts. It is dreadful for anyone to send a poison pen letter, but we must take the circumstances into account. Magistrates and judges may be so annoyed and incensed by the offence that they go for the maximum penalty. I should like a more modest sentence, at least at the beginning. That would be the best way to proceed before we go down this new road.
I am attracted by the idea of the availability of higher fines because they would be a deterrent. We are aiming for deterrents, rather than punishments, to stop the offence. The availability of higher fines would provide greater flexibility for magistrates in coping with the varying degrees of gravity of the offence. It would provide some headroom for inflation which, I am afraid, is still too high. Sometimes I wonder why we do not include in our legislation some power for the Secretaries of State to vary fines according to inflation. The availability of higher fines would be beneficial in dealing with persistent offenders. When these cases come before the courts, we shall find that there is a high number of such offenders.
In judging the level of fine to be applied to these offences, recognition should not be given to matters that blow up in the press. That is one reason why I am a little worried about the Criminal Justice Bill, which we have just passed, which allows reference to a higher court for sentences that seem too lenient. I fear that there may be trial in the press and reaction to that.
On Second Reading, I mentioned that I had worked at No. 10 and that Prime Ministers had received hate mail. I deliberately stressed the fact that Prime Ministers in the plural were affected, because Jim Callaghan and the present Prime Minister both received hate mail. From the way in which the incidents were sensationalised in the press, it seemed that such hate mail was peculiar to the present Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) also referred on Second Reading to the responsibility of the press in reporting these matters. There is nothing peculiar about the present Prime Minister receiving hate mail. It is something intrinsic in being a public figure. We all receive hate mail.
In relation to hate mail, I was trying to explain that Tiny Rowland has been hoping to use me as a vehicle to express certain views in the House. He is attacking the owners of Harrods because he thinks that they managed to purchase Harrods by some dodgy methods. He has been sending hate mail—it has not caused me anxiety and distress—deliberately to try to cause anxiety and distress for his enemies among the other Tories who were running Harrods. It was really an argument between Tories. That is the top and bottom of it. Would mail causing a third person anxiety and distress be described as hate mail? It has not caused me any worry at all.
The hon. Gentleman's point is probably dealt with by the libel laws. I have received such mail. I did not understand it and, to be quite frank, I thought that it was from somebody who was a little deranged. Many hon. Members present will have received hate mail. I suspect that the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) also receives hate mail. It is a fact of public life. The right hon. Member for Islwyn is a nice chap, after all. He is a Welshman, so he must be a nice chap. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) also received a large amount of hate mail from old retired colonels. We in public life should not be too sensitive to such matters. They should be weighed up and judged in the courts.
When I stood in the Brecon and Radnor by-election, I received some hate mail by postcard. At the time, I wondered whether it came from the dirty tricks department of a certain party that I shall not mention. but the point about this—
I shall refer to that matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The fact that such communications were in the form of postcards magnified the degree of mens rea, as they were read by people other than myself. That fact should be taken into account by the courts when deciding fines. For those reasons, we should have a fine higher than £400.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) spoke realistically about the Bill and the proposal on the level of penalties. I do not think that the Bill is about wealthy people. I do not say that the wealthy will not commit such crimes. I do not know many wealthy people, so I am not acquainted with their foibles. In general, I am prepared to believe that wealthy people are as likely as, or even more likely than, my associates and constituents to commit any crime. But in practice, wealthy people will not face such charges. If they do, they are unlikely to have to pay a fine, whether it be £400 or £2,000, because they employ their wealth in ways that make it much less likely that they will be found guilty. I support the £400 penalty not because I wish to be soft on wealthy people but because wealthy people are not likely to be fined.
The Bill is good. It should be a crime to send hate mail. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Barking. It can be extremely distressing to receive such communications, and people should be protected. The Bill should be a disincentive to sending such mail and should demonstrate society's disapproval of such action. A £400 fine is adequate to do that. We would not be well advised to make the fine higher, because we would find ourselves on rather tricky ground. Although sending hate mail should be an offence, it does not involve the same seriousness as some other crimes from which we seek to protect people.
We would open the door to some invidious comparisons if, for instance, there were a £2,000 penalty for an offence under this Bill and a lighter penalty for a crime that most people think merits more severe treatment. We already have such problems. I am sure that I am not alone in collecting cuttings about idiosyncratic sentences imposed by judges and magistrates. Many such sentences are imposed for crimes against people or property. There is a bias. There are heavier sentences for crimes against property than those against people. I disapprove of that. Comparisons can and will be made. In our genuine zeal to make it an offence to send hate mail, we do not want to give the impression that we underrate the seriousness of other offences.
The perfectly valid point has been made that the proposed fine is a maximum and that magistrates will not be compelled to impose a maximum fine. Anything that allows too much unevenness in sentencing for any offence tends to bring the law into some disrepute. We might think that magistrates employ perfect logic, look at a wealthy person, and say, "I am slamming the top penalty on you," and look at the poor, elderly person who, because of circumstances in his or her life, was driven to commit the offence, and say, "I shall impose a small fine." But magistrates do not work like that. There is much more randomness in sentencing. On occasions, there is a tendency for some judges or magistrates to impose exemplary sentences. They look at the circumstances of the case and decide not only whether someone should be punished or discouraged but whether a whole class of people are to be more strongly discouraged. That always worries me.
The punishment should fit the crime and not allow people to ride their hobby horses. The person who imposes the penalty might have been a victim of such a crime. He may not have reported it, but it might have rankled with him. That can add to idiosyncratic imposition of sentences.
In a sense, this legislation is an experiment to see whether the incidence of such offences can be reduced. The purpose should be prevention rather than punishment. A person receiving such communications is not greatly protected by the fact that the person responsible is brought to court and punished. In fact, the distress may be cumulative if court proceedings result, and further problems could arise in the neighbourhood bringing more trouble for both parties in the future. In a sense, if cases come to court the legislation will have failed. The preventive nature of the legislation must be stressed at all times.
I believe that at this stage a fine of £400 is sufficient to make it clear that society and Parliament disapprove of the offence. Magistrates would not have such a problem in fixing appropriate sentences.
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend and it is clear that she wants the lowest possible level of fine. Her comments suggest that she is leaning towards an even lower level than £400. She is really saying that she does not want a serious fine at all. As she has spoken in that vein, would it not have been better to put down an amendment specifying an even lower level? I think that that is what is really running through my hon. Friend's mind.
My hon. Friend is wrong. Had my thoughts been in that direction, I should not have hesitated to put down an amendment. There should be some flexibility. A simple £50 fine, for example, would not be a sufficient mark of disapproval. We must fix a penalty which shows that we seriously disapprove of the offence. For most people, £400 is still a substantial sum. If it were generally known that such offences could draw penalties of that amount, most people would regard that as a mark of serious disapproval and discouragement. My hon. Friend is therefore wrong, although I am glad that he has been listening carefully to my remarks. I wondered why he was so silent. Clearly, he was thinking hard about what I was saying.
I was listening hard because my hon. Friend seemed to have failed to appreciate the attitude of rich people—those with the brass, such as Tiny Rowland whose letters have been causing anxiety and distress to people at Harrods. Let us consider the matter from the other end. Those rich people can afford to employ the best lawyers in the land, or at least the most expensive ones —I do not know whether they are any better, as to me they are all pretty much in the same bag.
Rich offenders might impress the magistrates by employing a lawyer called Sir Humphrey Jackson-hyphen-Smith or, to get down to brass tacks, someone called Napley—who costs £400 per hour—and the chances are that they would get away with it. My hon. Friend seems not to appreciate that £400 is chickenfeed for such people. They can take it off the ribs of the next batch of employees at their factory or wherever in a couple of minutes.
With all due respect, my hon. Friend makes my point for me. Whatever the fine is, those people will not pay it because they can afford to spend a lot of money on their defence and will thus not be found guilty. For such people, the level of fine is irrelevant because they will employ expensive defence lawyers to avoid having a conviction on their record or reported in the newspapers. Whether the fine was £400, £1,000 or £2,000, they would take all possible steps not to be found guilty, whether or not they were actually guilty. As they would not be called on to pay the fine, it would not matter to them if it was £2,000, but it would matter a great deal to the people mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking. If a magistrate fails to apply the logic that we expect, a fine of that magnitude could be a disaster.
People should be punished for such offences—I make no bones about that—and I strongly disapprove of such activities. That is why I support the original intention of the Bill. Nevertheless, we do not want offenders to be driven to desperation. For ordinary people who may already be a bit unhinged, as they probably would be to have sent such letters in the first place, a fine of £2,000 could make them suicidal or drive them to commit other offences to get the money to pay the fine. A ridiculous spiral would be created.
Therefore, if the opportunity arises I shall vote in favour of a maximum fine of £400. That will give ample discretion to magistrates. I do not believe that there is any minimum laid down, so the magistrate would have full discretion to impose a fine up to the maximum of £400. I believe that that level is ample. It shows Parliament's disapproval and I believe that it would be a genuine discouragement to people contemplating such offences, assuming that they are acting rationally. If they are not rational, they will not be dissuaded, whatever the level of fine.
Finally, as with all crime, the biggest disincentive is the knowledge that the person may be found out. That is the most important factor. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) on bringing in the Bill. I should not like it to be spoilt or its emphasis unduly altered by the imposition of too heavy a penalty.
I support the good, common-sense points made by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson). I, too, believe that in this instance justice should be tempered with mercy. The levels of fine originally laid down in the Bill probably make more sense than allowing magistrates to whack on very heavy fines on the ground that it is the rich we want to catch. It is unfortunate how often the nasty, envious side of human nature comes out when we discuss such matters, not least in some of the rather malicious remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who constantly pillories a gentleman in the City who cannot come to the House to defend himself but has to put up with such maliciousness and cannot take the hon. Gentleman to court for it.
There are many instances of malicious communications. Last week, I received quite a number of letters which most people would regard as offensive, mainly from people who could not get tickets for Wimbledon. I believe that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) wrote such a letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. That communication, which travelled from this place by Her Majesty's letter post, asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to carry out certain acts in relation to me and my status in the Conservative party which I considered to be a threat. Although I think that the right hon. Gentleman was wrong and that his action was ungentlemanly, I should not like to see him taken to court and fined at level 4 or 5. If he had gone over the top, I would be happy for him to be fined at level 3, which about fits in with the amount of money that a Member of Parliament can afford.
I assure the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) that my right hon. Friend meant no threat. I can think of no occasion on which he has behaved in other than a gentlemanly fashion. The fact of the matter is that he disagreed profoundly with the hon. Lady's comment.
In my understanding of what was said by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, from my reading of the Hansard report of last Friday's proceedings, he tore into me strongly and used what I consider to be false information in his allegations about me. However, we know that anything said in this Chamber is protected by privilege, and that is why the hon. Member for Bolsover gets away with saying so many unpleasant things about a certain gentleman in the City who cannot be here to defend himself.
Whatever I say in the House, I am prepared to repeat outside it. Unlike some hon. Members, I do not make use of the privilege that is there for hon. Members to use. The letter I received from Tiny Rowland attacking Harrods has been printed in The Observer, because I believe that he just about owns that newspaper as well. The hon. Lady should not get upset about that. The letters that Tiny Rowland is sending out, causing anxiety and distress to Harrods, are being printed in newspapers week after week.
The hon. Lady should not assume that I am not prepared to repeat outside anything that I say in this Chamber. I do not know anything about the correspondence between my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and the hon. Lady. I only know that recently she has been causing anxiety and distress to people trying to get into Wimbledon, but who cannot do so, because she supports the touts who sell tickets at 10 or 20 times over the odds. I am not sure whether that activity falls within the Bill's general ambit but it has caused distress to many people.
On a point of information, if the hon. Member for Bolsover wishes to enter into a debate about Wimbledon, perhaps we may have a private discussion about the level of the ticket mark-up. However, I shall not touch on that subject now, because Mr. Deputy Speaker would rule me out of order. He brings me to order, quite rightly, fairly often, when I ramble off the point. I hope that he will adopt the same attitude to the hon. Member for Bolsover, who frequently rambles off the point.
Does my hon. Friend agree on reflection that she has destroyed her own case? She stated that a fine of £400 is sufficient, and she gave as an illustration a letter sent by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). However, because that right hon. Gentleman—to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—moonlights by writing columns for glossy magazines, he is a very wealthy man and a fine of £400 would be nothing to him.
I take my hon. Friend's point but I do not wish to be malicious towards the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook; he has his point of view and I have mine.
There may be occasions when people write letters that are construed to be of a malicious nature, when they really are only expressing concern. The hon. Member for Barking pointed out that many humble people spend much of their lives peeping through their curtains at what the neighbours are getting up to, and that they might see comings and goings at a house causing them to wonder whether children were being neglected. In some cases, they could be right. They may not write a letter to the parent but to the NSPCC. Although we may laugh at such people and question whether they have nothing better to do with their time, they are in many ways the eyes and ears of our streets. There has been a breakdown of our traditional housing, when we lived in rows of houses and could watch the street. After we tore down all those nice neighbourhoods and replaced them with ghastly tower blocks of flats, people could not watch the streets and we began to see the breakdown—
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your remarks.
People may write letters with good motivation, although their action may be construed as being malicious. Such reporting is sometimes very helpful and we should not discourage people from taking that action. If they err, a modest fine would be more appropriate. I should not like magistrates to be given the power to go over the top. We all of us make mistakes some time, be it the police or people peeking through windows. I would not want people to be put off entirely from keeping an eye on things.
The hon. Member for Barking spoke also about disputes between neighbours and the fines they involve. I have had the experience of living next door to someone who was driving me crazy. She was a breeder of scottie dogs, which seemed to multiply in the garden like mushrooms. Sometimes there would be as many as 40 puppies barking and yapping in the garden. Because they were not well fed, they pushed their dinner dishes round and round the concrete, making awful scraping noises and barking. That used to drive me to distraction.
Eventually, my husband was driven to the point of sitting down and writing a letter to the woman, saying, "The next time I am out in my garden digging the flower beds, if your dogs are out there driving me crazy, I shall spike one of them on my garden fork." He did not mean any harm. In normal circumstances, and given one dog at a time, he loves animals—but he could have been driven beyond the point of self-control. Had he been, and gone before a magistrate who was a dog lover to destruction—as some magistrates may be—he could have been fined an inordinate sum of money. I believe that we should retain a sense of proportion by keeping fines down to a relatively modest level, and give them a try on those lines.
I can see how the question of those adjacent dogs could be a matter of grave concern, especially as my hon. Friend's husband might be thinking of writing again in similar terms. In the context of fine levels, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the statutory defence existing in subsection (2), which I feel sure her husband will wish to adopt if he is subsequently prosecuted for writing the kind of letter that is apparently commonplace for him to write.
I thank my hon. Friend for his learned and wise intervention and good advice. I may say that all that happened some years ago and that we subsequently moved. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to put before the House concrete examples of the circumstances in which our laws are meant to operate, so that we do not legislate in a vacuum. I support absolutely the points made by the hon. Member for Barking, whose common sense and practical experience of life so often contribute useful points to our debates.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) on the safe return of his Bill from the other place. I share his apprehension as the minutes tick by, and I do not intend to detain the House too long.
In considering the appropriate maximum fine for those convicted under the Bill, we should remember that the intent of the sender is at the heart of the legislation. The sender must want to cause distress and anxiety. Someone in Worcester wrote to me complaining that it was typical of the Tories to bring in a Bill to prevent those who oppose the Government's policies in robust terms from writing to Ministers and other Conservartive Members. Of course, I have already assured him—and no doubt the Bill's promoter will do the same—that such letters are outside the scope of the Bill. Let me say in passing, however, that I hope that supporters of the present Administration get lots of them.
In our last debate, the Minister explained why he felt that the Law Commission's recommendation about the level of fines should not be supported, and I very much agree with what he said then. It is important that, as well as attempting to set similar fines for similar offences, we should consider who are likely to be convicted, and there ability to pay. Diane Simpson, a leading graphologist who dealt with about 1,000 poison pen letters last year, says that writers of such letters come from all age groups and both sexes, which relates to what some of my hon. Friends have said. That does not help us much, although she adds that the famous are more likely to receive hate mail sent with malicious intent from strangers. That could apply to actresses, television presenters and so on. Other people, she says, receive such letters from so-called friends and colleagues.
All that Diane Simpson can tell us is that the profile of the typical poison pen writer has changed. She told The Times on 10 February this year:
Ten years ago, they were invariably women—often, I am sorry to say, some poor woman going through the menopause in a village somewhere.
Although she said that the writers came from all age groups and both sexes, like my hon. Friends I doubt that there is an equal spread over income groups. I suspect that the pressures and frustrations that lead some people to write those letters are felt much more strongly at the lower end of the income scale.
We have decided—rightly in my view—that prison is no answer for writers of poison pen letters, who are invaribly sad, often lonely and at odds with their world because of real or perceived hurt from others. But there is no point in pitching the fine at a level which, on conviction, is likely in many cases to ensure that the person ends up in gaol anyway through fine default. That is why I strongly oppose the suggestion that a £2,000 fine would be appropriate.
May I put two points to the hon. Gentleman? First, should we not be careful not to place too much reliance on so-called statistical evidence? Because the law currently makes no provision for poison pen letters, any such evidence must relate only to reported cases. We do not know, for example, how many letters have been sent whose recipients have been caused anxiety and distress but have not reported the matter.
Secondly, as was pointed out earlier, the Bill does not require a minimum sentence from the courts. All that I have sought to do, and the other place has done, is to give the courts a wider range of discretion within which to pitch the penalty as they deem appropriate in individual cases.
I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Because there has not been a specific offence before, the evidence that we have brought to our debates has had to be anecdotal and largely taken from our advice bureaux. I also take the point that the level at which the fine is set will be the maximum, and that there is no minimum. I shall come to that in a minute.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), I am not a great believer in the theory of deterrence. I do not think that there is any real evidence that the length of sentence or level of fine deters, especially in cases of this kind. Evidence suggests that a person's judgment is more likely to be on the likelihood of being caught, which weighs more heavily on someone contemplating breaking the law. I doubt whether that would cross the minds of poison pen writers in any event.
Diane Simpson, the graphologist, offers some hope and support for the Bill. She said in an interview in The Times that it was often surprisingly easy to track down anonymous letter writers:
All anonymous letter writers have two things in common: the first being that they are all cowards; the second that they are would-be manipulators of other people's behaviour.
If, given an alarming reported rise in the incidence of poison pen letters, it is surprisingly easy to track many of them down, the level of fine on conviction is a matter of real interest. Too many people now go to gaol for non-payment of fines. We do not know, but I suspect that in many cases that is due not to unwillingness to pay but to inability to pay, whatever the court may do before the prison gates open to reduce, say, the rate at which a fine is paid off over a number of weeks.
Perversely, the fine will often bite hardest on the least well-off who are caught and convicted, almost irrespective of its level. Of course, a fine of £1,000 or £2,000 imposed on someone pushed into deception by poverty bites a good deal harder than a fine of 100 times that amount imposed on some city slicker who is caught with his hand in someone else's till. I am thinking especially of those convicted of fraud against the DHSS.
According to the prison statistics for England and Wales, fine defaulters accounted for some 22 per cent. of all receptions under sentence in 1986. The proportion of those aged between 17 and 20 who were sent to prison for non-payment of fines between 1976 and 1986 almost doubled, from 14 per cent. to 25 per cent., and over the same 10 years the proportion of those aged between 21 and 29 sent to prison rose from 37 per cent. to 45 per cent. In 1986, 1,100 females were sent to prison for non-payment of fines. It is fair to point out, however, that imprisonment for fine defaulters is not at the peak that it reached a few years ago.
Having turned our backs on imprisonment as an option for the magistrates, we should not, by setting the level of fine too high, make it more likely that people convicted under the Bill will find themselves in prison. I have said that I do not believe that a level 5 maximum fine of £2,000 would be appropriate. I am not sure that the level 4 maximum fine of £1,000 is appropriate. I acknowledge that part of the responsibility of magistrates is to inflict punishment, but by no means do I put a full stop after that word. Especially in these cases, punishing people by way of a fairly hefty fine in relation to their means and ability to pay, or by imprisonment, does not solve the underlying problems of people who feel that they have to write such letters. I hope that at the very least the House will not agree with the amendment.
The House in general welcomes the Bill. I wish to extend to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) the congratulations of the House on having introduced the Bill. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) for having provoked an unexpectedly spirited and interesting debate.
My general view is that the House should accept the Lords amendment, and should adopt a scale 4 penalty rather than a scale 5 penalty, and I commend that view to the House.
It may be of assistance to the House when determining the appropriate scale if I explain briefly the purpose of the Bill. The Bill is designed to deal with a serious problem which was identified and described in detail in the Law Commission report of 1985. I must remind the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson)—I shall refer to her speech later—that the Law Commission recommended a scale 5 penalty for the offence encompassed within the Bill. That is a mark of the seriousness which the Law Commission attached to the offences.
The offences deal with hate mail, but they also deal with another class of offence which has not been mentioned in the debate—that associated with racial persecution. The hon. Lady will be well aware that many members of the ethnic minorities have been the subject of campaigns. Those campaigns can take at least two forms: first, letters of a highly offensive kind through the letter box, and secondly such nasty things as dog shit through the letter box. That is a serious matter, especially if it is a concerted campaign. I must stress to those hon. Members who focused on the desirability of adhering to a scale 3 fine, that sometimes we are dealing with a particularly nasty offence with racial overtones, committed over a period, against which we should react fairly vigorously.
The Minister is convincing me. He has made an excellent point in raising the question of racial violence via malicious letters. We could all point to examples of that. He also mentioned things other than letters going through the letter box. Would lighted objects coming through the letter box be covered by the offence of arson, or would they be considered malicious communication?
The hon. Lady has in mind bits of paper, petrol, or rags which have been set alight and which cause fires. Those are covered by the ordinary laws which deal with arson or malicious damage. We are dealing exclusively with mail and other objects which are sent with the purposes set out in the Bill. For those purposes, the word "sent" is apt to include putting something through a letter box, and not necessarily posting it through the mail. The Bill deals exclusively with objects posted through the letter box with the intention set out in the Bill.
I am in an odd position, because I, too, wish to thank the Minister for raising a matter which had not occurred to me—the possibility of such actions being part of a campaign, perhaps for racial reasons. I had not taken that into account. Clearly, with the broader knowledge to which the Minister has access, he is destroying part of the case that we made.
That is unusually gracious of the hon. Lady. She has put me into some difficulty, as I was going to refer to her speech and I had it in mind to make some very unflattering comments about her. However, she has been so gracious that I will have to redesign my speech; otherwise, I shall be profoundly embarrassed.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend can clarify a matter for the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) may have misled the House unwittingly when he said that he favoured a higher penalty, as he considered it an inflation-proofing measure. Will the Minister confirm that provisions already exist whereby the Government can increase fines by statutory instrument to take account of inflation?
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North is entirely correct. I was going to deal with that when referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler). The fine attached to any scale can be raised by statutory instrument. That is how the Government can deal with the serious problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South identified.
By pure chance, this morning I received a letter from a constituent who has received unsolicited through his letter box something called, "Just Truth", which is, "A nationalist review of policy affecting British People", price lop. It was the winter 1987 edition, so clearly it did not sell very well as it was shoved unsolicited through the letter boxes in my constituency. It includes references to the holocaust of 6 million Jews being an error of fact, it refers to the ethnic composition of police recruitment and training, and contains various other disparaging remarks. Would such an item be caught under the provisions of the Malicious Communications Bill? If so, what action would arise from that?
The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the fact that he has been in the Chamber for most of the debate. Although the hon. Gentleman is eminently forgettable, wearing what he does today, he is also eminently visible. In fact, he has not been in the Chamber for the greater part of the debate. The debate has been going on for nearly two hours and the hon. Gentleman's presence has been extremely limited. Were it otherwise, we should have spotted him because he is dressed in such an obvious way.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With the greatest respect to the Chair, and to the Minister—with great respect to one, and less to the other—I have been here for the majority of the debate so far. I should like to place that on record and graciously to accept the Minister's comments regarding my attire.
The hon. Gentleman is making the point I have already made, which is that he is eminently forgettable. I do not think that we can carry the matter much further. It is for the House to judge whether he has been present; I am confident that he has not.
The hon. Gentleman asked for my advice, and that is flattering. He asked whether the document would fall within the scope of the Bill. I cannot tell him the answer until I look at the document, but if he wants my professional advice, he can show it to me afterwards and I shall give it to him.
We have identified the fact —it is common ground—that the Bill is designed to deal with a serious problem, which can be concerted and can have a broad base. It is not sufficiently addressed by statute at present. Therefore, we can proceed on the basis that this is an important Bill designed to address a serious social mischief.
The question that arises is the level of fine—whether we should proceed on the basis of a scale 3, scale 4, or scale 5 fine. Several hon. Members have said that penalties must bear a relationship one with the other and that it would be wrong for our disapproval of one particular offence, such as that with which we are dealing, to drive us to put it into a scale of fine that is disproportionate to the scales of fines attached to other offences.
The offences with which we are dealing are dealt with summarily. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) asked whether there should be a penalty over and above scale 5. Generally speaking, the maximum penalty that can be awarded by a justice is a scale 5 penalty. There are exceptional cases in which justices can impose a more substantial financial penalty, but that is unusual. We could provide for a higher level of financial penalty only if we were to provide that this class of offence should be dealt with on indictment. For reasons that I hope the hon. Member for Caernarfon will accept, it is undesirable that this class of offence should be dealt with by a jury. It is pre-eminently the type of offence that should be dealt with by justices and, accordingly, we could not attach to it a penalty in excess of scale 5.
What I had in mind was repeated offences. Can the Minister tell whether repeated offences, if they are seriously malicious or with racial undertones, such as those mentioned, can be taken further, perhaps under other legislation, to ensure that they are duly dealt with?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point and I can give him only an off-the-cuff reply. There are other statutes that touch on such conduct. Criminal libel could be invoked in some circumstances. Moreover, some statutes dealing with race relations might be appropriate and some of the communications might fall foul of the Public Order Act 1986. That is an off-the-cuff reply, and I do not guarantee that it is correct. However, I am certain that other legislation could in some circumstances be applied to such offences.
My judgment is that scale 4 is correct. Scale 5 is attached to those classes of offence involving violence or serious danger to public health. Scale 5 is the maximum that a justice can award, and it would be wrong to put this offence into that class. As a matter of general principle, measuring offence against offence, I strongly recommend that scale 4 is appropriate and not scale 5.
The hon. Member for Barking voiced a number of anxieties and I entirely understand her concern. However, we are dealing only with maxima, not with mandatory sentences. The hon. Lady is understandably concerned about the risk of people being sent to prison in default of payment. The point she raised was responded to fully by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North in an intervention. There are considerable statutory restrictions on the ability of a court to send someone to prison for non-payment of a fine. As a general rule, people will go to prison for non-payment of a fine only if the court has found as fact that they are able to pay and that the failure to pay is persistent and wilful. I have always taken the view that there is a need to have the penalty of imprisonment as a final sanction for those guilty of wilful or persistent non-payment of fines.
The hon. Member for Barking made a specific point about Holloway. I shall deal with that briefly, because you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would pull me up short if I went on at any length. It is wrong to suppose that Holloway is overcrowded. The population is much the same as the certified normal accommodation. It is also wrong to suppose that Holloway is understaffed, because it is not. The hon. Lady is right to say that the courts must address a person's ability to pay when imposing a fine. I hope that the courts will make a careful inquiry into means when determining a persons's ability to pay a fine in the context of the Bill we are discussing, and in the context of other offences.
I want to refer to my point about Holloway being understaffed. I appeal to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to let me make this point. Theoretically, Holloway is probably not understaffed, but my information from people at Holloway has always been that because Holloway contains so many remand prisoners, there are always many prison officers out of the prison taking people to hospital or court and that the staff remaining in the prison find themselves overstretched. Every governor I have ever seen at Holloway has said that more staff would be helpful for the atmosphere in the prison.
I will be careful not to go too far down this road, because, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would call me to order. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we are implementing Fresh Start throughout the country and it is in place in Holloway. In my opinion, Holloway is properly staffed and we are attempting to make the most efficient use of staffing. I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Lady's point on Holloway, but I am glad to say that I am able to agree that the ability to pay fines should be a factor of which the courts should take account when determining the level of fine to be imposed.
I am sorry that we do not currently have the pleasure of the presence of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). He has made a useful contribution to the debate, in that he has made many interventions, all of them entertaining, but has not made a speech. I regret that, because I would have liked to hear his considered view. I seem to recall that we had a hung jury. The hon. Member for Bolsover was not certain which way his mind should go, and I am still uncertain which way it has gone, except that he has gone.
The hon. Member for Bolsover was deeply concerned that the choice he might have to make might have resource implications, by which he meant that if we adopt a level 4 fine, it might mean more barristers being paid more money. That is a serious point for the House to address. If there is a higher scale of penalty, it is just possible that a defendant might be tempted to instruct counsel when otherwise he might not. Therefore, theoretically, there could be resource implications. Having given this matter extremely careful thought—I regret that the hon. Gentleman is not present to hear my response—my concluded view, for which in other circumstances I would charge a substantial fee, is that it is unlikely that increasing the scale from 3 to 4 would have significant resource implications for the Government or private individuals.
Government and Parliament can uprate penalties and fines to reflect changes in the value of money by statutory instrument, the primary legislation being the Criminal Justice Act 1982.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South made an important point about public figures receiving hate mail and said that that should be a factor in the scale of penalty imposed. It is inevitable that public figures will receive hate mail. I have known my father for 40 years or so—[interruption] I thought that I had better leave a little margin for error. During that time, my father has received much hate mail. I have received a modest amount myself, which will not be surprising to anyone who knows me. Public figures must put up with hate mail; that is life. We do not have to put up with offensive letters about ourselves being sent to other people. That is a different point and is largely covered by the libel laws, although in certain circumstances it could fall foul of the Bill. I say to public figures who are worried about hate mail that the wastepaper basket is a splendid solution to the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) made, as I would expect of her, several idiosyncratic points. I found myself thinking of the statutory defence provided in clause 1(2) of the Bill. I originally had it in mind to refer her to that statutory defence in the context of the remarks that she made about the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). It occurred to me that in urging my hon. Friend's dismissal—a wicked and wrong thing for him to do, which we would greatly deplore if it happened—the right hon. Gentleman could rely on the statutory defence in clause 1(2) that he was making
a demand which he believed he had reasonable grounds for making; and that he believed that the use of the threat was a proper means of reinforcing the demand.
I expect that the right hon. Gentleman, who is a barrack-room lawyer if ever there were one, would invoke that provision.
To my surprise, I found that I might have to refer the statutory defence to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay in the context of her husband. If he continues to write such letters to her neighbour, he may be in danger of prosecution.
I should not like my hon. Friend to think that my husband put that letter through next door's letterbox. He was driven to the point of sitting down one evening and composing the letter. I thought that it would be of interest to bring it to my hon. Friend's attention so that he could understand the provocation to which some people are subject.
I understand that point, but if her husband had it in mind not to put it through next door's letterbox but to fold it into a dart and throw it over the wall it would still be "sending" according to the provisions of the Bill. My hon. Friend's husband had better be careful. If not, there are many hon. and learned Members who will look after his interests, should it prove necessary.
I have made some notes about the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), but I have reservations about uttering them following her very gracious speech. I have noted, for example, "extraordinary display of class prejudice", "unhelpful contribution" and "suitability to be chosen as deputy leader of the Labour party". I gather that she was a candidate for the deputy leadership at one stage. Those were the sort of remarks that I intended to make, but she has been so gracious that it would be jolly unfair to make them. I do not make them in any spirit of criticism.
I should tell the hon. Member for Preston that we a re talking about maximum, not mandatory, sentences. It is for the court to decide the fine according to the level of culpability. It is desirable that there should be a maximum that permits a severe fine in cases where there is a high degree of criminal culpability. The hon. Lady will agree that if a concerted racial attack were made on a group of Indians in her constituency, a substantial fine would be appropriate. For that reason, perhaps she will accept that scale 3 might be too modest.
This has been an important debate. I feel that I have trespassed on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I do not think that I have been significantly out of order. For the reasons that I have given, I strongly commend the House to accept the Lords amendment but not the amendment to it urged eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North. If he were minded to withdraw his amendment, it might be a course of action acceptable to the House.
The consensus that earlier settled on the House has been shaken, but I hope not shattered, by the lively debate that we have had.
I want to reply to some of the points that have been made. The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) urged us to accept level 3. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has put her mind at rest about many of the points that she made. As I said in an earlier intervention, the Bill provides not for minimum sentences but the level within which the courts operate. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will accept the need to increase the level from £400.
I understand why the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) could not stay until the end of the debate. We are in the middle of the blood sports season and I assume that he has left to take part in the Socialist ritual of knife-throwing—usually in the back of their leader. Before he left he said that in some cases £400 would be chicken feed. I take that to be about as much support as I will receive from the hon. Gentleman.
It will be difficult for the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to throw knives at his leader because he has departed for far-away parts and will be away for some time.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point.
The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) said that the Bill should be a disincentive to crime. The hon. Lady and I agree on our aims but disagree on our conclusions. Following the points made by my hon. Friend the Minister, I hope that she has revised her views.
In view of the points that have been made about sustained campaigns, whether they be connected with racial matters or not, I have changed my mind. I had been considering the Bill only in the context of individuals. I should not like people to start invoking conspiracy laws, as I disapprove of them. It is better to provide for a heavier penalty than I had first thought suitable.
In case some hon. Members have doubts about the wisdom of increasing fines, I refer them to a case that took place in 1982 against a man called Penketh. He heard a widow broadcast for a pen pal. He wrote to the widow and out of kindness she replied to him. He began to bombard her with letters but she decided that she did not want to hear from him further. He wrote to that lady's son's headmaster saying that he was the natural father of her child, which caused her much distress. He was arrested and charged with criminal libel. He was placed on probation but continued to contact and pester her. When the matter was reviewed on appeal he was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment. The courts may need in certain cases, so that the sentence is a proper deterrent, to impose a fairly heavy fine or imprisonment. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Preston for acknowledging that there are cases in which a £400 fine would be inadequate.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) referred to dogs being spiked, I thought that she was waiting to speak in the later debate on the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Bill. I hope that her comments will not alienate the animal welfare voters in her constituency.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said that he was worried about defendants having to go to gaol because they were fine defaulters. That is why he argued that the penalty should still be £400. The courts do not have an unfettered right to send fine defaulters to gaol. If payment of a fine is in arrears, the matter is normally reviewed. Only when the offender persistently and wilfully refuses to pay the fine is he or she sent to prison. On reflection, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that point should not be a real cause for concern.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) may by all means send to me the communication that his constituent has received. All I ask is that he does not put his jumper in the post because that would cause me distress and anxiety. My hon. Friend the Minister accepted that there could be cases in which a Member of Parliament would be able to plead the statutory defence. I am grateful to him for his acceptance of that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) said that he has approached this matter with an open mind and that he is willing to give ground and accept that we should move up to level 4. I was in the Chamber a few weeks ago when my hon. Friend the Minister replied to another debate and said that if he could reach agreement he liked to do so. In the same spirit, on reflection I am prepared to accept the little ground that has been given. If we cannot have level 5, level 4 is perhaps the next best thing. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.