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Offence of Sending Letters etc. with Intent to Cause Distress or Anxiety

Part of Orders of the Day — Malicious Communications Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 8th July 1988.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Butler Mr Christopher Butler , Warrington South 10:30 am, 8th July 1988

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.