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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 10:45 am on 8th July 1988.

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Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Preston 10:45 am, 8th July 1988

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.