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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 Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:45 am, 8th July 1988

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.