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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

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.

11.15 am.

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.