HC Deb 12 February 1988 vol 127 cc607-25

Order for Second Reading read.

9.36 am
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill stems from the 1985 Law Commission report on poison-pen letters and its purpose is to protect individuals from great distress and anxiety. It would make it an offence in England and Wales to deliver or send a letter which the sender knows or believes to be false. The Bill pertains specifically to material where the intent of the sender is to cause the recipient distress or agony. At the request of the Minister of State, Norther Ireland Office, the Bill also contains provision for matters relating to Northern Ireland to be dealt with by Order in Council.

I propose that it would be a definable offence to send a letter or an article of a grossly offensive nature or containing an indecent message or any material carrying an unjustifiable threat. I propose that it should be an offence to send a letter carrying false information or any information believed by the sender to be false. An article of an indecent nature that is sent should also be considered a definable offence, and that includes delivering or causing any such material to be sent or delivered. That must stop.

At some time every hon. Member will, either at his advice surgery or by letter, have been requested by a constituent for help as a result of foul, offensive hate mail. What advice can we offer? Nothing except sympathetic understanding. Indeed, hon. Members are themselves recipients of such muck. I have an example in my hand that is so obscene that even parliamentary privilege would not persuade me to read it out to hon. Members. We accept such letters as part and parcel of our job, but, nevertheless, many innocent people and their families have had their lives completely ruined by such mail and have had no redress. In a civilised society that cannot be tolerated.

I felt it right and opportune to use my private parliamentary time to introduce the Malicious Communications Bill, which will fill a significant gap in our legislation. Under the existing law, malicious communications are not a punishable criminal offence, but they must become so.

According to the present law, poison-pen letters can be dealt with only by means of criminal libel, which only prohibits the publication of material that exposes the victim to contempt, hatred or ridicule. It does not apply when the communication is a false death notice or an article that contains indecent suggestions or threats. The Bill would correct that and make those offences accountable in law. It is already an offence to send indecent or obscene material through the post, but that applies only to articles sent by post and ignores all other forms of delivery. It is also an offence under the Telecommunications Act 1984 to send an indecent or offensive message by telephone.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

Is there not also another defect in the law of criminal libel? The offensive item must be published, unless it is deemed likely to cause a breach of the peace when received by the recipient. Is that not a serious flaw in the law of criminal libel, and the reason why many of us welcome this measure?

Mr. Stewart

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I am grateful for his support.

The Bill provides that the sending of a malicious communication would be triable only by a magistrates' court, with a maximum penalty of £400. The courts would also be responsible for deciding whether the article or letter was grossly offensive or indecent.

The Bill also provides for certain explainable exemptions from its requirements. It would exempt those who believe that by delivering a message they are employing the only means of securing repayment of an overdue debt. That cannot be considered a threat, so hon. Members can still expect those regular letters from the bank manager and their irate constituents. The Bill provides a defence for the sender of a letter who believes that the threat is warranted.

My Bill also ensures that an honest error will not be penalised. It catches only the knowing accomplice who mails or delivers a communication. If a friend delivered such a letter, unaware of its contents, he would not be penalised, because he would not have the required intent to cause distress or agony. The Bill specifically requires that the defendant must prove that he had reasonable grounds for making such an accusation. My Bill addresses itself to a specific mental state of intention to inflict pain or suffering on unsuspecting individuals. Morally blameless behaviour will not be penalised.

There is no reasonable excuse for sending hate mail with the purpose of causing the recipient any form of anxiety or distress. Hate mail has been the cause of much distress over the years. Victims of it have included various public persons and, more recently, families of non-striking miners during the 1984 industrial dispute. It has also been a common weapon used against our ethnic minorities, who have suffered the indignity of receiving grossly offensive articles, such as excrement, through the letter box, with the explicit intention of causing distress and anxiety. Our new citizens find it difficult enough coping with the cultural changes without this sort of harassment, and I am delighted that my Bill will give them the added protection that they deserve.

Many people ask how widespread this problem is. There are no specific figures, because it is not a criminal offence, so there is only a limited incentive for victims to report hate mail, but the Law Commission concluded that there was sufficient evidence that the sending of poison pen letters was a common occurrence and required special measures to deal with it.

It might be interesting to compare the prosecution figures for all offences under the Telecommunications Act 1984. In 1984, there 486; in 1985, 512; and in 1986, 460. I believe that the problem of hate mail is far wider than those figures suggest. The offence is not difficult to prove—

Mr. Greg Knight

Will my hon. Friend underline to the House that the offence under the Post Office Act 1953 covers only indecent or obscene material, and not threatening letters? That is important.

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend is again correct. I am sure that when the Bill is in Committee that point will be examined.

In order to protect unsuspecting people from malicious communications offenders must be made criminally accountable and subject to punishment under the law. The gap in the law must be closed. My Bill would set a standard of limitations on what is legitimate. In short, it is a wonderful piece of legislation which speaks for itself.

9.45 am
Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) on having had the good fortune to appear at No. 6 in the private Members' ballot. Throughout the last Parliament, and so far in this one, I have never appeared in the top 20, so I envy him his luck. I think that he used his good fortune well by introducing this excellent measure.

Some people regard the subject of poison-pen letters as a bit of fun. I always remember teasing a former girlfriend that if she ever sent me one of her recipes through the post she would probably be arrested for sending poison-pen letters.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

That is why she is an ex-girlfriend.

Mr. Knight

It is certainly one of the reasons.

I well remember the much-loved British comedian, Tony Hancock, who is sadly no longer wilth us, devoting one of his half-hour programmes to the subject of poison-pen letters. Although we can at times see the funny side of this subject, it is a serious matter that can cause immense distress. Its most common form is the letter, but I am pleased that the Bill is widely drawn and will cover other forms of malicious communication, such as tape recordings, video recordings and other forms of abuse.

I well remember, when I practised as a solicitor, being informed by a colleague of a case that he had handled in which a landowner was in dispute with a farmer over a strip of land. The farmer had erected a fence on my friend's client's land and the client had, quite properly, written to the farmer politely pointing out that the fence was on his—the client's—property and asking him to remove it. He received an objectionable letter in reply, along the lines: "Please note what I think of your allegations concerning my fence by referring to the enclosure." In the envelope was a huge amount of excreta. That caused the client extreme distress, and if I read my hon. Friend's Bill correctly, communications such as that will be caught by it.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

My hon. Friend spoke of video recordings. Is he aware that section 11 of the Post Office Act 1953 would catch video material sent through the post if it was judged by the courts to be indecent or obscene, although it would not catch other video material? My hon. Friend is right to say that an abusive message sent through the mail should be caught.

Mr. Knight

My hon. Friend is right. A video recording pushed through someone's letter box, and not sent by post, would not be caught by the Post Office Act 1953.

Mr. John Patten

No, but it would be caught by the Bill because it provides for different modes of delivery, including delivery through the post and hand delivery.

Mr. Knight

That is exactly right, and that is why I said at the start of my speech that I was delighted to welcome the Bill because it closes a number of loopholes in our existing law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said that he had received threatening and abusive letters. I think that at some time or other most hon. Members have received such correspondence. When I looked through some of my files, I noted that just before Christmas I received such a letter from a constituent who had become quite worked up about the community charge. In the letter he made his points about the community charge and then made some rather unpleasant references to me because he said that he thought I would support the Government on the issue. When I found the letter again this morning, I wondered whether it would come within the scope of the Bill. On reading it again, however, I decided that the letter was obviously sent by an eccentric who was a member of a diminishing band of Socialists in the east midlands. That being so, I decided to leave matters as they were.

Mr. John Patten

Socialists are becoming a protected species.

Mr. Knight

They will soon become a protected species, especially in Derby, because Socialism there appears to be dwindling.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has seen fit to include in clause 1(2) a provision for a defence in certain circumstances. We must remember that while we wish to prevent unnecessary distress, we live in a free society where free speech, vigorous debate and the strong expression of opinion should not be discouraged.

Last night I watched "Newsnight" as I was reading the Bill. Clause I makes it quite clear that, should the Bill become law, it will be an offence to send false information for the purpose of causing anxiety. When I had reached that part of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) appeared on the television screen and accused the Government of manipulating the law. I recalled the comments of the right hon. Gentleman during the general election when he said that Britain was in the throes of an economic crisis and I began to think about what would happen if someone received a press release from the right hon. Gentleman referring to the manipulation of the law by the Government — the right hon. Gentleman implied that freedom was under threat—or received one of his earlier press releases about the country being in an economic crisis. Such communications would cause anxiety and distress, and I began to wonder whether extravagant speeches of the kind made by the right hon. Gentleman might fall within the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if a future Labour Government — heaven forbid — threatened to call in the IMF that would be caught by the Bill?

Mr. Knight

If they sent letters or press releases about that, it would cause the utmost distress and anxiety. If there were a Labour Government they would need to call in the IMF, and therefore any information about that would not he a false communication.

Mr. Corbett

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) never has and never will make a speech that causes anxiety or distress. He will continue to do as he has done in the past and point out the follies of the Government's economic policies.

Mr. Knight

The hon. Gentleman ought to travel the country a little more, because in the parts to which I have been the speeches by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook have caused anxiety and distress. Luckily, I or one of my colleagues have arrived on the scene soon afterwards and allayed the distress. I am concerned that hon. Members such as the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook may fall foul of the provisions in the Bill, and I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood to consider that. Perhaps the answer is either for the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook to cease to circulate his speeches or to be a little more careful in future about what he says.

We must pose the question: is there a need for the Bill? I believe that we could do with less, not more, Government, and that when legislation is proposed it needs continuing justification. I have considered the existing law and see a need for the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood spoke about the law of criminal libel. The difficulty about criminal libel is that it is not defined by statute. Roughly, criminal libel is the publication of defamatory matter which is not trivial and which is in permanent form. It is a defence to argue that the published material is true and that publication was for the public benefit. However, there must always be publication unless it can be argued that the material was so offensive that it was likely to cause a breach of the peace when it was received. That means that the recipient was likely to go berserk or something like that.

That is a serious defect in the law of criminal libel because, as is often the case with the poison-pen letter, there is no publication. It is sent to the person for whom it is intended, who reads it and is shocked or distressed, but does not show it to someone else. Therefore, in law there is no publication to a third party.

In matters of this nature the law of criminal libel does not help us very much, and no doubt that is why prosecutions for offences of criminal libel are rare. A poison-pen letter may not be defamatory. If it is sent for the purpose of causing distress, it does not have to be defamatory to the person who receives it. It could say, "Your wife, who was on holiday in Skegness, is dead." The allegation could be untrue but, of course, a letter in such terms would not be defamatory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and the Minister spoke about the Post Office Act 1953. Under section 11 of that Act it is an offence to send indecent or obscene material through the post. As I said to my hon. Friend the Minister, that applies only if the material is sent through the post and would not cover the case of someone delivering obscene material through the letter box or getting a third party to deliver it in that way. In addition, it affects only indecent or obscene material and not material that can be highly defamatory and upsetting without being obscene.

The law does not end there, because there is also the law of blackmail. In essence, blackmail is committed when someone makes an unwarranted demand with menaces with a view to gain for himself or with intent to cause loss to another. For example, "Give me £1,000 or I shall shoot you," would be a good example. Poison-pen letters may not have all those ingredients. Someone may be seeking to upset or to cause distress, but not necessarily to seek gain for himself. Therefore, the law of blackmail does not help us in this area because it is not broad enough to catch many poison-pen letters.

While I was listening to the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook on television I was also studying the law and was surprised to note that our existing law is not broad enough to catch a written threat to injure. Although it is currently a criminal offence to threaten to kill someone, it is not an offence to threaten to injure him. Hon. Members may say that our law contains other provisions that could be brought into play; for example, a binding over. I do not think, however, that a binding over is sufficient in such cases. For a start, the courts can bind over someone who has not committed a criminal offence, and I do not consider it an appropriate way of dealing with people who send poison-pen letters.

Let me ask my hon. Friend a question. I appreciate that if a person is charged with and convicted of sending a poison pen letter the Bill provides for the courts to impose a fine. However, on examining the case, the magistrates may well decide that the sender needs some form of medical treatment. They may take the view that he is a little unbalanced or agitated and needs the help of the probation service. If my hon. Friend's Bill becomes law, will the courts have the power to deal with an offender in that way? I hope that they will.

My hon. Friend asked whether there were enough offences of sending poison-pen letters to justify new legislation. I think that we can answer his question in the affirmative. He has identified a serious gap in the law, and it must be right for us to close it by passing the Bill today.

I must admit that when I first read the Bill I wondered whether it was necessary to include clause 1(2), which deals with the raising of a defence. I wondered whether we should create an absolute offence. I believe, however, that my hon. Friend was right to include the provision.

I well remember the comedian Tony Hancock being interviewed about his half-hour programme on poison-pen letters. He admitted that he liked sending out threatening letters at the weekend. When asked to explain what he meant, he said that he was not talking about gratuitously offensive letters, but, if someone owed him money, he liked to send a letter on Friday. When asked why, he explained that the debtor would receive the letter on Saturday and would not be able to obtain legal advice until Monday. During the weekend, if the debtor worried about it, he might well pay up.

I feel that there is a legitimate need to allow that sort of letter to be sent, when there is a genuine debt. When I used to practise as a solicitor in the east midlands, probably 90 per cent. of the post that I sent out on behalf of clients were letters in the threatening category, although I hope that they were always couched in the proper language. There is a problem when people are slow in paying their debts and think that they can get away with not settling their accounts. Often, a solicitor's letter does the trick. Most letters sent by solicitors contain a threat that unless the amount is paid within seven days of receipt the solicitors will have no option but to institute court proceedings on behalf of their client, without further notice. In most cases, that is effective.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has appreciated that, in normal business practice, there is a place for that sort of letter. If a debt is owing and the debtor has failed to pay, it is of course right and proper that the person to whom the money is owed, or his agent, is able to send a letter in those terms.

I see a possible loophole, which my hon. Friend may wish to consider closing in Committee. Let me give an example. Let us say that Mr. A wants to cause distress to Mr. B, and they both reside in England. Mr. A considers sending a poison pen letter to Mr B. But, as Mr. A reads Hansard and is aware of my hon. Friend's measure—I assume that this takes place after it has passed into law—he also decides that he does not wish to be brought before the courts for sending such a letter. Accordingly, he waits until the summer, when he is due to take his annual holiday in Spain. He then takes with him the most obscene, obnoxious and threatening letter that he can think of, running to, say, half a dozen pages. He posts the letter from Lloret de Mar, on the Costa Brava, to Mr. B in England. He then returns home.

As I understand the position under the Bill, although A and B reside in England and are normally covered by English law, if the letter is posted abroad, A will not have committed an offence. If I am right in that assumption, I ask my hon. Friend to give the House an undertaking that he will consider this when the Bill is in Committee.

In conclusion, let me say that I feel that my hon. Friend has done a service, not only to the House, but to the unfortunate recipients of letters of this sort. I am glad that he has couched his Bill in wide but moderate terms, and that the test is to be objective. One of my fears when I first heard of my hon. Friend's intentions, but before the Bill was published, was that the test might be subjective. We can all imagine the cases of which I am thinking. For instance, let us suppose that someone sent a video to Mrs. Mary Whitehouse—a video which the courts would not regard as obscene, but which upset Mrs. Whitehouse so much that she called for a prosecution. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has resisted going as far as that, and that in all cases the test will be objective. That is a wise move. Indeed, I can sum up the Bill by saying that it is drawn in wise language. It is firm, but it is nevertheless well drafted, and I commend it to the House.

10.7 am

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

I, too, welcome the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) is to be congratulated on using his good fortune to bring it before the House. As has been said, it is brief and clear, and it closes a small but very nasty loophole which causes considerable grief and distress.

Anonymous messages are not always bad. Sitting here this morning, I have been thinking about some of the better kinds of anonymous message. Nevertheless, they are not always good either. We are reminded of the recent preface to Crockford's Directory, which caused such problems, and eventually grief, to so many people.

Some of the finest poetry in our land has at the end the magic little word "Anon", and, with St. Valentine's day approaching, we must think how sad it would be if people were not allowed to send those loving, innocuous and good-fun cards on that day. The essential point is how anonymity is used rather than anonymity itself.

I think that many people will be suprised to learn that this matter is not already covered by law. We all know that obscene phone calls are covered, but poison pen letters are not. Indeed, offensive material generally is not covered. I believe that in many ways poison pen letters are worse than obscene phone calls. Obviously obscene phone calls are shocking when they happen. Clearly when someone puts the phone down he or she cannot forget about the call. However, if someone does not have the courage or initiative immediately to tear up a poison pen letter, or burn it, the letter may remain in a drawer; it may be pulled out and re-read and the recipient may wonder whether there is any truth in it. It gnaws at the recipient and causes far more damage than an obscene phone call.

It is possible today for someone to cause offensive material to be sent to people. Many firms will send all kinds of material — some of which may be quite respectful — that may be distasteful or offensive depending on someone's taste. Often one need only fill in a form in a newspaper with the name of the person to whom the material should be sent. Sometimes even quite mild material sent to extremely sensitive people can cause the most tremendous distress. I am pleased that such action will be caught within the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said that there is no evidence of the scale of the problem. However, I have examined recent reports from professional psychiatrists and people who deal with such cases. They have estimated that their number has risen by about 200 per cent. in recent years.

I believe that, in making the sending of poison pen letters an offence, it is important that we should alter the way in which people regard this matter. Making such actions an offence will punish, and I hope deter, the person responsible. It will also encourage the person who suffers to pursue the perpetrator of the offence. If someone receives such material, he or she will take some kind of action—consult friends or take legal advice. The advice will be that there is little that can be done to punish the miscreant. When the recipient realises that little interest is being taken in the problem, he or she will not pursue or report the matter.

The Bill will punish and deter and will also allow us to understand how often these cases occur. We should be provided with accurate figures. It is crucial that we know what is happening, because I suspect that it is happening more often than we believe.

Clearly the sending of poison pen letters can affect anyone. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has already referred to the effect on ethnic minorities. I agree with my hon. Friend that those sections of our population often have difficulty settling in. The kind of treatment that reportedly they have received obviously makes life more difficult for them. No one is more aware of how the miners suffered during the miners' strike than my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. The nasty aspect about what happened is that it was not the miner who was tackled. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is more aware than I just how rugged, tough and able are our miners. They can stand up for themselves. However, the evil people directed their attentions at the miners' families and children. They focused on the vulnerable. That was a loathsome tactic to adopt and it shows the size of the people concerned.

However, it is not simply the vulnerable in society who may be attacked. Famous people have also been attacked. Recently Julia Somerville, the well-known newscaster, received the most dreadful threats. I understand that a poster was found at ITN featuring a photograph of her with the eyes gouged out. Can we imagine the effect that that must have on someone in the public eye? I understand that Anthony Hopkins, the actor has received poison-pen letters for months. He has received death threats and threats of arson attacks. He has had to continue his career in public life with those threats hanging over his head.

People who send poison-pen letters also create an effect in the most tragic circumstances. Hon. Members may recall the Penlee lifeboat disaster in 1982 when eight men died in the most tragic circumstances. They may also recall that five of the widows received anonymous letters suggesting that they might be happy that their husbands had died because of the money that they received. Can we imagine the anguish that that must have caused? If it is possible, I came across an even worse case than that. I read a report of a Cornishman who was forced to exhume his 87-year-old mother because of the number of poison-pen letters that he had received suggesting that he had been responsible for her death.

I ask hon. Members to contemplate the effect that such letters must have on the recipients. The effects do not last for a day or a week; they last for the rest of the recipient's life. The recipients are permanently scarred with a feeling of guilt. No matter what has happened, they are left with the feeling that there may be some truth in them and that in some way they may be responsible. Those examples serve to show just how essential is the Bill.

It is important for us to remember that these evil and cowardly acts have a terrible effect out of all proportion to the effort needed by the perpetrator or, until now, the punishment that he or she will receive if caught. That is why I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has introduced this Bill. I congratulate him on the sensible use that he has made of his fortune in coming sixth in the ballot. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) nor I have been lucky enough to come in the top 20. However, I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has succeeded in the ballot and has used his opportunity to introduce this Bill. I sincerely hope that the Bill receives a fair wind and becomes law as soon as possible.

10.16 am
Mr. Chris Butler (Warrington, South)

Hate mail is a reflection of the seamier and viler face of human nature. It affects many ordinary people. It also affects many prominent people who appear on our television screens. I can attest from my time dealing with much of the correspondence in No. 10 Downing street that Prime Ministers receive much hate mail, or rather, the poor Garden room girls receive that mail and are affected by it.

I do not know what possessed an American lady to send her late husband's ashes to President Reagan. When the correspondence unit in the White House examined the offending article one hot, sweltering Washington afternoon, a high-powered fan took up the ashes and dispersed them around the room. The poor lady never received her husband back.

All hon. Members will have received letters from crackpots like that. I hope that hon. Members will have filed them deeply and in an appropriate quarter. All hon. Members will have received letters from constituents expressed in blunt and hard-edged terms. I understand that hon. Members are supremely sensitive souls and will suffer an element of distress when they receive such letters, especially if there is an implied threat that the vote of that constituent will be placed elsewhere.

Of course, it would be very bad politics to arraign and fine one's constituents. However, it would be bad law if hon. Members were enabled to do that. I am glad that it will be up to the courts, and not the recipients, to determine whether such letters are grossly offensive or indecent. I hope that the courts will draw a very sensible line and exclude letters or communications that are suffused with frankness or fair comment. The old Latin tag, "de gustibus non est disputandum," should be remembered: in other words, one should not argue about taste. Unfortunately, the courts will have this difficult problem, and I hope that they will fulfil their role properly and sensitively. It is right that they should do so because many people are over-sensitive and take offence when no offence is implied. It will be unhelpful if the courts are over-loaded with trivia or with imagined offences of imagined threats.

I welcome the Bill because it will root out one element of maliciousness that affects our present-day society. The links between us all, for whatever reason, seem to have lessened over the years. People have less respect for one another and for other people's rights and feelings. If the Bill is enacted, it will combat one manifestation of this maliciousness, but it will highlight another which remains — the maliciousness and indecency of much of our gutter press. The freedom of the press carries a responsibility with it.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

The Right of Privacy Bill is listed on today's Order Paper. I have introduced that Bill to deal with the way in which the freedom of the press has been subverted in some quarters to destroy individual freedom. Does my hon. Friend agree that the freedom of the press is precisely to protect individual freedom, but that it is frequently used nowadays to produce the contrary result?

Mr. Butler

My hon. Friend's contribution adds to the debate. I am sorry that his Bill is No. 13 on the Order Paper and that, sadly, it may not be reached today. The House and the country would appreciate a discussion of that Bill. I hope that he will bring it forward again at a later date.

The thrust of the Malicious Communications Bill is excellent, but the drafting will need careful scrutiny and tightening up. For example, in clause 1(2), a person may not be guilty if he uses a threat to reinforce his demand and believes that he has done so with reasonable grounds. I have much experience of people with bees in their bonnets. They always genuinely believe that they have reasonable grounds for their threats and demands. If such people are to be convicted, there is a presupposition of objectivity on their part, when in fact it is the lack of objectivity on their part that has led them to commit the offence.

That does not detract from the need for the Bill. If, because of the nature of this place and its processes, my hon. Friend's Bill is delayed, perhaps its provisions could be incorporated in the Criminal Justice Bill, on the Standing Committee of which I have the honour to serve.

Mr. Greg Knight

I wish to take further my hon. Friend's point about subsection (2). I hope that he is not suggesting that that provision should be withdrawn from the Bill. Let us say, for example, that a debt is owed. The date by which the debt should be paid passes by, so a letter is sent to the debtor threatening court action unless the money is paid. However, let us suppose that, at the same time as the letter is posted, the debtor posts the money back to the sender of the letter, the person to whom he owes the debt. In that case, when the letter arrives, it is clearly a threat made after the money has been paid, but written when the person thought that he had reasonable grounds for sending it. Surely, if that provision were withdrawn from the Bill, that person might be in difficulty.

Mr. Butler

I am seeking to establish an objective rather than a subjective test of what is reasonable. That is a matter for the Standing Committee.

Mr. John Patten

I welcome the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) and for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) on the Standing Committee of the Criminal Justice Bill. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South accept that, given that the measure started as a modest little Bill and has now grown to 158 clauses, the Government are unlikely to welcome any additional clauses being tacked on at this stage? As the Minister in charge of the Bill, I am bound to say that an extra one or two clauses may be the straw that breaks the junior ministerial back. Does he agree that, with the all-party support that I hope the Bill will attract, it should make rapid progress towards enactment in the normal way?

Mr. Butler

I accept my hon. Friend's strictures. Like him, I have no desire to be stuck in Committee during late nights and early mornings for ever and a day.

Mr. Patten

And listening to me for hours and hours.

Mr. Butler

I am sure that I shall enjoy the many discourses of my hon. Friend. However, the Bill is important, and if, because of the processes of this place, it is thwarted, it could easily be tacked on to the Criminal Justice Bill. That is a long Bill, but I suspect that even my hon. Friend will add a few extra clauses. An extra few per cent. added to that Bill would be no great detriment to our proceedings in Committee. I hope that the bill will be passed today, and, if not, that it will be tacked on to the Criminal Justice Bill.

10.26 am
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) said in his excellent speech, the incidence of poison-pen letters is sadly on the increase on a very sharp curve. He mentioned the figure of 200 per cent. over the past few years. That figure is the reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) has introduced the Bill and I congratulate him on doing so. It is clear that there is a pressing need for the Bill, and that is shown by the fact that it has all-party support.

I should like to start by defining the word "threat". The House may feel that that word will not admit of much definition, but it does. My dictionary defines it under three sections. The first states that it is An expression of an intention to inflict pain, injury, evil, or punishment on a person or thing. The second definition states that it is An indication of the impending arrival or occurrence of something harmful or undesirable. The third definition states that it is A person, thing or ideas regarded as a possible danger; a menace. Many unpleasant things are included in the word threat. There are two main types of malicious communication, known and unknown. As hon. Members have said, we receive malicious and unpleasant communications. I do not mind that, provided that I know who sent them. We are fair game in this place. People can write us hard and unpleasant letters and, provided that they are not gratuitously unpleasant, we can handle them.

I recently received a letter from a constituent who wrote to me at great length. He had several complaints. As is my wont, I took them up with the various authorities. In response to that one letter I had to send out three or four letters to different authorities, councils and groups. As is also my wont, I sent my constituent a letter telling him what I had done and that, when I had received responses, I would contact him again. I then received another letter from him saying how remarkably stupid it was of me to have done all that. He said that if he had wanted to write to those various groups he would have asked me to do so, or he would have written to them directly. He ended his letter by saying "Your constituents must think that you are the most gullible Member of Parliament."

That was within the first fortnight of my being elected, so I wrote him a very short, sharp letter saying, "I have been doing my best to help you, you wretched man, and if that is your attitude, I will have nothing more to do with it.

Mr. Corbett

That reminds me of the story about the late Rab Butler, who, on receipt of similar letters, used to answer by saying, "Thank you for your letter of such and such a date. I have wasted little time in reading it."

Mr. Summerson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We certainly have a great deal to learn in this place, and that is just another item of knowledge to be added to the store.

Having dealt with the constituent in that way, I retired to the Tea Room, where I recounted the tale with great glee. My more experienced colleagues shook their heads and told me that I had been "courageous". Anyone who watches the well-known programme, "Yes, Prime Minister" knows perfectly well what that word means, and I quaked in my shoes for several days afterwards. However, I am happy to tell the House that that man has not bothered me again.

As I have said, when one knows who has written that sort of communication, one can deal with it. The difficulty arises with anonymous communications of different types. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central mentioned the well-known television news presenter who was sent a poster of herself with the eyes gouged out. That is peculiarly unpleasant, and I am sorry to say that that sort of thing is not unknown among famous people. I understand that when Shirley Williams was a Member of the House she was sent a packet containing 30 pieces of silver. — [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) thinks that that is all right. Had that former Member of the House been of a capitalist disposition, she would have welcomed the arrival of that packet. However, we all know that the fundamental message behind that is thoroughly unpleasant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central also mentioned the Penlee lifeboat disaster. The widows of those who died so tragically received poison-pen letters. I am sorry to say that that sort of event is not confined to major disasters such as that. As I understand it, such events occur after any sort of disaster and those suffering deeply tend to receive that sort of letter. It astonishes me that there are people in this country with warped minds who can take advantage of that sort of tragedy and add to the suffering.

I am a little worried about definition and how the Bill will be interpreted. For example, if I receive a letter saying that the branch of the beech tree overhanging my house is about to fall off, is that a malicious communication, a statement of fact or something else? We all know, following the October storm, that branches on beech trees have a habit of falling off in high winds. Indeed, in the days when the countryside was thickly populated with elms they were notorious for dropping limbs, for no apparent reason, even on the calmest days. Would it be a threat to say that the limb on a tree is about to fall on to somebody?

Mr. Lord

As my hon. Friend knows, I have some arboricultural knowledge. He is right to say that the branches of elm trees frequently drop off in still weather. However, I am sure he will appreciate that there are few elm trees left. The beech is not peculiar in the fact that its branches fall off in high winds. I would not want people with beech trees in their gardens to feel that they should rush out and start taking surgical action. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that, legally—I am not a legal man— if one's attention has been drawn to a tree and it has been suggested that it might be dangerous, one is more liable if anything happens to the tree than one would be if its condition had not been brought to one's attention.

Mr. Summerson

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpfulness. I certainly did not want to slander beech trees. It is perfectly true that beech trees suffered badly in the drought of 1976. They are thin barked trees and many of them died in that drought and have suffered since.

Mr. Cash

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. A moment ago I tried to leave the Chamber but, unfortunately, I found that the door on the right of the Chamber was locked. I do not know the reason for that. I would be grateful if somebody would look into the matter, so that I am able to leave the Chamber to come to see you by way of the back of the Chair.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

It would be a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that any problem with the door will be taken care of right away.

Mr. Summerson

That door is probably made of beech and has locked itself in protest at my remarks.

In 1986 my local council, the London borough of Waltham Forest, returned a Labour majority, and that council brought in a 62 per cent. rate increase. There was an enormous amount of popular fury at that whacking great rate increase. There were demonstrations and protests by 5,000 people at a time outside the town hall. I am sorry to say that there were manifestations of malicious communications in one form or another against certain Labour councillors. For example, the leader of the council had a fire bomb thrown at his front door. I wonder whether that could be regarded as a malicious communication. In my view, it could and should be.

There is something else that is germane to the Bill, and it is something that truly horrifies me as well as the people of Waltham Forest. A long-standing Labour councillor, Councillor Vi Smith, who has been on the council for many years and is well liked and respected throughout the borough—

Mr. Greg Knight

Does she do kissagrams?

Mr. Summerson

She is not the type of lady who would do kissagrams, I am sure of that.

That councillor received a great deal of poison-pen mail. There seemed to be a campaign against her, and it culminated in some sick people delivering a coffin to her front door. I am sure that the House would agree that that sort of thing is intolerable and thoroughly appalling. I hope that that sort of item will be caught by the Bill. It is a matter of definition. I hope that if the perpetrators of that sort of outrage were apprehended, the court would hold that they would be caught by the Bill.

Mr. Butler

That again raises the question of what is reasonable and what is not. I remember the devolution campaign in Wales. I was very much involved in that. After the referendum in Wales the Secretary of State for Wales at that time, the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), looked at the figures, which were disastrous for him. He said, "When you see an elephant on your doorstep, you realise that it is there." In the subsequent election campaign we hired an elephant. The cost of the elephant was quite enormous, so we had to divide it between three constituencies so that it would not overlap the electoral expenses. We took the elephant to the doorstep of the Secretary of State for Wales. I would not regard that as malicious. I hope that a distinction will be made between what is reasonable and what is malicious.

Mr. Summerson

It largely depends on the elephant and its disposition. It would be interesting to know whether, if it trod on the Secretary of State's toe, it could be held to have done so with malicious intent.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

My hon. Friend may recall that on at least two occasions people paid their electricity bills by writing on the side of an elephant. If they wrote a message, could that he a malicious communication?

Mr. Summerson

I should like to think that it could.

Different types of letter are sent to famous and ordinary people. Letters are sent to famous people to cut them down to size, to call them silly names or to make them feel small. Those sent to ordinary people are merely letters of denigration. They tell them how foolish they are and make suggestions such as, "You are having an affair with so and so," and are sent to try to bring people down to the sender's level.

People who send malicious communications are meddlesome and cowardly; people who send anonymous letters are cowards. Those who write some sort of threat, complaint or insult cannot bear for it to be shown in public what sort of people they are.

How should we cope with those letters? The answer is to get in touch with the police straight away. If anyone receives a malicious communication, in whatever form, he should contact the police straight away. The Bill will give the police a weapon at hand to deal with it.

I have defined the word "threat", but there are different types of threat. There is the veiled threat. Will such a threat be caught by the Bill? It would be for the court to decide whether a threat was a veiled threat and whether it was caught by the Bill. However, I wonder whether it could be defined more sharply.

There is the idle threat, with which we are all familiar. We are always idly threatening each other in this place, but I do not think that that would be, or need be, caught by the Bill.

There is a further type of threat. Again, I return to definitions in the Bill. If someone set his dog on someone, would that be caught by the Bill? Clause 1(1) refers to, Any person who sends to another person". Could a person who threatens to set a dog on someone be defined as sending? Paragraph (a) of clause 1(1) begins A letter or other article". Could a dog be defined as "or other article"?

Mr. Cash


Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that the appropriate penalty under the Bill is a maximum fine of £400? Surely the example that my hon. Friend has cited is an attempted assault, which carries a much more severe criminal penalty. Therefore, the Bill would be unlikely to be used for that purpose; there are other elements of the law that would help in that respect. I do not wish to interrupt my hon. Friend as he is going down this interesting path, but I do not think that it will affect the Bill very much.

Mr. Summerson

I was about to talk about the dog barking or growling.

Mr. Cash

My hon. Friend is developing an interesting line of argument. Unfortunately, I must disabuse him of something. It would be extremely difficult for a dog, unless is was extremely small, to be ejusdem generis as a letter. The words "or other article" must be construed, as we put it in our arcane language, ejusdem generis—of the same kind of type—as a letter. I cannot imagine a dog that would look very much like such an article. Perhaps my hon. Friend will give further examples that will help me to understand his point a little better.

Mr. Summerson

I thank my hon. Friend — my learned Friend — for that lesson. I doubt whether it would have any effect on the dog to mutter ejusdem generis at it.

Mr. Greg Knight

My hon. Friend has raised an interesting point. What will happen if the dog has a threat tattooed on its side?

Mr. Summerson

That would depend on what the dog was called. If it were called "killer" it could be construed as a threat.

Mr. Cash

A previous hon. Member, Mr. A. P. Herbert, drew the attention of the House, not to threatening dogs with unpleasant letters on them, but to something far worse—threatening letters put on the side of a cow, which came from the Inland Revenue. Would my hon. Friend regard that as a malicious communication?

Mr. Summerson

I am very fond of cows. I should not like to think of any cow as being malicious, except when it twitches its tail across one's face at 5.30 am when one is about to milk it. I remember that in that case the cow had a cheque made out on it for a certain amount of money. I would not describe that as a malicious communication.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg

With regard to "a letter or other article", does my hon. Friend agree that the other article could be a parcel? It is conveyed by the Post Office, and that parcel might contain a dog. We should not rule out the dog at this stage.

Mr. Summerson

We seem to be dogged by this subject. I agree with my hon. Friend, but I believe that there are regulations about sending live animals through the post. However, if it were possible, the parcel with the dog inside could be defined as an article that conveys, not a message that is indecent or offensive, but certainly a threat.

I should like to mention one or two incidents that I have had when I have been on the road. I tend to travel to the House on a bicycle. In the course of my journey I am quite frequently carved up by motorists, sworn at and sometimes threatened. I had occasion today to swear at a motorist who nearly knocked me off my bicycle on a sharp corner. Having sworn at him, I was about to threaten him when I rembered that I was due to speak on the Malicious Communications Bill. I thought that I had better contain myself, so the Bill has done some good in that regard.

I was involved in another incident a few weeks ago, from which all hon. Members and members of the public could benefit. I was travelling along Picadilly on my bicycle when a taxi shot out in front of me without any warning — taxi drivers always shoot out without any warning—and stopped. I had to jam on my brakes to prevent myself running into it. The taxi driver pulled down his window. I opened my mouth to tell him what I thought of him and cast aspersions on the legitimacy of his ancestry, whereupon he said, "I am so sorry." That entirely took the wind out of my sails, and I commend that course of action to the House.

10.49 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) on bringing forward the Bill, and on the skill and clarity with which he presented it. In his constituency he is known as a notably effective constituency Member.

Hon. Members admire those representing all political parties who, against the odds, and against the predictions of professionals and political journalists, manage to win and to retain seats when that was thought to be impossible. My hon. Friend, by 650 votes in 1983, snatched a seat which the hard-bitten professionals at Central Office said it was impossible for him to win. To my great pleasure, he increased his majority to 4,495 in 1987. His constituency work is effective and efficient, and Ministers know that he pursues constituency cases in that way. His style, in attempting to deliver something useful to society in an effective way is characterised by his choice of subject for his Bill. I hope that it will receive all-party support and will quickly and rapidly pass into law and effectively help those who are being persecuted by malicious communications.

However hurtful malicious communications are, no one could say that hate mail is at the gravest end of the spectrum of human behaviour. It is vicious, harmful and without excuse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) said, when it is anonymous it is particularly unpleasant, yet it is not the most serious abuse. However, the Government agree that it is serious enough to be made a criminal offence.

In its admirable report on the subject in 1985 the Law Commission exposed a considerable gap in the existing law which allows those who use such repugnant means of communication to escape punishment. I fully support, and the Government fully support, my hon. Friend's attempt to plug that loophole.

It has been pointed out by my hon. Friends who have spoken that malicious communication can be sent in all sorts of ways. The criminal law already catches the sending of some kinds of material. The threat of violence is already caught by the present criminal law, but there is no prohibition whatsover on the sending of a wide range of material with malicious purpose. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood does not consider the existing state of affairs to be satisfactory, and I entirely agree with him.

We have all seen well-publicised examples in recent months and years of the dreadful effects on individuals and their families of malicious communications sent through the post, whether the victims are ethnic minority leaders, non-striking miners—who suffered so terribly during the recent pit strikes—or national figures in the public eye.

From time to time all Members of Parliament receive what might be termed hate mail. My favourite, from a major in Abingdon, was a letter that arrived on a day when I was in my constituency. I did not see it until my assiduous private secretary had already replied on my behalf. The letter from the nameless major was very brief. In regard to my political future, he wished that I would speedily be dismissed from my ministerial job by the Prime Minister. As for my personal future, he enjoined my private secretary to poison my tea with rat poison. My private secretary had written back saying, Your letter has arrived on a day when Mr. Patten is in his constituency. I know that he will be most grateful for the constructive suggestions contained in it. There are ways of dealing with such letters, although I am bound to say that the response from the late Lord Butler which the hon. Member for Erdington drew to our attention was perhaps the best example.

The Bill sets a new boundary to the territory that is on the outer fringes of what is acceptable behaviour in contemporary society. It draws a boundary around what is acceptable behaviour and casts outside that boundary matters where criminal law should have effect. However, we must be careful not to make criminal activities which most people would regard as legitimate. None of us would want to see, for example, trivial private quarrels brought into the courts. The Law Commission recognised the pitfalls of drawing any new offence too wide. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has wisely based his Bill on the commission's proposals.

The essence of the behaviour that my hon. Friend seeks to outlaw, what makes it criminal rather than merely undesirable, is the malicious purpose in the mind of the perpetrator. That is where it starts. We are not after the form; we are after the perpetrator. That is the key to the Bill.

Mr. Cash

I am concerned about one point in the Bill, which I may have to refer to later. Could the words or the article concerned include newspapers and periodicals? It is just possible that, despite the point about ejusdern generis as it applies to letters and dogs, newspapers and periodicals could be caught by the Bill. That would represent a serious problem which I shall explain later, but I would be interested to have my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Patten

My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood will have the chance to respond to it. If we make rapid progress this morning and reach my hon. Friend's Bill, which is placed 13th, he may have the opportunity to discuss the matter later. None of us would want to stand in the way of speedily reaching a discussion on that point.

Mr. Greg Knight

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister was in the House when I spoke earlier this morning. Will he answer my question about a person who sends a letter that is clearly threatening and abusive from his holiday address in Spain? Would such a person—I suspect not—be caught by the Bill?

Mr. Patten

Such a person might well be caught by other measures presently going through the House, such as the extradition procedures in the Criminal Justice Bill, which is in Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a distinguished member. If a malicious communication was made, it might be thought to be something to which extradition could apply. However, as my hon. Friend knows from his appearances in Committee, the list of extraditable offences is to be abolished and a no-list system is to apply to fairly serious crimes punishable by imprisonment for 12 months or more. My hon. Friend's example would not be caught by that measure.

It is right that the offence should be committed by the act of sending the article, not by the sender's success in causing distress. We are seeking to get at the malice involved in sending the article, not to measure the success in causing distress by the sender. That would probably be impossible. We certainly would not be justified in creating the offence if the suffering caused by such behaviour was not serious, but it is serious. All my hon. Friends who have spoken have attested to that.

It must be very hard to imagine the grief of a woman who receives a letter telling her, entirely falsely, that her husband who is on a business trip abroad and is out of contact, has been killed. Such cases have been reported and such letters have been circulated. That is the offence that the Bill seeks to catch. Equally, it is hard to imagine the fear felt by a family that receives letters making racist threats. This category of letter would be defined as entirely abhorrent. People who set out to cause such suffering need to be restrained by the criminal law. That is why I believe that the Bill presented by my hon. Friend is exactly right in trying to deal with such offences through the criminal law.

We have no evidence, nor did the Law Commission in its excellent 1985 report, that there is a major epidemic of poison-pen letters. It is difficult to determine the number of poison-pen letters sent in any one year, but there is enough evidence to show that there are a sufficient number to justify introducing this offence. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has made it clear that he is seeking to change the law because of the behaviour involved in sending such letters and that this should be an offence, however small the number of victims in any one year. We should stamp this out as soon as possible. Although—

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).