HC Deb 15 March 1935 vol 299 cc765-72

12.30 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 7, line 37, to leave out paragraph (c). When this Bill received its Second Reading on 15th February the Postmaster-General outlined certain Amendments which it was proposed to make in Committee. He was not able to say definitely what those Amendments would be but he indicated generally on that occasion what he thought would be necessary. He made no reference at all however to what is being done in paragraph (c). When we went into the matter in Committee we got a better idea of what it was intended to put into the Bill in paragraphs (a) and (b) and one could readily see that there was need for an alteration of the law in those respects. The Postmaster-General gave instances to show the necessity for those two paragraphs but did not mention paragraph (c) and it was only on subsequent interrogation that he referred to it. The paragraph imposes penalties on persons who persistently make telephone calls without reasonable cause and before the House passes legislation of that kind we ought to have evidence as to its necessity.

When this point was mentioned in Committee, the only evidence that we got as to the need for this change in the law was that one Member who mentioned that a man who had had a quarrel with another and who wanted to get his own back, made a practice of constantly ringing up the other man. Another Member said that he had been annoyed by the persistent ringing up of a man whom he described as a crank. The Postmaster General in supporting the insertion of this paragraph mentioned a case in which a man had rung up his brother-in-law at two o'clock in the morning. All this seemed to be considered sufficient reason for the insertion of this paragraph, but I claim that it is not sufficient evidence to justify the imposition of the severe penalties involved in Clause 10. In paragraph (a) the penalty is applied to persons who send messages which are grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character, while paragraph (b) applies it to those who send messages by telephone or telegrams which they know to be false for the purpose of causing annoyance and inconvenience. But then the Clause goes on in paragraph (c) to apply the penalty to a person who persistently makes telephone calls without reasonable cause. All these three classes of offences are bracketed together as subject to a penalty not exceeding £10 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or both such fine and imprisonment.

I think that hon. Members will regard the first two categories as deserving of the penalty mentioned but I do not think it can be reasonably argued that the third category merits such punishment. To my mind the first two are not being punished enough and the third is being punished too much. We as a legislature have no right lightly to put these penalties on the Statute Book. There ought to be a thorough examination and ample proof of the necessity for them before we do so. Otherwise, when cases get to the magistrates and severe penalties are imposed we have questions in the House about the harsh treatment of various people. It is for us to recognise that it lies in our power not to put in these big penalties. In the course of the Committee Debate the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Maitland) put this in its right perspective. He said: I would ask my right hon. Friend if he would consider, between now and Report, deleting paragraph (c), as I think he would have great difficulty in persuading people, and particularly Members of the House, that this could by any stretch of the imagination be said to come under the same category as paragraphs (a) and (b)."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Standing Committee B), 5th March, 1935; col. 14.] Those are my sentiments entirely. We are going to put a penalty on certain small things, for example, a crank who rings up a Member of Parliament. If a crank has some grievance against me, I would rather be at the other end of the telephone. I think that if he does not get the chance of telling me off by some such means he might use a more drastic method, such as aiming a brick through the window. We know that in families there are squabbles, and, if one brother-in-law wants to call another brother-in-law names, again I think it is better that he should be at the end of the telephone instead of being in the household. These things which are brought forward in justification of paragraph (c) are not sufficient reason for such a severe penalty as we have put on the other two. It is because of that that I have called the attention of the House to this provision. This Bill was brought in on a Friday, its Committee stage did not take very long, and it has now come back to the House on a Friday. It is possible in such circumstances that Clauses might go through which do not receive the full attention of the House. I felt it my duty to call attention to this matter because I believe it to be wrong.


I beg to second the Amendment.

12.38 p.m.


I want to oppose the Amendment, because I think the hon. Member has lost sight of the word "persistently," and also has lost sight of the fact that paragraph (c) is really an addition to paragraph (b), and that it includes the words "without reasonable cause and for any such purpose as aforesaid." Therefore, the offender must be someone who rings up persistently, causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety, and it is essential that paragraph (c) should follow paragraph (b) which it defines. One might have a telephone message which might cause great annoyance, and a magistrate might say that it was only one occasion, and it was no use bringing it to court. There is a kind of annoyance which can be very grave. We all know of the man who rang up a telephone subscriber whose name was Smellie. He said, "Is that Smellie?" The voice at the other end answered, "Yes," and then the man proceeded, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" If that happened to Mr. Smellie every night, and 10 times a night, it would be a case which measures of some kind should be taken to stop. The magistrate can judge of the seriousness of an offence and can make a punishment according to the gravity of it. Persistent annoyance is a situation with which we should have power to deal.

12.40 p.m.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir Kingsley Wood)

I should like to make one observation concerning the concluding part of the hon. Gentleman's speech. This Bill was first Order on a Friday, it was adequately discussed by the House, and it was not until every Member who desired to take part had spoken that the proceedings on Second Reading came to a close. So far as the examination in Committee is concerned, I think everybody will agree that it was thorough and satisfactory. The proceedings were harmonious and due attention was given to the Bill. There is no foundation for the suggestion that there has been any attempt to hurry this Bill through, nor has there been any dereliction on the part of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in not giving due care and attention to the proceedings.


I did not say anything about my colleagues. I said I did not think the House as a whole had been able to give attention to it.


That is a reflection on the House as a whole, and I think hon. Members who come on a Friday should not be referred to in that way. The hon. Member must not think there is anything unlucky or odd about Friday so far as this House is concerned. In bringing forward this proposal, I have been endeavouring to meet the wishes of the House as expressed on Second Reading. I brought forward a proposal, which received unanimous support, that it should be an offence for anyone to ring up and interfere improperly with telephone operators. It was on my making this suggestion that further suggestions were made which I have endeavoured to meet. The right hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) who has been at the Post Office and, therefore, has some experience on this matter, said on Second Reading: I do not know whether it is possible to extend the protection to the customers of the Post Office. He referred to cases where people ring up a number and use all kinds of obscene language, and then proceeded: I take it that he will have power under this Clause to deal with them if they are actually molesting a telephone operator. They might not, however, make any remarks, except strictly proper ones, to the operator but get through to a customer of the Post Office and then offend. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to say if it is possible to include in the Clause some protection for telephone subscribers from molestation in this way."—[OFFICIAI. RETORT, 15th February, 1935; cols. 2228–9; Vol. 297.] It was in an endeavour to meet the wishes of the right hon. Gentleman and others who spoke that I brought forward this Clause. When this matter was considered in Committee, I think every- one will agree that, with the exception of the hon. Gentleman and I think one other, it was not challenged. The hon. Gentleman is under some misapprehension in his reading of the Clause. When we were upstairs in Committee he made some observations which led me to think that, probably owing to the phraseology which we have to use in drafting Bills, he did not appreciate what the effect of the paragraph would be. He then said that he would like to see it separated and a different penalty provided. He did not then want it deleted. If the paragraph is read, as it should be read, and as my hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden (Mrs. Tate) read it just now, it makes the matter perfectly clear, and I think that few people would object to it. First, it is made an offence to send any message by telephone which is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. Secondly, to send any message by telephone, or any telegram, which he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety to any other person. Then comes paragraph (c)— persistently makes telephone calls without reasonable cause and for any such purpose as aforesaid. If you want to know what "any such purpose as aforesaid" is by which a person commits an offence and becomes liable to have proceedings taken against him, it is that without reasonable cause, he sends messages for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to any other person. It was generally agreed in Committee upstairs, and I think it will be agreed in the House, that if people do that sort of thing there ought to be a penalty. My hon. Friend who preceded me at the Post Office knows, as I do, of the numerous complaints that are received about silly people who do this sort of thing, and it is very difficult to deal with them. Complaints come through at all hours of the day, and the only remedy at the moment is to cut the person off the telephone altogether. It will be generally agreed that there is nothing that offends against the liberty of the subject in this provision and that anyone who makes persistent telephone calls without reasonable cause and causes annoyance should be liable to be proceeded against. The only other point is that the penalty is stated to be too high. It is really a very small penalty and is the maximum. It will be for the magistrate concerned to consider what, within that limit, the fine should be. This is a necessary provision in view of the considerable extension of the telephone and was put in the Bill at the suggestion of hon. Members and for the purpose of protecting people against unnecessary and vexatious interference. With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not feel called upon to press the matter further.

12.50 p.m.


The Postmaster-General has absolutely failed to make out a case for retaining this paragraph. He has been 3½ years Postmaster-General, and, if there had been any persistent making of telephone calls of this kind, he would have given them to the House. He has not, however, given any case of this kind that would justify this provision. My colleague has done a public service in raising this question, and I hope that, unless the Postmaster-General reconsiders his position, he will force it to a Division. I agree with what my hon. Friend said in regard to this matter being brought before the House on Fridays. But for that I would have been prepared to accept the Bill, knowing the Postmaster-General and knowing how genial he is and that he is a Minister who is not likely to agree to a Bill which had anything in it which was not right; I would have been prepared to accept it and get my colleague merely to draw attention to this paragraph. I would submit to the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mrs. Tate) that this paragraph means something different from what she attempted to make it mean. I agree that any person committing an offence under paragraphs (a) and (b) should be subject to a fine, but it seems to me that paragraph (c) makes two offences. One is for persistently making telephone calls without reasonable cause, and the other is "for any such purpose as aforesaid." I submit that all that is needed under this paragraph to be done in a court is for someone to prove that a person has persistently made telephone calls without reasonable cause.

The fine laid down for that offence is too large. One of the things that surprises me is the Postmaster-General's savageness in this Clause. Ten pounds is a most savage fine to impose on anyone who is foolish enough persistently to make telephone calls without reasonable cause. Forty shillings would have been bad enough, but £10 is far too much. Suppose to-morrow, when I am having my breakfast, which is generally about half-past-nine—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame!"]—the Press ring up and want my opinion of the National Government. I say, "My breakfast is far more important than giving my opinion about the National Government," and I simply take no notice. When I am sitting down to lunch, the Press ring up again and want to know my opinion of the National Government—


That is the penalty of fame.


That would be a case of people persistently making telephone calls without reasonable cause, and the Press would be liable to a £10 fine or a month's imprisonment. It is far too savage.

12.54 p.m.


The hon. member has based his case on the fact that he has not read the Clause in the sense in which it would be read by the court. Before a fine can be imposed it has to be established that the calls are made persistently and that they are made without reasonable cause; then it has to be established that it is for one of the three purposes mentioned—either of causing annoyance or of causing inconvenience or of causing needless anxiety to any other person. Those three purposes have to be established. The hon. Member's speech was based on the assumption that only one has to be established, and as it was due to an entire misapprehension, owing, probably, to the fact that he does not have breakfast early enough, I hope he will not press the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.