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Sending, delivering or transmitting an indecent, grossly offensive, threatening or false message, or something that is of an indecent or grossly offensive nature, to another, including by means of the internet, is an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, provided that the material is sent with the purpose of causing distress or anxiety to a person to whom it is communicated, or to any other person to whom the sender intends it or its contents or nature to be communicated. Even if the content does not meet the threshold required by those offences, internet abuse could still amount to an offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 if carried out on more than one occasion. Section 2 of that Act makes it an offence for someone to pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment. Section 4 makes it an offence if the defendant’s course of conduct causes someone to fear that violence will be used against them and he or she knows or ought to know that the course of conduct will cause that fear. The maximum penalty for a harassment offence under section 2 is six months’ imprisonment or a level 5 fine, which is up to £5,000, or both. The offence under section 4 carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. A court sentencing for an offence may also make a restraining order, the breach of which is an offence with a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. Where the offence is motivated by the victim’s race or religion, the court can take this into account as an aggravating factor and reflect this in the sentence, something we saw recently in the case concerning the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree.

Let me be clear: the Government are not complacent. Changes to the law contained in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, currently being considered in the House of Lords, will increase the maximum penalty for offences under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 from six months to two years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. The offence in section 1 of the 1988 Act is currently a summary-only offence, which means that it can be dealt with only in the magistrates court. As a summary-only offence, prosecutions must be brought within six months. The changes being taken forward in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill also mean more serious offences can be dealt with in the Crown court and that there will not be a time limit for bringing prosecutions, allowing more time for offences to be investigated.

Alongside this, the Government are extending the time within which prosecutions under the Communications Act 2003 may be brought, to allow up to three years, as opposed to the previous six-month limit, to bring prosecutions against people for using the internet, social media or mobile phones to send menacing messages, so long as prosecutions are brought within six months of the prosecutor having sufficient knowledge to justify proceedings. These changes come on top of a raft of Government measures to support victims. Next year, victims’ rights to tell the court how their crime has affected them will be set out in statute, a new nationwide victims information service will be set up to ensure better information and support, and millions of pounds will be invested in improving the court experience.

Where abusive behaviour has occurred on social networking sites, the Government expect social media companies to have robust processes in place to respond promptly when abuse is reported. This includes acting

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quickly to assess the report, removing content which does not comply with the acceptable use policies or terms and conditions in place and, where appropriate, suspending or terminating the accounts of those breaching the rules in place. The Government have worked with social media to ensure that their practices are sufficiently robust to address online abuse quickly and effectively, and we will continue to do that work. Let me also be clear that online abuse is just as illegal as communications that are offline. The measures also include working with the main companies to simplify and highlight their reporting processes so that users can make reports easily, as well as ensuring that their own guidelines are readily accessible and publicised widely, so that users are aware of the service they can expect.

I hope that I have been able to assure the House that the Government take the concerns expressed today very seriously, and that we already have a strong framework of offences, which we are seeking to strengthen by further legislative changes. The Government will continue to work with social media and the internet industries in the interests of the public, as this is an important and developing area of policy. Hon. Members should be in

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no doubt that the Government are committed to addressing online abuse in all its forms.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the abuse that Members of Parliament receive, and his points have certainly been taken on board. The law applies as much to us as it does to members of the public. Indeed, we have seen recent examples of the law being used to secure the convictions of members of the public who were seeking to abuse Members of Parliament. I thank him again for raising this important subject on the Floor of the House tonight. I know that it will continue to merit attention from colleagues on both sides of the House, because it is an immensely important subject that continues to change in the fast-moving internet arena. For our part, the Government will continue to monitor the situation and to do whatever we can to ensure that Members of Parliament and members of the public are kept as safe as possible from the abuse that is currently out there.

Question put and agreed to.

7.31 pm

House adjourned.