If an individual uses a landline telephone and commits an act as I have listed, it is an offence. If an individual sends an offensive or abusive text message or an electronic mail, it is not an offence. The amendment proposes that the section deems an electronic mail or text message as having been sent by telephone.
On Committee Stage, the Minister of State stated he did not intend to deal with this as it would be going outside the scope of the Bill. That is not the case. How could it be outside the scope of a broad-ranging Bill, dealing with offensive telecommunications, to claim certain forms of telecommunication message are offensive and prohibited by law? Claiming it is outside the scope of the Bill is an excuse by the Minister for not dealing with the issue.
The Minister claims the law on harassment covers the point. It does not. Even though harassment is an offence, it is defined as requiring repeated misconduct. This section does not require repeated misconduct but states, "...any person who sends by telephone any message that is grossly offensive, or is indecent, obscene or menacing". It does not state "many". The rest of the section does not conform to the definition of harassment as repeated misconduct. A once-off threatening message by e-mail, for instance, would not constitute harassment as the law stands. The Minister of State referred to child pornography but this would be only a small part of offensive messages.
There is a considerable debate on the use of text messages for bullying and particular chat sites for frightening people. This amendment proposes nothing more than to bring our legislation into line with how people communicate these days. I have been in the House for years attempting to get Ministers to introduce sensible legislation. I demanded that the Internet be defined legally and ultimately it had to be. On copyright legislation, I demanded that computer-generated art be included until eventually it was. The great fact about not being a lawyer is that one has to employ common sense in these matters.
I do not know where the Minister of State got the excuse that this was covered by harassment. Effectively, if one uses one's telephone to offend people or to send an indecent, obscene or menacing message, it is an offence. If one uses text messaging or e-mail to do the same, it is not an offence. Why should it not be an offence? The only possible reason is that somebody conservative in the Minister's office did not and does not want to think about it and, therefore, the amendment will not be accepted. It leaves young people, the primary users of text messages and e-mail, vulnerable to threats of abuse and obscene behaviour by others without a proper legal remedy.