Column by Stroud MP Siobhan Baillie

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is making its way through parliament at the moment.

This wide-ranging piece of legislation will modernise the criminal justice system in many areas and close important loopholes that allow criminals to evade or face weak punishments.

It was a manifesto commitment and includes really positive measures.

The bill proposes, for example, to increase the maximum penalty from 12 months to two years in prison for anyone who assaults an emergency worker like a police officer, nurse or a paramedic.

It also wants to extend the scope of offences in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to relating to the abuse of positions of trust legislation to capture additional roles, such as sports coaches. An enormous loophole that has led to children being abused.

It is seeking to criminalise taking unsolicited photographs of women who are breastfeeding.

The bill’s measures to protect local people, emergency workers and society go on and on.

I have no problem with any of this and I doubt many people do. Yet a few people want to ‘stop the bill’ or ‘kill the bill’ - largely as they are stating it will victimise travellers and bans all protests. This is not true.

I even had banners put over my Stroud office during a protest by the local Green Party and the Labour Party saying ’No to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill!’ ’Solidarity with Gypsies, Roma and Travellers’ - completely ignoring the much needed protection of emergency workers etc.

The Government has been repeatedly asked to tackle the issue of people who set up unauthorised camps and refuse to leave. A minority of travellers have caused serious distress and misery to communities and businesses, often creating extensive costs to the taxpayer too. The Bill proposes that perpetrators face three months in prison, a potential fine up to £2500 and their vehicles seized.

On protests, the Police are clear there is a need to strengthen powers last reviewed in 1986 to tackle protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament.

The measures will not grant the police or anyone else powers to ban protests. Nor will it ban noisy protests or protests outside parliament. The police will only be able to impose conditions when a protest is likely to cause harm to others or prevent an organisation or business from operating.

Over the last few years some protesters believe their right to protest overrides the rights of others. They have used increasingly alarming tactics that have had a hugely damaging impact on people who are trying to go to work, visit dying relatives or have medical treatment.

Regular efforts to block roads and motorways, trying to disrupt newspapers being delivered to stop the free press and deliberately planning to get arrested was bound to lead to the public wanting to see the law change. Similarly, the majority of people respect the right to protest so it is madness to claim that the government would try to stop protests.

As Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said last year: “Protests are an important part of our vibrant and tolerant democracy. Under human rights law, we all have the right to gather and express our views. But these rights are not absolute rights. That fact raises important questions for the police and wider society to consider about how much disruption is tolerable, and how to deal with protesters who break the law. A fair balance should be struck between individual rights and the general interests of the community.”

I could not have said it better myself and this bill seeks to achieve that balance.