“Private Members’ Bills are Public Bills introduced by MPs and Lords who are not government ministers. As with other Public Bills their purpose is to change the law as it applies to the general population. A minority of Private Members’ Bills become law but, by creating publicity around an issue, they may affect legislation indirectly.” That is the definition on the parliamentary website. The public may be most aware of the annual ballot in the Commons, when 20 MPs are given the chance of time to introduce a bill on a topic in which they are interested, although only a tiny number eventually succeed. Amongst private members’ successes in achieving new legislation are House of Lords Reform, Gangmasters’ Licensing, Forced Marriage (Civil Protection), Anti-Slavery Day and Female Genital Mutilation, along with many others. What they all have in common is a topic of great interest to the member, for the benefit of the public, for which the Government has not got time, or finds difficult to tackle because it is a moral issue or otherwise politically a hot potato. All credit due to those members, both of the Commons and Lords, who persisted and changed the law. It sometimes takes several tries, for reasons of lack of debating time or acute controversy, before the bill gets on the statute book.
So it is again this Friday, with Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, second reading debate, not the first of his attempts to change the law. Another recent example was Lord Saatchi’s bill to allow doctors to try new treatments on very ill patients when all else has failed, without fear of litigation. He is not a doctor but was affected by the death of his wife from cancer and rightly or wrongly wants to open up a chance of cure to other gravely ill persons. A private member does not have to be an expert on the topic, let alone a member of the profession which is affected by it. On the contrary, disinterestedness and impartiality are crucial. Lord Falconer is not a medical man, and many doctors are opposed to his Bill, but he is appealing to the wisdom of the House and to public opinion.
The same is true of my effort to change the law on the division of assets on divorce. I am not a divorce practitioner, and have never been divorced, but I have studied the situation for years and listened to the views of members of the public. I have looked at the many reform proposals from organisations, and taken account of the tried and tested laws of other countries. Not a word of my Bill is original: it is taken from the law of other countries, which have been shown to have worked, and from official reports into the law. It is therefore a mark of success, rather than the opposite, that my start on reforming the law of money and divorce should attract a howl of protest, indeed a note of panic, from a successful practitioner or two. Practitioners and judges have been extensively canvassed on reform over the years, most recently by the Law Commission, and the report is clear that reform is needed.
It would be surprising if professional divorce lawyers or even judges did not understand their respective roles. It is for members of parliament to try to change the law in the public interest, whether or not they are experts in it (if laws were only ever enacted by experts on the respective topics who happened to have seats in parliament, where would we be?). It is for judges to interpret it, respecting the sovereignty of parliament, and it is for the professionals to apply it and help those who need assistance. We all have our roles to play.
Lord Falconer’s bill should be discussed and assessed objectively, not only by doctors and clergy, but by the public and above all by members of parliament. So far, over 110 peers have signed up to speak, and the Friday debate is set to last long into the night. If I may inject a note of levity into a grave matter, I recall Michael Jackson’s lyrics:
The time is right
The perfect night
For a private affair.