A private members' bill is a type of public bill (that affects the public) introduced by an individual member of the House of Lords.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat) introduced the bill as one drafted by the Law Commission of England and Wales. Opening the debate, he emphasised the key principle of the potential legislation: ‘The bill closes an important gap in the rights and needs of cohabitants and their children. Whereas spouses and civil partners whose partners die intestate are not placed in additional hardship because of the intestacy regime, cohabitants and their children are at risk.’
He emphasised his belief that ‘the bill does not undermine marriage’ and instead 'remedies part of a greater injustice and will make some people's lives a little easier following a bereavement.’
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Labour), a practicing QC, spoke in favour of the bill. She highlighted common misperceptions about the rights of cohabiting couples and said: ‘To argue that this [the bill] is somehow an attack upon marriage is to misunderstand the purposes of this effort to change the law.’
Baroness Deech (Crossbench), chair of the Bar Standards Board, opposed the bill arguing that there are provisions made for the rights of cohabitants within the existing law: ‘If there is hardship for a surviving cohabitant, we have judicial discretion under existing law to remedy it without this shift away from the family that the bill would bring about.’
Lord Browne of Belmont (Democratic Unionist) echoed these concerns: ‘The truth is that society badly needs conscious, explicit and deliberate public commitment. We should be encouraging commitment, not creating a new legal framework that makes it less necessary.’
Responding on behalf of the government, Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat) thanked members for the ‘robust but courteous’ debate. He outlined the government’s reservations, but thanked Lord Lester for bringing the bill forward.
'I want to say to my noble friend that, as so often, by raising a debate through a private member's bill and by attracting the kind of contributions that have been made today, he has taken the debate forward in a very constructive way.’
What is second reading?
Second reading is the first opportunity for members of the Lords to debate the main principles and purpose of the bill and to flag up concerns and areas where they think changes (amendments) are needed.
Before second reading takes place, a list of speakers for the second reading debate is opened and interested members add their names to it.
The government minister, spokesperson or a member of the Lords responsible for the bill opens the debate.
Any member can speak in the debate so this stage can indicate those members particularly interested in the bill - or a particular aspect of it - and those who are most likely to be involved in amending the bill at later stages.
Second reading debates usually last for a few hours but sometimes stretch over a couple of days.