Leading Article: A cowardly retreat over cloned embryos

WHAT DO ministers do when they want to avoid taking decisions that might expose them to unpopularity? They refer the problem to a committee, of course. It has already taken the public health minister, Tessa Jowell, and the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, six months to chew over - and then procrastinate still further over - the firm recommendation of the last committee report into the vexed question of allowing scientists to clone human embryos for medical research. Last December the joint Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority/Human Genetics Advisory working party recommended that such research be allowed for cloned human embryos less than 14 days old.

It was not a surprising or even a difficult recommendation. After all, it is permitted now to perform research on non-cloned human embryos up to 14 days. Since it is only cloned embryos that hold out the hope of being used to create therapies for such crippling diseases as Parkinson's and arthritis, the working party took the next logical step of suggesting that this too should be allowed.

One can speculate that the unforeseen panic which has seized the public over genetically modified food has so spooked the Government that it is afraid to authorise anything to do with manipulating DNA. Whatever the cause, though, the ministers of science and public health have reached into the armoury of evasion and pulled out the device of - you guessed it - asking the chief medical officer to set up yet another committee to advise them what to do about cloning embryos.

Amiri Baraka, the American exponent of Black Power, once described a liberal as someone with an infinite amount of compassion and a zero amount of courage. We now know that there is at least one respect in which this government can claim to be liberal.