Couples should receive free infertility treatment and egg and sperm donors should be paid because of the shortage of available genetic material, a leading fertility specialist said yesterday.

Professor Robert Edwards, who produced the world's first test-tube baby, was speaking at the launch of the National Gamete Donation Trust, a new centre for co-ordinating egg and sperm donation in the UK.

He backed up calls by fertility clinics and infertility campaigners for a National Egg and Sperm Bank that would match suitable egg or sperm donations with infertile couples.

In a survey of egg and sperm shortages in fertility clinics across Britain yesterday, the first of its kind, researchers from City University, London, showed 87 per cent of the 55 clinics in the country had difficulty obtaining an adequate supply of eggs, with one in five saying they had waiting lists of between 100 and 400 women. Only 7 per cent of clinics had problems getting enough sperm but there was a severe problem with donation from certain ethnic groups, particularly Asian.

One in six couples in Britain needs help conceiving but they often have to wait years for fertility treatment because of the lack of donors. Many doctors believe more women would come forward to donate if the law was changed to make payment legal.

The ethical debate about paying donors is very controversial, with those opposed arguing that making a donation should be an altruistic act, not a money-making exercise, which could be open to abuse.

In 1998, despite much opposition, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority decided to continue paying men a modest fee for their sperm. However women who agree to donate their eggs, a far more invasive procedure, are not allowed to receive money.

"In today's world it is necessary to pay donors to increase supply," Professor Edwards said. "Since I started Invitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatment, I have been angered that patients in Germany, France and Belgium get free IVF treatment while British couples are forced to mortgage their homes and spend their life savings."

In Britain, 75 per cent of couples who seek fertility treatment are required to pay for most of it. In France and Germany, the state will pay for up to four IVF treatment cycles.

"Now that we have more money being put into the NHS surely it is time to treat infertile people. We are not trying to play God but we are trying to help people have a child who have the medical disorder of infertility," the professor said.

Michelle Pryor, a landscape gardener aged 40, from Hereford, is pregnant with her second child conceived from donated eggs. Eighteen years ago, she suffered from an early menopause, which left her unable to have children using her eggs. Six years of fertility treatment and seven attempts at IVF with anonymously donated eggs led to the birth of her son Tom, who is now three.

"To the average person in the street, the idea of receiving someone else's eggs in order to have a baby, may seem weird or abhorrent," she said. "But with donated eggs, I could have my husband's genetic child and experience for myself the fundamentally female experience of being pregnant, of childbirth, breast-feeding, broken nights and bonding with the baby," she said.

Mrs Pryor has joined Daisy Network, a support group for those suffering from premature menopause. The Pryors have told their son about his origins and would like him to be able to trace his genetic parentage, but the law on anonymous donation prevents it.

Yvonne Payne, a 46-year-old from Berkshire who works as a nursing manager, was a donor. She has no idea whether the eggs she gave led to the birth of a child. Mrs Payne decided to donate her own eggs because she had to have infertility treatment for years before she gave birth to twins, Jessica and Tommy.

"There was nothing wrong with my eggs and I wanted to help someone else experience the joys of motherhood. After the eggs were collected the feeling of elation was equal to the day I was told, after 10 years of trying, that my pregnancy test was positive," she said."It was my unique gift to an unknown woman."