Brown softens stance on cloning to head off MPs' revolt

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown is preparing a partial retreat over the Government's plans to permit more embryo research by allowing some Labour MPs to vote against the move. The Prime Minister is ready to soften his hard line on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in an attempt to head off resignations by Catholic ministers who oppose the plan to let scientists create hybrid human-animal embryos.

Under a highly unusual compromise, ministers and some Labour backbenchers could be allowed to oppose this part of the Bill – but only if the Government were confident the revolt would not kill off the proposal. The "controlled rebellion" would be managed by Labour whips, who would try to persuade opponents to abstain to reduce the prospect of a defeat. But the parliamentary arithmetic would be complicated, as the Tories and Liberal Democrats will allow their MPs a free vote.

Facing a growing Labour rebellion over his stance on the Bill, Mr Brown is keen to show some flexibility and to acknowledge that many MPs believe embryo experiments are a conscience issue. But he remains determined to secure the go-ahead for experiments which could be crucial to finding a cure for illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's.

Three cabinet ministers oppose the Bill – Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary, who has hinted that he may resign over the issue, Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, and Des Browne, the Defence Secretary. The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales added to pressure on MPs to vote against the measure and urged Mr Brown to allow a free vote. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor told Sky News: "I think Catholics in politics have got to act according to their Catholic convictions, so have other Christians, so have other politicians. I don't think it should be subject to the party whip."

More than 200 charities, including Cancer Research and the British Heart Foundation, have written to all MPs urging them to support the Bill. The Association of Medical Research Charities said that although creating embryos which combine human DNA and animal cells raises ethical issues, the research offers "considerable benefits" to future patients.

Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, who will steer the Bill through the Commons, accused Catholic leaders of "dreadful misrepresentation". He said: "This Bill has nothing to do with creating Frankenstein monsters." It would be a criminal offence to implant a hybrid embryo into a woman or animal, he added.

Hinting at the compromise, he predicted: "There will not be a split but there will be an accommodation for those who have a particular sensitivity around this, including those whose sensitivity relates to their faith."

Labour MPs are divided. The former cabinet minister Stephen Byers said: "The public would look on in disbelief if a matter as sensitive as the creation of human-animal embryos is made a matter of party policy with the Government instructing its ministers and MPs how to vote."

Andrew Mackinlay, the MP for Thurrock, said it was inevitable a free vote would be conceded. He warned that "irreversible collateral damage" to Labour's reputation was being caused by the delay. But Denis MacShane, a former minister, countered: "If every difficult issue with ethical implications is a matter for free votes, then democracy, parliament, and the purpose of government becomes meaningless.

"Labour has a good record on careful, prudential, step-by-step advances on a number of issues where different religions believe that God's law points in a different direction, notably on gay rights," he added.

Scientists accused the Catholic Church of misrepresenting their work. Dr Stephen Minger, the director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King's College London, said: "The Church should carefully review the science they are commenting on and ensure that their official comments are accurate before seriously misinforming their congregations."

Professor Chris Shaw, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, added: "The Catholic bishops are using scaremongering tactics to block research aimed at understanding and developing treatments for incurable diseases. These studies will be tightly regulated and only permitted if their purpose is to benefit humankind."