Brown's climbdown fails to satisfy ministerial critics

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Gordon Brown's tactical retreat on the hybrid embryo question followed strong attacks by Catholic Church leaders during the Easter weekend over his refusal to allow his MPs a free vote. Although ministers are now confident the Bill will be approved, some Labour MPs are concerned that the row has damaged Labour and should have been defused more quickly.

Three Catholic members of Cabinet who have grave doubts about the creation of hybrid embryos – Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary; Des Browne, the Defence Secretary and Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary – have signalled that they would accept the compromise.

However, some ministers outside the Cabinet may be unhappy about backing the Bill on its third reading. Those with doubts include two Labour whips, Frank Roy and Thomas McAvoy.

Mr Brown made clear that ministers would be expected to vote for the Bill on its third reading. However, Labour sources said later they may be allowed to abstain if whips were confident the Government would win this vote. This would allow Mr Brown to avoid the criticism that MPs could vote with their conscience one week but not the next.

The Prime Minister said there would also be a free vote during the Bill's passage on plans to prevent fertility clinics refusing treatment to single women and lesbians and to allow creation of a child with the correct tissue match to save a sick sibling.

Announcing the compromise, Mr Brown said: "Although I attach huge importance to this legislation... we respect the consciences of every MP as they decide how to cast their vote. But the Bill itself cannot be subject to a free vote as there are so many other changes I believe are necessary as part of building up the research framework of our country and, of course, creating the right ethical framework for the development of embryo research."

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, welcomed the three free votes. But the move did not satisfy the Catholic Church in Scotland, which said it was a "fix" that did not go far enough. Peter Kearney, its spokesman, said MPs would still be forced to vote against what they believed to be wrong.

Claire Curtis-Thomas, a Labour backbencher, said she would rebel at the final stage if the controversial measures remained in the Bill, saying it was "primarily a moral question and at the end of the day, I have to answer to my conscience".

In a letter to Labour MPs last night, the Prime Minister said: "I will be voting in favour of these measures, including that to permit the use of admixed [hybrid] embryos which are, in my view, vital to the progression of stem cell research. However, I fully respect the views of those who have specific religious objections." He said the research could provide a breakthrough to help people suffering from cancer, spinal cord injuries and muscle damage as well as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.

Professor Colin Blakemore, the former head of the Medical Research Council, said: "I hope this decision takes the focus away from a political row over a free vote."

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