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11 / 07 / 2008 - Health ministers stunned by embryo bill delay
· Downing Street puts off crucial votes until autumn
· Abortion amendments embarrassed government
Downing Street was embroiled in a row with the Department of Health last night after a "flagship" government bill to push back the boundaries of science - by allowing research using animal-human hybrid embryos - was suddenly withdrawn from the Commons next week.
Health ministers were said to be stunned when No 10 decided that the final Commons stage of the human fertilisation and embryology bill - its third reading on Monday - would be delayed until the autumn.
Downing Street had been bracing itself for a bruising day of votes on Monday because pro-choice backbench MPs from across the Commons were planning to table amendments to the bill to liberalise Britain's abortion laws.
While the abortion votes would have been free, the government would have faced embarrassment because at least one Catholic cabinet minister would have missed the vote to avoid supporting the bill as a whole. Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, had been given clearance to be out of London as she cannot support the bill on conscience grounds because it will pave the way for, among other things, human-animal embryos.
Labour MPs were given free votes on controversial aspects of the bill during earlier Commons stages. But they were all due to face a three-line whip to support the measure - apart from any backbench amendments on abortion - at its final Commons stage on Monday.
The Tories said the bill had been delayed because the government feared a confrontation with Catholic Labour MPs less than two weeks before the byelection in Glasgow East, which has a high Catholic population. David Mundell, the shadow Scottish secretary, said: "This legislation will be contentious with key voter groups in Glasgow and it is clear they are worried about the effect of a vote next week."
The Department of Health was angry. One senior MP said: "The delay came as a complete surprise to most people in the department. Supporters of this bill say we have taken a lot of pain on this and we should get on with it rather than allowing it to linger over the summer months."
But there was concern among some ministers about the proposed amendments on abortion. These would allow nurses to perform abortions; to end the "two doctor rule", allowing an abortion to be carried out with the approval of just one doctor; and to allow women less than nine weeks pregnant to take a pill to terminate their pregnancy.
Ministers are privately uneasy about changing the abortion laws after the emotional scenes in the Commons last month when anti-abortion campaigners failed in their attempt to cut the 24-week upper time limit. But because all abortion votes are free prominent pro-choice politicians such as the Commons leader, Harriet Harman, would be free to support the amendments.
One possible change - to end the abortion ban in Northern Ireland - could have proved difficult for Gordon Brown. The prime minister reached a tacit understanding with the Democratic Unionists - which helped him to win the Commons vote on the 42-day detention plan - that Britain's liberal abortion laws would not be extended to Northern Ireland. Senior Labour MPs believe that Harman would have supported any changes to this, contravening the agreement with the DUP. "It could all have become very messy on Monday," a senior Labour figure said.
Harman told MPs yesterday that the bill had been delayed to allow for more time to debate it. "Of course the bill remains a flagship government bill ... as much time as possible needs to be found for it and the other issues that the government are committed to. It would therefore be good to look for a date in the autumn."
Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP who was planning to table the abortion amendments, welcomed the delay.
"Unless you were running a gynaecologist versus a priest, no byelection would be affected by a vote on abortion," he said. "We needed more time to debate our amendment than just the three hours we were going to get and so asked for and got more time."
Source : The Guardian