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During Business Questions in the House of Commons today, Thursday, Peter urged the government to follow the lead of the two main opposition parties and allow their MPs a free vote on matters of conscience in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

The bill, if passed without amendments, would allow the creation of mixed human and animal embryos for scientific research, permit greater use of embryos in stem cell research and no longer require IVF clinics to have regard to a child's need for a father.

Referring to an exchange the previous day between David Cameron and Gordon Brown on the same subject, Peter asked the Deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman,

"May I press the Leader of the House on when we can expect a Second Reading debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? Will she bear in mind that the Joint Committee report on which the Prime Minister relied so heavily yesterday recommends free votes on both the use of hybrid embryos and the so-called "need for a father" provision?"

Harriet Harman replied,

"I recognise that there has been a great deal of debate and discussion within the Select Committee system, as has been acknowledged in the House of Lords. The points raised by the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be raised when the Bill comes to this House for scrutiny."

Commenting, Peter said,

"This simply wasn't an answer. She should have given a commitment to free votes for Labour MPs.

"In general, I welcome the Government's proposal to replace outdated legislation in order to take account of the changes in technology and in public opinion since the original laws were introduced in 1990. However, if this Bill is truly to promote public confidence, as the Government rightly acknowledges it must, free votes are absolutely vital.

"The changes being proposed are causing concern to many people - I have received more correspondence on this issue than on any other this year. If the Government whips its MPs during the vote, public confidence will be diminished, whatever the outcome."

The draft Bill was subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament. After studying the Bill in great detail, the Committee said:

"in relation to both inter-species embryos and the "need for a father" provisions, we have recommended a free vote in Parliament because of the profound nature of the ethical issues involved"

However, the Government has indicated that it will only allow free votes on amendments relating to abortion, and when the Bill was going through the Lords Labour peers were whipped to support it.

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