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Taxpayers spend £15,000 to cover damages to academic after Donelan’s Hamas claim

Michelle Donelan (Jeff Moore/PA)
Michelle Donelan (Jeff Moore/PA)

It cost taxpayers £15,000 to cover damages paid to an academic Science Secretary Michelle Donelan had falsely accused of supporting Hamas, her department has said.

The sum was paid “without admitting any liability”, according to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).

The Cabinet minister is facing calls to resign and to pay the cost herself after she was forced to retract comments she made about Professor Kate Sang last year.

Ms Donelan on Tuesday issued a statement saying there was “no evidence” the academic was a supporter of the militant group.

Prof Sang launched a libel action against Ms Donelan after the minister tweeted a letter she had written to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in October, expressing “disgust and outrage” that Prof Sang and another academic, Dr Kamna Patel, had “shared extremist views” and, in Prof Sang’s case, expressed sympathy for Hamas after the October 7 attacks in Israel.

The letter followed a tweet by Prof Sang saying “This is disturbing”, and containing a link to an article by the Guardian newspaper describing the response to the Hamas attacks in the UK, while Dr Patel had retweeted a post describing Israeli actions as “genocide and apartheid”.

Ms Donelan on Tuesday accepted that Prof Sang’s comments referred to the Guardian story as a whole, and not just the headline, which focused on the Government’s crackdown on support for Hamas.

The Government then faced calls to disclose how much was spent settling the libel claim after DSIT revealed it had covered the sum.

A DSIT spokesperson said on Wednesday: “There is an established precedent under multiple administrations that ministers are provided with legal support and representation where matters relate to their conduct and responsibilities as a minister, as was the case here.

“The Secretary of State received the appropriate advice from relevant officials at all times.

“A sum of £15,000 was paid without admitting any liability. This approach is intended to reduce the overall costs to the taxpayer that could result from protracted legal action, no matter what the result would have been.”

The Liberal Democrats demanded Ms Donelan cover the costs herself or have her pay docked.

Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “This is nothing short of a scandal and we still don’t know the full legal costs.

“If Michelle Donelan had a shred of integrity left, she would pay for this bill out of her own pocket instead of asking taxpayers to pick up the tab. If she refuses to do so, Rishi Sunak should dock her pay.

“This news will come as a kick in the teeth to people who are seeing their finances clobbered by the cost of living crisis while local health services are on their knees.

“This is yet another scandal that proves it’s time to kick this sleaze-ridden Conservative Government out of office for good.”

Shadow science secretary Peter Kyle said Ms Donelan’s actions fell “far below that expected of a minister”.

“It is outrageous that £15,000 of taxpayers money has been spent on the Science Secretary calling a scientist a terrorist sympathiser on social media, without any evidence at all,” he said.

“Michelle Donelan should be embarrassed, she should apologise and she should repay the full amount back to the taxpayer. Her conduct falls so far below that expected of a minister.

“It is emblematic of this Tory Government’s arrogance and recklessness that a minister is forcing the taxpayer to pick up the legal bill for hurling abuse at a scientist online.”

As a result of Ms Donelan’s claims last year, both Prof Sang and Dr Patel were subject to an investigation by UKRI, where they had recently been appointed to the advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion.

The probe uncovered no evidence that they had expressed extremist views or support for Hamas, or breached the terms of their appointments.

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: “Despite using taxpayers’ money to pay damages and settle a libel claim, Michelle Donelan has failed to actually apologise to the individuals she falsely accused and attacked, or for the damage she has done to the academic community.

“That she only retracted her allegations after a lengthy legal process makes matters worse.

“These are not the actions of someone who is engaging with our sector in good faith.

“As the union representing academics, we are forced to conclude that Ms Donelan’s position is untenable.

“She does not retain the confidence of the academic community, nor is she upholding good standards of professional conduct. She must resign.”