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12 March 2024

Michelle Donelan apologises for making Hamas damages claim on social media

12 March 2024

Michelle Donelan has apologised for publicly posting a letter on social media falsely suggesting an academic had expressed sympathy for Hamas.

The Science Secretary later retracted her comments about Professor Kate Sang and agreed to pay her £15,000 in taxpayer money.

She accepted there was “no evidence” the academic, who had recently been appointed to the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion, was a Hamas supporter.

Speaking at the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday, Ms Donelan said she should have privately written to UKRI raising her alleged concerns, instead of posting the letter on X, formerly Twitter.

She also said that civil servants were aware that she was going to publish her letter on the platform.

Ms Donelan told the committee: “While I always err on the side of transparency, I am now clear that in this case, I could have sent the letter in confidence to the UKRI in order for them to undertake the investigations privately.

“And I do apologise for not having done so, and for any distraction that this decision has caused from this Government’s positive agenda.”

She added: “I highlighted it on the platform that the original tweet was done on – Twitter, or X – and that was something I have apologised for.

“With hindsight, I could have just sent it privately and if I had the ability to do it again, I would certainly just send it privately.

“So I’ve said that publicly as well as retracting the original comments, which I do think is important.

“In terms of advice, of course, with long-time precedent, we don’t get into the actual nature of the advice.

“But what I can tell you here today, is that both policy and legal were not only cited but also cleared the approach taken.”

The letter written by Ms Donelan expressed “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 the terrorist group after the October 7 attacks in Israel.

This followed a tweet by Prof Sang saying: “This is disturbing. Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK” with a link to an article by the Guardian describing the response to the Hamas attacks in the UK.

Ms Donelan has since accepted that Prof Sang’s comments referred to the story as a whole, and not just the headline.

The Science Secretary told the committee she is a champion of academic freedom of speech and that the incident had to be viewed in the context of the recent Hamas attack at the time.

My actions were never motivated by any political desire

Ms Donelan continued: “And we have seen a great deal of hatred across online social media platforms – something that I had addressed directly with the platforms themselves – and we were very worried about potential violence on our own streets.”

She also told the peers: “My actions were never motivated by any political desire.

“They were motivated by a concern around whether proper process and due diligence had been followed.

“And as I outlined at the very beginning, in my initial statement, the specific tweet, or X, that I saw I felt was concerning especially given the context at the time, and that is why I highlighted it for an investigation by UKRI.”

Ms Donelan also explained that there is “no surveillance at all” of academics and she had been alerted to the initial tweet by an official within the department.

It’s an insult to hardworking families up and down the country that £15,000 of taxpayer money was wasted on unprofessional and libellous behaviour from a Conservative Cabinet minister

Asked how the damage caused by the incident can be repaired, the Science Secretary said there would be an “internal review of processes to ensure that we learnt the lessons of this and that we don’t ever repeat those”.

Responding to the apology, Peter Kyle, Labour’s shadow science secretary, said: “Rishi Sunak said he would lead a government of integrity, but this squalid episode shows he has once again utterly failed on that promise.

“Donelan has now admitted that there was no need to publicly hurl abuse at an academic without evidence.

“It’s an insult to hardworking families up and down the country that £15,000 of taxpayer money was wasted on unprofessional and libellous behaviour from a Conservative Cabinet minister.

“Michelle Donelan has not been able to show that she still has the support of our vital scientific community.

“Labour has been clear, Donelan still needs to answer whether civil servants helped to produce a dossier on the academic, and she must inform the public of the overall legal fees paid by the taxpayer.”

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