17 April 2024

Michelle Donelan challenged over ‘wasted’ taxpayers money spent on libel case

17 April 2024

Science Secretary Michelle Donelan has been challenged in the Commons on the cost of a libel case brought against her, as Labour accused her of attempting to cover up how much taxpayers’ money she “wasted”.

The taxpayer paid more than £34,000 to cover libel action brought by Professor Kate Sang who Ms Donelan had accused of expressing support for Hamas.

Initially, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology said it had paid £15,000 to settle, but later confirmed the full cost was more than twice that figure, with another £19,385 spent on legal costs.

In the Commons on Wednesday, Labour’s shadow science secretary Peter Kyle said: “The first act of this Prime Minister was to promise a Government of professionalism and integrity, yet here we have a secretary of state who uses her position to accuse a British scientist of being a terrorist sympathiser.

“She goes on to use public money to settle her liable and then she tries to cover up just how much taxpayers’ money she wasted. Can she tell the House, are these the actions of someone with integrity and professionalism?”

During questions on science and technology, Ms Donelan replied: “Officials in my department alerted me to a tweet which stated ‘This is disturbing, Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in the UK’, with no further context or wording.

“This was posted by a representative of an EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) board that sits under UKRI (UK Research and Innovation). At the time like many others I was indeed concerned and used the forum in which she used to alert UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) to my concerns.

“This was highlighted using that medium, but on receipt of the letter UKRI CEO themselves said they were deeply concerned, and launched an investigation.”

Prof Sang launched her libel action after Ms Donelan tweeted a letter she had written to 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”.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology’s permanent secretary Sarah Munby said the taxpayer had covered the costs as ministers were indemnified for “things done or decisions made in the course of their ministerial duties”.

The figure includes £7,785 of costs incurred by the Government Legal Department and another £11,600 spent on external counsel, with neither figure including VAT.

The full bill for the taxpayer, however, could be even higher once the costs of a separate investigation by UKRI are factored in.

Details obtained under freedom of information rules by website Research Professional News found the UKRI investigation had cost £23,280, including VAT, putting the total cost to the taxpayer of Ms Donelan’s letter at almost £60,000.

Last month, Ms Donelan 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.

She also accepted that there was “no evidence” the academic was a supporter of Hamas.

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