07 March 2024

Michelle Donelan defended by No 10 after taxpayers foot Hamas damages claim

07 March 2024

Downing Street has defended Michelle Donelan and suggested the Science Secretary received Government legal advice before publishing false claims about an academic that landed the taxpayer with a bill of £15,000 in damages.

Rishi Sunak retains confidence in her, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said, stressing she has withdrawn comments accusing Professor Kate Sang of supporting Hamas.

The Cabinet minister is facing calls to resign and to pay the cost of settling the libel action against her herself.

No 10 said she had “received advice from relevant officials on this matter”.

“There is a long-standing principle that ministers get legal support and representation where matters relate to their conduct and responsibilities as a minister,” Mr Sunak’s spokesman told reporters on Thursday.

She received advice and was, in line with established precedent, provided legal support and representation

“In her role, the DSIT (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) Secretary is responsible for the particular body in question.

“She’s obviously set out that since receiving the clarifications that she received that she has withdrawn these comments.”

Ms Donelan tweeted a letter she had written to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) last October, in which she expressed “disgust and outrage” that Prof Sang and another academic, Dr Kamna Patel, had “shared extremist views”.

The letter followed a tweet by Prof Sang saying “this is disturbing”, and containing a link to a Guardian article describing the response to the Hamas attacks in the UK.

In a statement earlier this week, 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.

It is understood the Science Secretary received advice before publishing her letter on social media last year.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman declined to say whether she acted in line with that advice, saying: “I can’t, obviously, comment on specific legal advice. But, as I say, she received advice and was, in line with established precedent, provided legal support and representation.”

Asked whether it was acceptable for people to make false claims and wait for a several-months-long investigation to take place before retracting them, the official said: “There was an independent investigation. At the conclusion of that, the Secretary of State was clear that she fully accepted that the individual was not an extremist, a supporter of Hamas or any other proscribed organisation, and she therefore withdrew her concerns and deleted her original post.”

As a result of Ms Donelan’s letter, both Prof Sang and Dr Patel were subject to a probe by UKRI, which uncovered no evidence that they had expressed extremist views or support for Hamas, or breached the terms of their appointments.

Prof Sang launched a libel action against Ms Donelan, with DSIT revealing this week that it cost taxpayers £15,000 to cover the damages.

The sum was paid “without admitting any liability”, according to the department.

Earlier, Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt gave her backing to Ms Donelan, insisting she valued taxpayers’ money after public cash was used to pay damages on her behalf.

Ms Mordaunt said she was of good character because she returned a redundancy payment from her brief time as education secretary in the final days of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

“I would remind this House that when (Ms Donelan) was entitled to redundancy payments from being a secretary of state, which was £16,000, she did not take that and handed it back to the department, because it was the right thing to do,” Ms Mordaunt said.

Ms Donelan quit her role as education secretary after less than two days amid a flurry of high-profile resignations as the Johnson administration drew to its close, making her tenure the shortest of any Cabinet member in modern British history.

She was entitled to nearly £17,000 in redundancy pay at the time, but refused it.

Labour described the decision to pay the costs out of the public purse as a “new low for ministerial standards”.

Shadow Commons leader Lucy Powell told MPs: “This week the Science Secretary made a grovelling apology and retracted baseless allegations she made against a member of her own advisory body on her own personal Twitter account, based on a dodgy dossier produced by a Conservative think thank.

“Remarkably, the damages paid out came from taxpayers’ money from her department. This is a new low for ministerial standards.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said taxpayers footing the bill for the damages was “totally insulting”.

Speaking during a visit to a construction site in London, he said: “I think most people watching this will be aghast.

“The Government is telling them every day that they can’t do any more to help them. People are really struggling to pay their bills and the Government says ‘We can’t afford to help you any more’. People know that public services are crumbling.

“Then you’ve got a minister who says something she shouldn’t have said, then has to pick up a legal action and pay damages and costs, and then says ‘the taxpayer is going to pay for that’.”

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