07 March 2024

Penny Mordaunt backs Michelle Donelan after taxpayers foot Hamas damages claim

07 March 2024

Penny Mordaunt has given her backing to Michelle Donelan, insisting the Science Secretary values public money following the revelation that public cash was used to pay damages on her behalf.

Taxpayers paid £15,000 to cover damages handed to an academic which Ms Donelan had falsely accused of supporting Hamas.

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.

But Commons Leader Ms Mordaunt defended the Science Secretary, and claimed 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.

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

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

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.”

The Labour frontbencher asked whether the Cabinet minister had followed “appropriate advice” that was given to her, or had gone against it.

“Because if so, then surely she should personally pay the costs,” Ms Powell said.

She also called for the Ms Donelan to make a statement to MPs on what happened, adding: “If the money was paid by taxpayers because it related to her ministerial responsibilities, then she must come to Parliament as a minister and account for that.”

Elsewhere, her party leader Sir Keir Starmer said taxpayers footing the bill for damages was “totally insulting”.

Speaking during a visit to a construction site in the City of London on Thursday, the Labour leader 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 anymore’. People know that public services are crumbling.

“And 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’.”

SNP business spokesman Richard Thomson meanwhile questioned if it is the job of taxpayers to “underwrite financially the Conservative Party’s culture wars”.

Responding to Labour in the Commons, Ms Mordaunt said: “I would just remind the House, because what she (Ms Powell) says is really probing the character of that Secretary of State, and 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.

“I would just remind people of that and I think that speaks volumes about her character and how much she values the fact that it is taxpayers’ money that we are talking about.”

Ms Donelan quit her role as education secretary after less than two days amid a flurry of high-profile resignations as the Johnson ministry 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.

The Liberal Democrats called for a probe by the Government’s ethics adviser into DSIT covering Ms Donelan’s legal costs.

Lib Dem Cabinet Office spokesperson Christine Jardine said the public “deserve full transparency” from the Government about whether any rules were broken.

She added: “If Michelle Donelan is found to have broken the code she should resign, and if she does not have the decency to do that then Sunak must sack her.”

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