06 March 2024

Science Secretary faces calls to quit after taxpayers cover damages for academic

06 March 2024

Science Secretary Michelle Donelan is facing calls to resign after taxpayers’ money was used to pay damages to an academic she had accused of expressing sympathy for Hamas.

The Cabinet minister on Tuesday retracted comments she made about Professor Kate Sang last year, saying there was “no evidence” the academic was a supporter of the militant group.

It is understood that taxpayers covered the “nominal sum” paid to Prof Sang and that it was handed over in an effort to reduce the costs that could result from protracted legal action.

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

On Wednesday, the University and College Union (UCU) called on Ms Donelan to step down, while the Liberal Democrats said she should pay the damages and legal costs out of her own pocket.

Labour demanded to know how much taxpayers’ money was spent and called Ms Donelan’s false allegations against the academic a “new low in government standards”.

Prof Sang launched a libel action against the Science Secretary 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 the terrorist group 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 describing the response to the Hamas attacks in the UK, while Dr Patel had retweeted a post describing Israeli actions as “genocide and apartheid”.

Both academics had recently been appointed to UKRI’s advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Ms Donelan said they should be removed from their posts as they “appear to have contravened the Nolan principles of public life”.

As a result, both Prof Sang and Dr Patel were subject to an investigation by the institute, which uncovered no evidence that they had expressed extremist views or support for Hamas, or breached the terms of their appointments.

In a statement on Tuesday, 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.

Ms Donelan’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology said it had paid the damages and legal costs.

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.”

Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Having the taxpayer shell out for Michelle Donelan’s damages and legal costs is nothing short of a national scandal.

“We need urgent answers from the Government but, above all, Donelan must pay for this out of her own pocket. The actions she took were clearly outside and beyond her ministerial brief.

“Over the years we’ve seen a carousel of Conservative ministers taking the taxpayer for a ride, from countless severance payments for disgraced sackings to this blatant misuse of taxpayer money. It’s time to kick this sleaze-ridden Conservative Government out of office for good.”

Shadow science secretary Peter Kyle said: “The Secretary of State must prove she still has the confidence of the research community after using her department to make false allegations against academics.

“Accusing researchers of sharing extremist material and sympathising with a proscribed group, without any proof, is a new low in government standards.”

A Government source said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak retains “full confidence” in “excellent minister” Ms Donelan.

In her statement on Tuesday, Ms Donelan said: “I am grateful for Professor Sang’s clarification, and I am pleased to be able to withdraw my original concerns in relation to this specific tweet.

“I will make this clear to UKRI, which has also now concluded that there is no evidence of any breach of the Nolan principles or failings in the appointment process to the EDI board.

“As I said to the media at the time, and I want to reiterate now: I have never thought or claimed that Professor Sang, or any member of the board, committed a criminal offence.

Michelle Donelan made a cheap political point at my expense and caused serious damage to my reputation. I propose to donate part of the damages she has paid to a charity

“I fully accept that she is not an extremist, a supporter of Hamas or any other proscribed organisation and I note that an independent investigation has concluded that there is no evidence that she is. I have deleted my original post to my X account.”

Prof Sang said: “I am delighted that this matter has now concluded, but very disturbed by the way in which Michelle Donelan and UKRI behaved.

“Had they asked me at the start, I would have explained the true position. Instead, Michelle Donelan made a cheap political point at my expense and caused serious damage to my reputation. I propose to donate part of the damages she has paid to a charity.”

Dr Patel described the experience as “distressing”, saying she was “glad” the process had concluded.

She said: “There was never any need for UKRI to investigate as it should have been obvious from the start that we had not breached the Nolan principles or expressed extremist views.

“Worryingly, it appears UKRI were steered by who made the claim and not its substance.”

Law firm Bindmans, which represented Prof Sang in her libel complaint, also criticised the think tank Policy Exchange for putting out what it described as a “seriously misleading press release” about the academics’ comments.

Tamsin Allen, a partner at Bindmans, said: “It is extraordinary that a minister should be guided by a lobby group into making serious false allegations about private citizens without doing the first piece of due diligence.”

Policy Exchange has been contacted for comment.

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