Rishi Sunak defends decision not to sack Michelle Donelan, as taxpayers foot bill for science minister's libel case

7 March 2024, 22:42 | Updated: 8 March 2024, 08:28

Rishi Sunak has defended his decision not to sack Michelle Donelan
Rishi Sunak has defended his decision not to sack Michelle Donelan. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak has defended his decision not to sack Michelle Donelan for a libel claim that she lost, as it emerged that the taxpayer will foot the bill for the £15,000 payout.

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Science minister Ms Donelane suggested that Professor Kate Sang, a member of UK Research and Innovation's diversity group, had sympathy for Hamas.

Ms Donelan retracted her comments about Prof Sang and agreed to pay her £15,000. She said there was "no evidence" that the academic was a Hamas supporter.

Pressure has grown on Ms Donelan from some quarters to quit and cover the costs herself.

But Mr Sunak said he had been focused on the Budget, not on his science minister's legal concerns.

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Nick Ferrari questions Treasury minister on Michelle Donelan's libel case

The PM told broadcasters on Thursday: "You will understand I've been focused on the budget, but my understanding of this is that Michelle raised some concerns about some articles that had been shared talking about what happened on 7 October.

"Subsequently to that, those thoughts I think have been clarified and Michelle has withdrawn those concerns.

"With regard to the settlement, it is a long-standing convention stretching back many years, over different governments of all different parties, including Labour, that the government will fund those legal disputes when it relates to government ministers doing their work."

Michelle Donelan
Michelle Donelan. Picture: Alamy

Labour criticised the situation as "totally insulting" to the public.

Party leader Sir Keir told broadcasters: "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'.

"Totally insulting. We need a change."

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak. Picture: Alamy

Ms Donelan had 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.

Read more: Science secretary stumbles as she’s pressed on whether new Rosebank oil field will actually benefit UK

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The letter followed a tweet by Prof Sang saying "this is disturbing", and containing a link to a newspaper article headlined 'Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK'.

Dr Patel had retweeted a post describing Israeli actions as "genocide and apartheid".

Both of them had recently been appointed to the UKRI advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion.

Ms Donelan said they "appear to have contravened the Nolan principles of public life" and should be removed from the group.

Both Prof Sang and Dr Patel were investigated by UKRI, which did not find any evidence that they had expressed extremist views or support for Hamas, or breached the terms of their appointments.

Tom Swarbrick: "The payments come from my listeners, I don't understand how it's justifiable?"

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.

She 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.

"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."

Nick Ferrari is joined by Michelle Donelan

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."

The University and College Union (UCU) criticised Ms Donelan for her "outrageous attack on academic freedom".

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "This investigation completely exonerates our members and confirms Michelle Donelan's unprecedented, politicised intervention was an outrageous attack on academic freedom.

"This whole affair has had a chilling effect on university campuses and exposes the lie that hard-right Tory ministers are the supposed guardians of free speech.

"Donelan must now apologise for throwing the careers of highly respected academics into turmoil for the sake of another Tory anti-woke headline."

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 Labour government would focus on actually delivering for our world-class scientists and research institutions, who will be a key part of our mission-led government."

A Government source said the Prime Minister has "full confidence" in Ms Donelan, an "excellent minister".

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