April 22, 2024

Minister uses taxpayers money to pay for libel damages to scientist over Hamas claim

A cabinet minister has paid damages funded by taxpayer money to an academic after wrongly suggesting she had expressed sympathy for Hamas.

Michelle Donelan, the science secretary, apologised for her comments about Professor Kate Sang and agreed to pay her an undisclosed sum on Tuesday, saying there was “no evidence” that the academic was a Hamas supporter.

It is understood taxpayers covered the 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.

Labour’s shadow science secretary Peter Kyle said the secretary of state “must prove she still has confindence of the research community” and called her allegations “a new low in government standards”.

The Liberal Democrats called for an inquiry into what happened as well as “whether any rules wre broken and how much public money was spent”.

The minister 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.

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.

UKRI – a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) – suspended Sang and Patel while it carried out an investigation into Donelan’s allegations, which appear to have been triggered by a press release by the think tank Policy Exchange.

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

Both Prof Sang and Dr Patel were subject to an investigation by UKRI, 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.

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.

Michelle Donelan has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to academic Kate Sang

(PA Wire)

“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.”

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.”

A Government source said the Prime Minister has “full confidence” in “excellent minister” Ms Donelan.

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

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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