Taxpayers foot £15,000 damages bill after Michelle Donelan accused academic of having sympathy for Hamas

It cost taxpayers £15,000 to cover damages paid to an academic Science Secretary Michelle Donelan had falsely accused of supporting Hamas.

The cabinet minister is facing calls to resign and cover the cost herself after her department confirmed the fee.

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Labour said it is "outrageous" the taxpayer is having to "pick up the legal bill for hurling abuse at a scientist online".

Ms Donelan on Tuesday issued a statement saying there was "no evidence" Professor Kate Sang was a supporter of the militant group.

Afterwards the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) confirmed they had covered the cost of the damages but would not say how much that was.

Libel action was launched 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, alleged she had expressed sympathy for Hamas after the 7 October 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 newspaper describing the response to the Hamas attacks in the UK, while Dr Patel had retweeted a post describing Israeli actions as "genocide and apartheid".

Ms Donelan on Tuesday accepted that Prof Sang's comments referred to the Guardian story as a whole, and not just the headline, which focused on the Home Office's crackdown on support for Hamas.

The government then faced calls to disclose how much was spent settling the libel claim after DSIT revealed it had covered the sum.

The DSIT said on Wednesday there is an "established precedent under multiple administrations that ministers are provided with legal support and representation where matters relate to their conduct and responsibilities as a minister", saying "that was the case here".

The spokesperson added: "The secretary of state received the appropriate advice from relevant officials at all times.

"A sum of £15,000 was paid without admitting any liability. This approach is intended to reduce the overall costs to the taxpayer that could result from protracted legal action, no matter what the result would have been."

As a result of Ms Donelan's claims last year, both Prof Sang and Dr Patel were subject to an investigation by UKRI, where they had recently been appointed to the advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion.

The probe uncovered no evidence that they had expressed extremist views or support for Hamas, or breached the terms of their appointments.

Shadow science secretary Peter Kyle said Ms Donelan's actions fell "far below that expected of a minister".

"Michelle Donelan should be embarrassed, she should apologise and she should repay the full amount back to the taxpayer," he said.

"It is emblematic of this Tory government's arrogance and recklessness that a minister is forcing the taxpayer to pick up the legal bill for hurling abuse at a scientist online."

The Liberal Democrats demanded Ms Donelan cover the costs herself or have her pay docked, saying: "This news will come as a kick in the teeth to people who are seeing their finances clobbered by the cost of living crisis while local health services are on their knees."

Meanwhile, the University and College Union (UCU) said she should resign.

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."

She added: "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."