Michelle Donelan insists 'we have been transparent' over £34k taxpayer libel bill

Chippenham MP and Science Sec Michelle Donelan insists she has been 'transparent' about the cost to the taxpayer of her libel fees

Chippenham MP Michelle Donelan insists she has been "very transparent" after it surfaced that taxpayers have paid out more than £34,000 to cover costs of a libel case against her.

The Guardian reported on Thursday that the cost of the Science Secretary's legal fees were more than double the original sum the government had admitted to.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology confirmed last month that it paid £15,000 to settle libel action brought by Professor Kate Sang, after Ms Donelan wrongly accused her of supporting or expressing sympathy for Hamas.

However, it has since been revealed that an additional £19,000 of taxpayers' money was used to cover the legal costs.

Speaking on a visit to Melksham on Friday, Ms Donelan told ITV West Country there has been "no increase" in costs and her department has been "very transparent".

"There's no increase. There was a libel settlement, obviously lawyers were involved in the libel settlement, that was always going to be the case," Ms Donelan said.

"Post that, the external council fee has been submitted, which we have been very transparent about again, and then there was a notional cost for internal government services."

In a letter to Labour’s shadow science secretary Peter Kyle, the Science Department’s permanent secretary Sarah Munby admitted the full cost was more than twice the figure the department had admitted to, with another £19,385 spent on legal costs.

Ms Munby said the taxpayer had covered the costs as ministers were indemnified for “things done or decisions made in the course of their ministerial duties”.

The figure includes £7,785 of costs incurred by the Government Legal Department and another £11,600 spent on external counsel, with neither figure including VAT.

Opposition figures have called for Ms Donelan, who will contest the new Melksham & Devizes seat at the next general election, to pay back the money herself.

Mr Kyle said the fact taxpayers were picking up the bill was “a slap in the face to hardworking families”, adding the money had been “wasted on unprofessional and libelous behaviour from a Conservative cabinet minister”.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “People’s taxes should not be used to bail out disgraced Conservative ministers. This saga stinks of a rotten cover-up, with Donelan at its core.”

Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology. Credit: PA

Prof Sang launched her libel action after Ms Donelan tweeted a letter she had written to 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 Hamas 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 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’s intervention triggered an investigation by UKRI, which had appointed the academics to its advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Details obtained under freedom of information rules by website Research Professional News found the UKRI investigation had cost £23,280, including VAT, putting the total cost to the taxpayer of Ms Donelan’s letter at almost £60,000.

Last month, 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 also accepted that there was “no evidence” the academic was a supporter of Hamas.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology said: “In line with the established practice under multiple administrations of all political colours, Ministers are provided with legal support and representation where matters relate to their conduct and responsibilities as a Minister.”

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