May 19, 2024

Penny Mordaunt has defended colleague Michelle Donelan, after it emerged taxpayers’ money was used to settle a legal dispute with a professor.

She said it was clear Ms Donelan valued public money because she once turned down a redundancy payment after serving as education secretary for 36 hours.

Science Secretary Ms Donelan was told to pay £15,000 for falsely suggesting an academic backed Hamas.

Ms Mordaunt said she was confident the payment had been “justified”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also defended the payout saying it was “a long-standing convention… that the government will fund those disputes when it comes to ministers doing their work.”

However, opposition parties have urged the science secretary to cover the costs herself.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said expecting the taxpayer to pick up the tab at a time when people were “really struggling to pay their bills” was “totally insulting”.

He said if Labour were to get into power it would “never allow that sort of thing to happen… that would be history”.

Government sources have told the BBC that Ms Donelan received official legal advice when she drafted her original letter for which she was later sued for libel by the academic Professor Kate Sang.

When the subject was raised in the House of Commons, Leader of the House Ms Mordaunt noted that in July 2022 Ms Donelan had been entitled to “a redundancy payment of £16,000 for having been a secretary of state”.

In the chaotic final week of Boris Johnson’s premiership, Ms Donelan was appointed education secretary but resigned just two days later, meaning she could have accepted the payment.

However, Ms Mordaunt said her colleague had not taken the money but instead “handed it back to the department, because that was the right thing to do.

“That speaks volumes about [her] character, and how much she values the fact that we are talking about taxpayers’ money.”

She said the payment to cover legal damages would have been scrutinised by civil servants to ensure they were “correct and proper and justified”.

“There’s also the propriety and ethics team at the Cabinet Office, which oversees such things. So I’m pretty confident, having not been directly involved with this myself, that what has happened is perfectly correct.”

Penny MordauntPenny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt said her colleague Michelle Donelan understood the value of taxpayers’ money

Prof Kate Sang, an academic at Heriot Watt University, launched a libel action against Ms Donelan after the minister accused her of sharing “extremist views” and expressing sympathy for Hamas following its 7 October attacks in Israel. Hamas is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK government and others.

In October, Ms Donelan used social media to share a letter she had written to the UK Research and Innovation in which she expressed her “disgust and outrage” about the views of Prof Sang, who sat on an advisory board at the body.

She pointed to a post in which Prof Sang had said “this is disturbing” alongside a link to a Guardian article on the response to the Hamas attacks in the UK.

Earlier this week, Ms Donelan released a statement saying she now 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 added that she had deleted her original post and fully accepted Prof Sang was “not an extremist, a supporter of Hamas or other proscribed organisation”.

Following Ms Donelan’s initial claims, UKRI launched an investigation into Prof Sang, however it did not find any evidence she had expressed extremist views or support for Hamas.

In response, Prof Sang said she was “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,” she said.

“Instead, Michelle Donelan made a cheap political point at my expense and caused serious damage to my reputation.”

The BBC had been told that the letter was “written with officials and legal input and was cleared for publication by the department at the highest levels” and that “everyone relevant” in Ms Donelan’s department “was aware of the contents and that the letter would be published (tweeted)”.

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