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Donelan’s department refuses to release advice on £15,000 letter

Image: UK Government [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Internal emails reveal science secretary received advice from top civil servants before publishing libel-dispute letter

The science department has refused to release details of the advice Michelle Donelan received on a letter that sparked a £15,000 libel settlement in public funds to an academic.

Last night correspondence around the advice emerged, following a freedom of information request, which revealed the letter was vetted by top civil servants, including a legal expert.

Internal emails, running up to two minutes to midnight the day before the letter was published on Michelle Donelan’s X account, also show the science secretary gave “firm steers” on the content.

A spokesperson for the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology declined to give more details, saying “advice between officials and ministers remains confidential”.

Libel settlement background

Earlier this week Donelan retracted allegations made about Kate Sang of Heriot-Watt University and agreed to pay damages and legal costs. It later emerged that the £15,000 agreed by the science secretary would be paid by the taxpayer.

The allegations were made in a letter to UK Research and Innovation chief executive Ottoline Leyser on 28 October, in which Donelan named Sang and another member of an expert advisory panel on equality, diversity and inclusion. 

She accused them of sharing “extremist views” about the Israel-Hamas war on social media. The libel settlement was in relation to the allegation that Sang had expressed “sympathy or support” for Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Late evening email trail

On 7 March, Jesús Siller—a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford—published internal emails from the science department dated 27 October, released under a freedom of information request.

At 11.38pm, an email with the subject line “final letter cleared to [Ottoline Leyser]” was sent from an unknown sender saying that “firm steers” from the secretary of state had been incorporated.

At 11.58pm Alexandra Jones, the department’s director general for science, innovation and growth, responded. She copied in Daniel Denman, listed as the department’s legal director on LinkedIn—although his profile has been taken down.

“As discussed Daniel has been looking,” Jones wrote, adding that he had suggested changes to the letter.

Earlier the same evening, at 9.34pm, Jones wrote: “I need to find a lawyer who can look at this…If you have an out of hours for Daniel Denman, now is the time to call!”

Science department’s response

When asked about the released emails, the science department defended the drafting of the letter. It said Donelan had received advice from relevant officials at all times, and that the freedom of information release does not contain the substance of any advice given.

Other civil servants copied into the correspondence include Sarah Munby, the department’s permanent secretary, and Josef Pitt-Rashid, listed on his LinkedIn page as principal private secretary at Dsit until November 2023.

Yesterday, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the decision for the taxpayer to foot the bill for the libel settlement fell to Munby, the department’s most senior civil servant.

Calls for ethics investigation

The scandal is making waves around Westminster, with Donelan’s future as science secretary in question.

On 7 March, the Liberal Democrats called for an investigation by the prime minister’s ethics advisor into the whether Donelan had broken the ministerial code.

“Michelle Donelan should step aside while this is ongoing,” said the party’s Cabinet Office spokesperson, Christine Jardine.

“If Michelle Donelan is found to have broken the code she should resign, and if she does not have the decency to do that then Sunak must sack her.”