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Cost of Michelle Donelan ‘extremism’ letter passes £60,000

Image: Brookings Institution [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Freedom of information request reveals £23,000 government legal costs, on top of UKRI costs

The UK government spent more than £23,000 on legal services related to science secretary Michelle Donelan’s letter to UK Research and Innovation about members of an advisory panel, bringing the total cost of the incident to more than £60,000.

In response to a freedom of information request by Research Professional News, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology confirmed costs to the Government Legal Department of £9,342.36 on internal government legal services and a further £13,920 on external legal services, including VAT.

VAT is recoverable on the amounts charged, Dsit says, meaning that the cost to the taxpayer of the two legal fee payments are £7,785.30 and £11,600 respectively—a total of £19,385.30.

UKRI launched an investigation last year after Donelan wrote an open letter to Ottoline Leyser, its chief executive, in which she said some members of an equality, diversity and inclusion panel had shared “extremist views” about the Israel-Hamas war on social media. In the letter, which she also shared on social media, Donelan falsely accused one panel member of “expressing sympathy or support” for Hamas.

One of the academics involved made a libel complaint against Donelan, which led to a £15,000 settlement for damages and legal costs—also paid for by the science department.

It means we now know that, including VAT, the government paid out more than £38,200 as a result of the incident. In addition, UKRI disclosed last month in a separate freedom of information response that it had incurred costs (also inclusive of VAT) of £15,000 to conduct an investigation into the affair and more than £8,200 for its own legal counsel.

Altogether, UKRI and the UK government have therefore spent more than £61,460 as a result of the letter being sent.

Established practice

A spokesperson for the science department told Research Professional News that “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”.

According to the Cabinet Manual, which sets out laws and conventions relating to ministerial conduct, ministers are “indemnified by the Crown for any actions taken against them for things done or decisions made in the course of their ministerial duties”.

The indemnity covers the cost of defending the proceedings, as well as any costs or damages awarded against a minister.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight