The taxpayer has paid tens of thousands in legal bills after science secretary Michelle Donelan accused an academic of “sharing extremist views”.

So what is the row about and how much did it cost?

FactCheck takes a look.

What did Michelle Donelan say?

In October 2023, the science secretary Michelle Donelan published a letter she’d written to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), an official government body that works with universities and other organisations.

In her letter, Ms Donelan said Heriot-Watt University’s Kate Sang was “sharing some extremist views on social media”, with the minister voicing her own “disgust and outrage”.

The cabinet minister was referring to a social media post in which Professor Sang said “this is disturbing” alongside a Guardian article headlined: “Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK”.

Professor Sang launched libel action against Ms Donelan after she published the letter written to UKRI on Twitter in October. The post has now been deleted.

In March this year, Ms Donelan published another letter on Twitter. She said she was “grateful” that Professor Sang had “clarified” that her tweet was about the entire Guardian article – not just the headline.

She also said she “fully accept[s]” that Professor Sang is “not an extremist” or a Hamas supporter.

Professor Sang said she was “delighted that this matter has now concluded but very disturbed” by the way the minister behaved.

How much has the taxpayer paid to cover costs of the libel case?

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology said in March it had paid £15,000 to settle the libel action brought by Professor Sang “without admitting any liability”. The department said this is normal when ministers face legal challenges while carrying out their work.

But this week, in a letter (first reported in The Guardian) to Labour’s shadow science secretary, Peter Kyle, the department’s permanent secretary, Sarah Munby, said the total amount paid was more than double that figure.

Another £19,385 has since been spent on legal costs, including £7,785 incurred by the Government Legal Department and £11,600 spent on external counsel. Neither figure includes VAT.

That’s a combined £34,000.

And the full bill for the taxpayer could be even higher once the costs of a separate investigation by UKRI – which found no evidence Professor Sang had expressed extremist views – are taken into account.

A freedom of information request made by the Research Professional News website found that UKRI’s investigation cost £23,280. This was made up of £15,000 (including VAT) on the investigation and £8,280 (including VAT) on legal advice.

This would put the total cost at almost £60,000, once the VAT on the government’s legal costs has been recovered.

A government spokesperson 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.”

(Image credit: Thomas Krych/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock)