Labour will pay “substantial damages” to whistleblowers who contributed to a TV expose of its handling of anti-Semitism in a move which triggered a clash between party leader Sir Keir Starmer and his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
The party also issued an unreserved apology over “defamatory and false allegations” made following a BBC Panorama investigation.
Mr Corbyn said it was “disappointing” that the party had settled the claim, adding that it was a “political decision, not a legal one”.
But it is the latest sign of Sir Keir’s attempts to draw a clear distinction between the party he leads and the one over which Mr Corbyn presided.
Seven former employees from the party’s governance and legal unit, who were responsible for the investigation of allegations of misconduct by party members, sued Labour after it issued a press release describing them as having “personal and political axes to grind”.
The legal action followed the broadcast in July 2019 of a BBC Panorama programme titled Is Labour Anti-Semitic?.
Katherine Buckingham, Michael Creighton, Samuel Matthews, Daniel Hogan, Louise Withers Green, Martha Robinson and Benjamin Westerman all had concerns there was “a lack of commitment” by Labour to properly investigate anti-Semitism within the party, the High Court heard on Wednesday.
At a brief hearing in London, their barrister William Bennett QC said: “The whistleblowers were highly critical of the Labour Party’s approach to tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks.”
He told Mr Justice Nicklin: “Before the broadcast of the Panorama programme, the Labour Party issued a press release that contained defamatory and false allegations about the whistleblowers.”
Mr Bennett said Labour “accused the whistleblowers of having acted in bad faith during and after their employment with the intention of harming the Labour Party” – allegations he said were “untrue and defamatory”.
At the same hearing, Labour also apologised to John Ware – the journalist who made the Panorama programme – for falsely accusing him of “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”.
The party agreed to pay “substantial damages” to the journalist.
Labour has declined to reveal the payout amount given as part of the settlement.
When asked about speculation that it amounted to as much as £500,000, Sir Keir’s spokesman told reporters: “There’s no point (in asking) because I’m not going to get into the figures or even speculate.”
In a statement, the claimants’ solicitor Mark Lewis said: “Today in the High Court, the Labour Party retracted its false allegations made about the Panorama programme asking whether Labour was anti-Semitic.
“The answer was a clear ‘yes’. Labour chose to double down and attack the programme’s presenter, John Ware, and the whistleblowers rather than addressing the truth of the problem.”
Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism allegations under Mr Corbyn’s leadership is the subject of an inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – and Sir Keir has already received a draft report from the watchdog.
The party said that under Sir Keir and deputy leader Angela Rayner, Labour is “committed to tackling anti-Semitism”.
In a statement, the party said: “Anti-Semitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years. It has caused unacceptable and unimaginable levels of grief and distress for many in the Jewish community, as well as members of staff.
“If we are to restore the trust of the Jewish community, we must demonstrate a change of leadership.”
Outside court, shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said: “It is for the (Equality and Human Rights) Commission to make its findings public when it chooses… but we have brought to an end a chapter when the Labour Party was accusing whistleblowers of behaving dishonestly and I’m incredibly glad that we have brought it to an end.”
Todayâs settlement is a misuse of Labour Party funds to settle a case it was advised we would win in court. The leaked report on how anti-semitism was handled tells a very different story about what happened.— Len McCluskey (@LenMcCluskey) July 22, 2020
But Mr Corbyn and Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union which is Labour’s biggest donor, condemned the decision.
They both pointed to a leaked report which detailed the factional splits within the party’s HQ as a potential defence to the defamation case.
Mr Corbyn said: “The party’s decision to apologise today and make substantial payments to former staff who sued the party in relation to last year’s Panorama programme is a political decision, not a legal one.
“Our legal advice was that the party had a strong defence, and the evidence in the leaked Labour report that is now the subject of an NEC inquiry led by Martin Forde QC strengthened concerns about the role played by some of those who took part in the programme.
“The decision to settle these claims in this way is disappointing, and risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in recent years.
“To give our members the answers and justice they deserve, the inquiry led by Martin Forde must now fully address the evidence the internal report uncovered of racism, sexism, factionalism and obstruction of Labour’s 2017 general election campaign.”
McCluskey said: “Today’s settlement is a misuse of Labour Party funds to settle a case it was advised we would win in court.”
The statement from Mr Corbyn could open the door to a further round of legal action from Mr Ware and some of the whistleblowers.
Mr Lewis, from Patron Law, said: “I can confirm that I have been instructed to pursue cases.”
The settlement was welcomed by Jewish Labour campaigners.
Read the Jewish Labour Movement statement on the decision by the Labour Party to withdraw and apologise to the Panorama whistleblowers pic.twitter.com/VJUOzlLTK9— Jewish Labour Movement (@JewishLabour) July 22, 2020
Senior MP Dame Margaret Hodge said: “This is a big step in the right direction and shows just how far the Labour Party has come since last year.”
The Jewish Labour Movement said: “It is a sad reflection of its historic role as the party of working people that Labour sought to pursue and silence its former employees for speaking out against racism.”
The BBC welcomed the “long overdue apology” to Mr Ware and the Panorama whistleblowers.