++ Lib Dems to give party’s share of Miss Joan Edwards’ bequest to government (UPDATED)

Here’s the breaking news…

The decision was inevitable, given the furore triggered by the Daily Mail’s story this morning. However, let’s be clear. The implication of the Mail’s story — that the Lib Dems tried somehow to swindle a spinster out of her legacy — is wrong, pure and simple.

It suits the cynical anti-politics zeitgeist, but the decision was that of Miss Edwards’ executors, her solicitors. The Lib Dems did not take part in any discussions about the proceeds of the estate until it was decided by her executors that the party was a named beneficiary.

The most important thing in all this is that the wishes of Miss Edwards are honoured. As for what her actual intentions were, I don’t know. The wording of her will is ambiguous (you can read it here) as the legal blogger David Allen Green notes in his tweet here:

It would certainly seems odd to leave a bequest to which ever party (or parties) happen to be in power. But, then, why not use clear wording such “to the government for the benefit of the nation”?

Key lesson here: make sure your will is unambiguous if you don’t want your intentions to be subject to the second-guessing of strangers you’ve never met years later. There’s some useful advice courtesy of the Citizens Advice Bureau here.

Update: Joan Edwards’ solicitors statement: she wanted money to go to governing party

Sky News reports:

According to documents lodged with the Bristol District Probate Registry, the executors were James Davis and Peter Wood of Bristol-based law firm Davis Wood Solicitors and the will drafted in 2001.

The firm insisted the solicitor responsible had “specifically checked” with Ms Edwards about the “unusual nature of her proposed bequest” when it was first made.

“It was confirmed by Miss Edwards at the time of her instructions that her estate was to be left to whichever political party formed the Government at the date of her death,” it said.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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48 Comments

  • I hope we’ve nominated a worthwhile cause for the money …

  • My Solicitor grilled me about exactly who I meant, and I don’t have the good lady’s kind of money.

  • There really is no indication in the will that it’s a party donation. I’m appalled that we accepted it in the first place.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Aug '13 - 11:30am

    When this story originally broke, we were told that the will contained wording something like “to whichever party is in government”, but now we have seen the actual will, and the word “party” does not seem to occur at all. So I hope that whoever it is that started this idea that the will contained the word “party” will apologise to us for the damage to reputation caused by our reaction to what we now have found is a falsehood.

  • A couple of things on this – firstly, what on earth was the solicitor who drafted the will thinking of – whatever the deceased’s intentions there were much better ways of drafting the phrase to be unambiguous. Also, I am not sure what the executors were thinking – the parties rather than the government is a possible interpretation, but certainly not the most natural one in the absence of any other information.

    What is perhaps interesting, is that if there was not a Coalition government, nobody would have noticed. It is only that the same donor donated to both parties that made people ask questions – if a single party had been in government, and the executors had decided in the same manner to give to the party, not the government, it would have just been an unexpected bequest and no-one would have thought any more of it.

  • Simon McGrath 14th Aug '13 - 11:59am

    The Party should publish the correspondence with the trustees.

  • I imagine that neither party had a copy of the will, and both accepted the donations in good faith.

    However, the donation was clearly for a government, and “of the day” may well be a tautology, but that simply reinforces the point. Tautologies don’t create ambiguity, they reduce it. However awkward the style may appear.

  • Andrew RH Smith 14th Aug '13 - 12:09pm

    It seems to me that fault rests with the solicitor who drew up the will and the Executors – the Tories and the Lib Dems being innocent parties in this. My interpretation of the will is that the money was intended for the Government regardless of which party/parties were in power but this, as others have said, could have been expressed more clearly. The fallout from this is more grist to the mill for the anti-politics brigade.

  • As I said before, the decision by the Lib Dems and Tories to accept the money for their own ends looked terrible. It still looks terrible now, as they only discovered a conscience when the press and public objected.

    Yet more evidence for the argument that politics doesn’t attract decent people.

  • A very badly drafted will.

  • Solicitor’s statement makes it clear that the original decision was the correct one and, in the light of that, I for one don’t think we should have disregarded the wishes (whatever the frothing of the Daily Mail). However, if the instructions were clear, I can’t believe that he managed to draft it so badly and ambiguously. Parties would have the right to sue for negligence although may have shut off that option by voluntarily giving up the money.

  • Peter Knight 14th Aug '13 - 1:12pm

    Frankly, I am disgusted with you for being so silly to accept this money.

    No wonder we the public have such a poor impression of political parties when this just strengthens the “snouts in the trough” image.

    Yet more damage done to what used to be the honest reputation of this great party!

  • @David Blake
    “There really is no indication in the will that it’s a party donation. I’m appalled that we accepted it in the first place”
    Did the party know about the wording, probably not, the party probably recieves a high number of bequests every year and it’ll simply be a cheque in the post.

  • “Solicitor’s statement makes it clear that the original decision was the correct one ”

    No it does not. The decision was made by those self same solicitors. If it was her wish that the money was to go to a political party (and we only have the solicitors’ word that that is what she said, remembering they have a vested interest in claiming they are right about the interpretation) then why did they not write the word ‘party’ in her will?

  • Ed Shepherd 14th Aug '13 - 1:21pm

    If the conversation with the solicitor did take place, then the solicitor should have ensured that the wording in the will stated that the bequest was meant to go to the whichever party is in government rather than whichever government is in office. A very bad piece of drafting especially considering how unusual the bequest was and how big the estate was. It just goes to show that one cannot rely on solicitors to get these issues correct (despite what their powerful trade union tells us).

  • Mark G

    No it doesn’t, it is still ambiguous

    It could have been to the Government no matter the party in charge rather than to the party itself. The will says one thing and the solicitor’s comment another – looks like bottom covering to me.

    It is a poor job from the solicitors whatever.

    Also, the subject of party funding is particularly sensitive and we have seen the sanctimonious comments on here wrt Labour union funding.

    For a donation so large, it should be water tight legitimate. Any ambuiguity should preclude acceptance

  • David Allen 14th Aug '13 - 1:42pm

    All we need to do is to read the exact words of the will, very carefully, and then it becomes quite clear what they say. The quote from the Guardian is:

    “… for whichever Government is in office at the date of my death for the Government in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.”

    So – First – The executors were quite right to hand the money to the Government, and to tell them they could do whatever they thought fit to do with it. That is what the will says. Any attempt by the executors and solicitors to do anything else, or to bind the Government to any particular course of action, would have been quite wrong. That’s what “absolute discretion” means.

    Secondly – The Government had a choice. That too is what “absolute discretion” means. They were, however, enjoined to “use as they may think fit”. They were thus enjoined to decide what would be a proper use of the money.

    When you are dealing with the receipt of half a million quid, you can’t possibly get away with claiming that you couldn’t be bothered to read the words of the bequest with any care, as some seem to be suggesting. Lots of people in the two parties and in the civil service must have pored repeatedly over the words. (Or if they didn’t, they should be sacked for incompetence.)

    Now, it might have been a neat idea if somebody in government had come up with a single idea, like (just for example) rebuilding a burnt-down school somewhere near where Ms Edwards lived, and putting up a plaque to commemorate the donor. That sort of thing would have been a good use of absolute discretion, a “fit” purpose.

    Failing that, they could have paid it into Treasury funds.

    Instead, they decided that they would deem it a fit purpose to pay it into Party funds.

    Do they think the rest of us will now deem the coalition parties to be worthy of support? Or a spell in jail?

  • Paul

    How many 150K bequests does the party receive each year – a high number?

    Such large bequests out of the blue should be checked and rechecked – we should know how this was accepted and the corrspondence. The LD leadership is always so clear on the other parties’ improprieties so I expect better from them.

    If they really dug into this then I will give them the benefit of the doubt

  • Steve/Ed Shepherd/brcombie – The solicitor’s statement is the only plausible explanation of the facts. Unless there was some special factor of that nature, it is highly unlikely that the executors would have taken the decision they did (especially as they were likely the same solicitors). The safe option would have been just to hand the money to the Treasury in accordance with the more natural reading of the words. (In fact, the solicitors had a “vested interest” in keeping it all quiet rather than demonstrating to the world that they can’t draft in accordance with clear instructions).

    David Allen – It is not usually for the beneficiary to pore over the wording of the will. It is the executors’ decision (which can be challenged in court by those with standing to do so). That said, the unusual circs of this bequest should have raised alarm bells and the matter investigated at the time. This criticism applies even more so to the Tories who took more of it.

    The result of (a) incompetent drafting and (b) inadequate checks is that the Daily Mail has got to further a cynical, anti-politics, “snouts in the trough” narrative; an old lady’s wishes have been disregarded and the party has lost GBP100K. A poor show all round.

  • My problem with the governments credibility on this argument is this.

    When the government became aware of this bequest, someone from both parties the (Tories) & (Liberal Democrats) would have met to discuss the bequest and how the money should be used.
    We know this happened between the 2 parties simply because, a deal was thrashed out between the 2 parties on how the money was to be divided between the 2 parties. In the end an agreement was made to make calculations based upon the Number of MP’s from each party and the number of Ministers.
    It stands to reason that the coalition government would have been fully aware of the wording in the will, in order for them to make the decision that they did on how to slit the money.

    How the 2 parties came to the conclusion that this was a political party donation is absurd,
    Most of the country agree’s that the bequest should have gone to the government treasury and spent how they see fit.

    To come to the conclusions that the Tories and the Libdems came to , shows in my opinion, a total lack of moral judgement. And that is why most of the country is outraged by this horrid saga

  • @MarkG
    “an old lady’s wishes have been disregarded ”

    There is no evidence whatsoever to back up the claim that her wishes have been disregarded. The only admissable evidence we have is her will, which clearly states that the money is to be left to the government (in contradiction to the deliberate falsehoods ‘leaked’ to the press stating that the will used the word ‘party’)

  • David Blake 14th Aug '13 - 4:38pm

    @Paul. It’s normal practice for a copy of the will to be sent with the cheque. For such a large sum, I would expect that to be scrutinised pretty closely.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Aug '13 - 4:47pm

    David Allen

    When you are dealing with the receipt of half a million quid, you can’t possibly get away with claiming that you couldn’t be bothered to read the words of the bequest with any care, as some seem to be suggesting.

    When this story broke, we were explicitly told that the will contained the word “party”. Later we found that it did not, it only contained the word “government”. If the word “party” was first introduced by government ministers handling it, yes, we have a scandal. If not, no we don’t, we just have a silly mistake made by someone.

  • MarkG

    I think you have to look at this in the constellation of party funding debate at the moment

    Labour have taken a battering over unions and we have seen the other parties joining in on this although their are skeletons in both their cupboards. The Tories more so than the LD

    For the two parties to accept with eagerness this windfall which I believe is one of the biggest contributions to their respective party coffers with this ambiguity is difficult to accept

    As said above the will is ambiguous but makes more sense if read for ‘Government’ than ‘Party’ and the word of this solicitor who was seemingly incompetent in the drawing up of the will by not making the wording more precise is less than convincing, seeing it would be them at fault for the decision to give to political parties.

    We also have to use Occam’s razor here and I would say the simplest explanation is she meant Government (no matter what party was in power) rather than the Party (to leave to a random political party seems a more unlikely option)

  • bcrombie – I feel you are still missing the point on the solictors’ advice. The only reason that people are now saying that they are the ones at fault is because they went public with the fact that they drafted the will and her intention was to give it to the party in government. They could have avoided all the problems by simply giving the money to the Treasury, no questions asked. Equally, they could have kept their head down when the storm broke.

    Given that people don’t normally make it publicly clear that they are incompetent in their professional work,the only rational explanation is that they honestly believe what they say and were trying to do what she wanted. (Likewise, a suggestion that they advised her correctly and she insisted on the ambiguous wording would be equally implausible – the solicitors would certainly have mentioned a “get out of jail free card” that in their statement). In short, their statement is believable precisely because it goes against their interest to have made it.

    Mark Valladares also makes very good points in his separate post about the perils of the 24/7 news cycle. But we can’t avoid it; we have to try to get ahead of it.

  • @MarkG
    “Given that people don’t normally make it publicly clear that they are incompetent in their professional work”

    You are changing the sequence of events. They made the statement in response to the will being made public – an event that will have seriously called in to question their competence in the minds of most people that read it. I.e. they made the statement because their competence was being called into question.

    “The only reason that people are now saying that they are the ones at fault is because they went public with the fact that they drafted the will and her intention was to give it to the party in government.”

    Not true. People were saying they were at fault when the will was made public. It has their names on it

  • David Allen 14th Aug '13 - 5:56pm

    The word “party” was rumoured to be in the will. It isn’t. Only “government” is in the will. Nevertheless, the solicitors have come back with the spin that Ms Edwards had wanted the money dealt with by the “party” which happened to be in government.

    First, let’s suppose that this is at least something like a fair approximation to the truth, and work out what might be a plausible explanation. As many have pointed out, Ms Edwards can’t possibly have had a party political objective, as she did not know which party would have been in government when she died. So why didn’t she just leave the money to Treasury funds? Well, some obvious reasons suggest themselves. That would be very anonymous. It goes into the maw of the Treasury and is never seen again. Ms Edwards may well have wanted real people, with integrity and purpose, to debate what should best be done with her money and fix on a real, tangible good cause worth spending it on. Remember, her formative years were in wartime, when the politicians running the government could be trusted to act in the national interest. So she asked them to use their “absolute discretion” to use the money “as they may think fit”. Mr Churchill, we can presume, would not have thought it fit to treat it as a Tory party bung.

    So OK – Let’s put aside the unworthy thought that the solicitors might be putting forward the “party” spin under pressure from the coalition parties, or under the belief that even if not put under any pressure, it is generally a good idea to stay on the right side of the guys who are in power. Let’s assume that Ms Edwards did want the party political government to handle her bequest rather than the Civil Service, and that this advice was reasonably made available by the executors to the government. Does that let the Coalition off the hook?

    Hell, no, because of those words “as they may think fit”. Ms Edwards was placing trust in government to find a fit and proper use for the money. Would she have found electioneering to be a fit and proper use?

    I can guess the loyalist response to that one. It would be “How can anyone know what the old lady might have thought was fit and proper? You can’t possibly be sure she wouldn’t have been perfectly satisfied to support democratic participation. You’re out of order, because you are claiming to know the lady’s mind, and you don’t.”

    To which my response is: It isn’t only Ms Edwards whose views matter. The Government were tasked with deciding what was a fit and proper use for the money. We are all entitled to take a view on whether they made a reasonable decision. They decided it was “fit” to divide it up between two private organisations, and not to allocate it to public spending. How dare they!

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Aug '13 - 6:10pm

    The will is not even ambiguous. It says “Government”. That’s where the money should have gone in the first place.

  • @David Allen
    “They decided it was “fit” to divide it up between two private organisations, and not to allocate it to public spending. ”

    Even now they haven’t committed to spending the money. They have said they are going to use it to pay down debt. Is that what she really wanted? – or would she have preferred to have seen it spent in her local community?

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Aug '13 - 11:16am

    David Allen

    Let’s assume that Ms Edwards did want the party political government to handle her bequest rather than the Civil Service, and that this advice was reasonably made available by the executors to the government. Does that let the Coalition off the hook?

    I’m sorry David, as a Liberal I believe in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”.

    The story given to us is that the executors of the will made the (eccentric) decision that it was intended to leave a donation to a political party, and people elsewhere acted in good faith under that assumption. We have not been told who it actually was that decided the coalition situation mean an 80:20 split between the two parties. The assumption from the attacks made on the parties here and elsewhere was that it was officers or politicians from the parties. But I’ve not seen anyone who confirming that, and in fact it seems to me that faced with such a decision, the natural way to handle it would be to pass it to some politically neutral Civil Servant to work on.

    The rest of what you write stems from your accepting an allegation which I have seen no evidence to support, and which the details of the story we have been told so far contradicts. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the willingness of many to accept this serious allegation stems from a profound anti-democratic bias, that is a hatred of the mechanisms by which democracy works. The assumption this is based on – that politicians working in a democratic framework are by that nature bad people – is a very dangerous one, history shows us where it leads to e.g. 1930s Italy and Germany.

  • “If the word “party” was first introduced by government ministers handling it, yes, we have a scandal. If not, no we don’t, we just have a silly mistake made by someone.”

    Prima facie it looks like a deliberate attempt to mislead, whether the false information was given to the press by ministers, party officials, the solicitors or someone else. In the circumstances it seems most unlikely that the press would have invented the incorrect wording containing the word “party”.

  • David Allen 15th Aug '13 - 6:36pm

    Matthew,

    “The story given to us is that the executors of the will made the (eccentric) decision that it was intended to leave a donation to a political party, and people elsewhere acted in good faith under that assumption. ”

    Well, no, frankly that’s a pretty sloppy, inaccurate statement. The executors have advised that although “party” is not mentioned in the will, only “government”, nevertheless they knew that Ms Edwards had in fact intended the donation to be handled by the political party who formed the government, for use “as they may think fit”. If the executors are telling the truth, there is something of a case for the way the coalition have behaved, since they were at least charged with responsibility for deciding what should be done with the money. If the executors are not telling the truth, then there is no case whatsoever for the politicians to have stepped in, waylaid a donation to “government”, and grabbed it for the political parties. Consequently, in making the presumption that the executors are telling the truth, I am looking at this as favourably as is possible from the coalition’s point of view.

    “We have not been told who it actually was that decided the coalition situation meant an 80:20 split between the two parties. … it seems to me that faced with such a decision, the natural way to handle it would be to pass it to some politically neutral Civil Servant to work on.”

    Well, perhaps they did pass it to the Civil Service, who knows? But if they did, they took the decision – the appalling decision – that they could grab the money for political purposes. They can’t hide by saying “well, we let Sir Humphrey look at it and he came up with 80/20” – not given that they would have had to instruct Sir Humphrey in the first place! They were tasked to use the money “as they may think fit”. They took the decision on that. To delegate the details to a paid stooge, and wash their hands and hide behind the stooge, still means that they took the decision.

    “The rest of what you write stems from your accepting an allegation which I have seen no evidence to support,”

    You’ve lost me. As far as I can see, I am accepting no allegations whatsoever. I’m not claiming that the executors were incorrect in what they said, I’m not claiming that the Civil Service may not have had the decision passed to them. So what unproven allegation is it that you think I am accepting? I am saying that if we just take the known facts, and we assume the least unfavourable possibilities when we are dealing with things we do not know, then the Coalition politicians are still demonstrably at fault.

  • David Allen 15th Aug '13 - 6:44pm

    Matthew,

    “it seems to me that the willingness of many to accept this serious allegation stems from a profound anti-democratic bias, that is a hatred of the mechanisms by which democracy works. The assumption this is based on – that politicians working in a democratic framework are by that nature bad people – is a very dangerous one, history shows us where it leads to e.g. 1930s Italy and Germany.”

    Yes, Hitler rose to power when people lost confidence in the old party politicians. Who was at fault? The people who lost confidence, or the old party politicians whose actions caused the loss of confidence?

    When the fish stink, you blame the fishmonger, not the old lady who reaches for the smelling-salts!

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 1:46pm

    David

    It is not uncommon for bequests to be left “to the government”. If politicians were in the practice of deciding this meant the private offices of the political party or parties which sit on the government benches, there would have been many more cases like this. But if this were not the case, why would the politicians have picked this one out and handled it in this way and not all the others?

    When this story first broke in the printed media, it was written up as if the will was worded something like “to the party currently in government”. Why would a newspaper like City AM put it that way? Why would this story have been passed on to the media if there were politicians who were deliberately doing something dodgy? Or if it was passed to the media in order to show up the politicians, why was it not reported then as the word “government” being misinterpreted as “party”?

    To me, the most obvious interpretation of the story in the light of what we have heard so far, is that someone was tasked with making the decision of how “the party in government” should be interpreted in the light of the coalition, and made that decision without knowing or checking the full details of the will, and the whole thing was reported at that stage. That WAS how the story was first put – in terms of what was meant by “party” and the decision to treat it as an 80:20 split.

    The story was reported so quickly that I don’t know if senior people in the party did have time to check it up and consider it in terms of the actual wording of the will. I quite agree that the wording of the will should have been checked before the money was accepted. However,we haven’t been told to what extent a full acceptance of the money had been made. We have not been told who had handled the decision before this story broke. So there may certainly be big criticisms to be made of some people, I don’t argue against that. But I am arguing that the legitimate criticisms that can be made, unless we get a lot more evidence, should be more on the lines of criticising the relevant people for cock-up rather than conspiracy.

    The point I am making is that many, here and in the national media, since the wording of the will was made public, have written up this story and made further comment on it, under the assumption that senior members of the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrat party organisations looked at this will, saw the word “government” and decided this should be interpreted as meaning their parties. If this REALLY were the case, it would be appalling, I fully agree with that. But not only have I seen no evidence that this was really the story, it seems to me a rather unlikely interpretation in the light of what we know so far and common sense.

    If further information comes and I am wrong, fine I will accept that. But I need to see it to accept that, on the general liberal principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, and also because my long experience of administrative cock-ups suggests very much this is one of them, it is not the more sinister story that has been alleged.

  • David Allen 16th Aug '13 - 5:39pm

    Thanks Matthew. I certainly agree with your first paragraph. The wording of the will is unusual, referring to “whatever Government is in office” and “for the Government in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.” This does strongly suggest something other than a simple swallow-up by the maw of the Treasury (i.e. what, ironically, has happened now!). The solicitors appear to have confirmed that it was for the party / parties in government to use their discretion. So they did.

    You then argue – I think – that what they did was a cock-up, nothing more sinister. Cameron told us that once he’d read the will, he could see it was obvious that the Tories shouldn’t keep the money. Cameron is good at this sort of patrician insouciance. He also recently said, in an urbane sort of way, that he did rather think he should apologise to Mr Cruddas, his ex-treasurer. He made it sound as if that too was something that had really only just now gained his proper attention. No mention of the fact that he had in fact been fighting Mr Cruddas tooth and nail for months in the courts!

    As for this case, if we believe the cock-up theory, we are asked to believe that receipt of a £100K donation (for us) or a £400K donation (for the Tories) does not trigger any particular response from the Party involved, other than the legal checks required to show that the donor is an admissible donor (which, incidentally, do have to be made by the Party, so they can’t say they never noticed it.)

    Well, in the Michael Brown case, it does indeed seem that cock-up ruled. Or rather, that nobody really wanted to ask difficult questions (they were far too busy spending Brown’s money on dreadfully rushed election leaflets which were too badly produced to be of use!) But, out of that case it was clearly determined that (a) never again, and (b) averting your gaze from an awkward issue does not mean you escape moral responsibility for it.

    The Edwards donation was in fact recorded as the largest single donation to a political party in the second quarter of 2013. This news presumably, therefore, originated with the authorities involved in registering political donations. It all happened before the end of June. This is August. The parties had ample time to flag up their largest donation, internally, as a potentially contentious item. If they did, they took a decision to hang on to the dosh. If they didn’t, they should have done.

    Not simply a cock-up.

  • “The parties had ample time to flag up their largest donation, internally, as a potentially contentious item.”

    They didn’t have to do it internally. It was done for them when they received the money.

    A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: “The decision to give the money to the political parties was taken solely by the executors of the will.
    “The party accepted the donation in good faith on the advice of the executors and on the understanding that they had sought advice from the Treasury Solicitors and the Attorney General’s Office.”

    http://news.sky.com/story/1128422/joan-edwards-donation-handed-to-treasury

    According to that report, the executors contacted the Attorney General’s office with “vague” questions about how to determine the beneficiary – a very strange thing to do if they had already clarified this point with the testatrix – and the Treasury Solicitor’s Office replied suggesting further steps they might take, but “It did not, nor could have, advised [sic] to whom the bequest should go”.

    Make of that what you will.

  • David Allen 16th Aug '13 - 7:19pm

    Chris, on your first point, of course when the parties received the money, they knew about it. What I meant was that they will then have had ample time to flag up the existence of the donation internally to senior party management.

    A bad leader, I suppose, might still say to his staff “Don’t ever tell me anything about dodgy, or potentially questionable, donors. I don’t want to know.” That would be morally culpable behaviour.

    A sensible leader would say “Always flag it up when it’s a big donation, or when anybody might think it is questionable or newsworthy. Either tell me direct, or else tell (name of senior trusted colleague who has been deputed to watch this issue), and s/he’ll tell me if it’s important. I will take the rap for the big decisions, so I need to make them.”

  • David

    My point was that the party says it was told when it received the money that advice had been sought from the Treasury Solicitor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office, which would not have been necessary if it had not been potentially contentious.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 11:31pm

    Chris

    My point was that the party says it was told when it received the money that advice had been sought from the Treasury Solicitor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office, which would not have been necessary if it had not been potentially contentious.

    Yes, but when this story was first reported, it was reported in terms of it being contentious because the will had left money to “the party in government” and the issue was how to interpret that in the coalition situation. It was reported this way in newspapers which would love to have been able to kick Clegg and Cameron, so if they knew what the wording was, wouldn’t they have done that? So it seems they didn’t think to check the actual wording, and just took it to be what the executors of the will had suggested it was. It may be the initial focus on this issue distracted people and led to them not thinking to check whether the word “party” actually was used.

    You write that it was ” a very strange thing” for the executors to contact the Attorney General’s office about how to determine the beneficiary “if they had already clarified this point with the testatrix”, but it is not at all strange if they had previously been working on the assumption, clarified by the testatrix, that there would be a single party of government. It may seem to us obvious that they should have thought this through, but again this seems to be assuming that the solicitors had the knowledge of constitutional issues which we have, which obviously they do not otherwise they would not have written the will like it was written.

    So now we are told that the Treasury Solicitor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office gave the advice that if the beneficiaries are the “party in government” under the current coalition that should mean an 80:20 Conservative:LibDem split. Well, that already goes along with what I have been suggesting is the most likely way this story developed, and it contradicts some of the attacks made on the parties, which have written things such as the parties “divvying up the money” as if it was party officers who had come to this 80:20 split.

    I’m sorry, but as the point I am making still does not seem to have been understood, I’ll repeat it. We have had comment in national newspapers based on the assumption that senior members of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties saw a will reading “government” and decided to treat this as meaning their own private party organisations. If this REALLY was the case, I would be regard this as something so serious that it has the potential to bring the government down. However, because it is so serious, before jumping to the conclusion that it was like this, I would want to see firm evidence that it was. But not only has no firm evidence been given, we have evidence from the way this story was initially reported, from the solicitors in question, and now from being told the advice on how to treat the will came from the Treasury Solicitor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office and not from a private meeting of leading members of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, that the decision to interpret “government” to mean “party” originated from the solicitors acting as executors of the will.

    I quite agree that, particularly in the light of the Michael Brown case, those responsible for handling donations should have been extremely cautious about this, and they behaved with gross incompetence if they accepted the money without first checking the wording of the will for themselves. However, there is a huge moral difference between incompetence and corruption.

  • Chris, point taken. As you quote, “The party accepted the donation … on the understanding that (the executors) had sought advice from the Treasury Solicitors and the Attorney General’s Office.”. You also note that the Treasury Solicitor’s Office had replied stating that “It did not, nor could have, advised to whom the bequest should go”. So, the party certainly knew that it was contentious, and that the Treasury Solicitors had not been able to give them clear advice as to whether or not they were entitled to it. I don’t know where Matthew gets the idea from that the Treasury Solicitors actually recommended the 80/20 split, which is in total contradiction with the report you cite.

    Who the party official first in receipt of this information was required to refer it to internally, we do not know. Matthew suggests in effect that this leaves room for an incompetence plea. My argument is that it will simply not do, in these circumstances, for a party leadership to plead ignorance. It is precisely comparable to the situation when Murdoch denied knowledge of the phone hacking operations which had been established as critical to his organisation’s core business. A leader who claims not to have known, in such circumstances, is either a fool or a knave.

  • @Matthew Huntbach
    “It was reported this way in newspapers which would love to have been able to kick Clegg and Cameron, so if they knew what the wording was, wouldn’t they have done that? ”

    I’m not sure what your point here is. I think the initial inaccurate ‘quote’ mentioning the word ‘party’ appeared in City AM. I don’t know anything about their agenda, but I suspect they quickly phoned some party official who fed them the line. Later that day the DM carried the story stating: “The Liberal Democrats said the she had left the bequest to ‘the party in government of the day’.” They also provided a quote from a Tory official: “A Conservative spokesman said: ‘We don’t comment on the details of specific donations. It was out of the blue. We weren’t expecting it.'” which suggests that the DM independently contacted both parties and the same line was fed by the Lib Dem official. It would take an unshakeable aand, to my mind, quite far-fetched belief in the goodness of the Lib Dem official to believe that the misquote supplied was an accidental mistake given that the wording of the Will was known to the party.

    The following day the DM published an extract from the Will and the full photocopy appeared soon after in other newspapers. Where did the copy of the Will come from? It almost certainly wasn’t the executors as it shows them up and would be a breach of confidentiality for which there would be consequences commercially and possibly legally. The only other place the copy of the Will could have come from, as far as I can see, is a member of the government or a civil servant. This implies that Will had been supplied to and read by someone in government. Furthermore, as Chris highlighted, the advice of the Solicitor’s Office and Attorney General implies that it was understood that the Will was contentious. Indeed, this point was made on here by someone a couple of days ago and got lost temporarily as a result of all the deliberate obfuscation by party loyalists. Additionally, the fact that the Will was leaked required someone to have seen it who was not particularly inclined to defend the two parties. That suggests that quite a good few people saw the Will, which again suggests there was discussion about its contentious nature. All of which supports the widely held belief amongst the public that the two parties were complicit in trousering a bequest that was almost certainly meant for the government. Yes, the executors may have reached an erroneous conclusion (it should be noted that they have been challenged to produce notes backing up their claim that about Joan Edward’s wishes following the release of their statement but have failed to do so), but the two parties were happy to go along with an interpretation that suited them. Someone made an analogy about receiving too much change from a shopkeeper and knowingly pocketing it. It is a good one.

    “and just took it to be what the executors of the will had suggested it was.”

    They reported the quote they had obtained from the Lib Dems. If they had a copy of the Will at that stage then they would have published it. I strongly suspect the reason why someone leaked the Will the following day was because they were appalled at it being misquoted. An own goal there, I suspect.

    @David Allen
    “My argument is that it will simply not do, in these circumstances, for a party leadership to plead ignorance. ”

    I’d have to agree with you there. This is the conclusion the public arrived at quite a while ago.

  • Matthew

    As David says, you don’t appear to have read properly what I posted, so briefly:

    Yes, but when this story was first reported, it was reported in terms of it being contentious because the will had left money to “the party in government” and the issue was how to interpret that in the coalition situation. It was reported this way in newspapers which would love to have been able to kick Clegg and Cameron, so if they knew what the wording was, wouldn’t they have done that?

    Quite obviously the newspapers didn’t know what the wording was at that time! No one has suggested they did, and since the probate registry’s one-hour service has been indefinitely ‘suspended’ it takes several days to get a copy of a will.

    What has been reported is that the parties were told what the wording was when they received the money.

    The pertinent question here is obviously where that false information about the wording of the will came from. Did one of the parties supply it? Or did the executors supply it? Or did the newspapers simply imagine it – and thereby rob their own story of much of its force?

    You write that it was ” a very strange thing” for the executors to contact the Attorney General’s office about how to determine the beneficiary “if they had already clarified this point with the testatrix”, but it is not at all strange if they had previously been working on the assumption, clarified by the testatrix, that there would be a single party of government.

    The point I’m making is that it would be extremely strange if they were working on that assumption!

    If they had clarified that the testator meant ‘party’ and not ‘government’, then there would have been no reason for them to contact the Attorney General’s Office with “vague” questions about how to determine the beneficiary. They might have asked for advice on a specific question – how to apportion the legacy between the two parties. But it seems clear they did not, because the Treasury Solicitor’s Office responded by suggesting they should contact the parties and the Treasury to ask determine whether they had an interest in the will.

    So now we are told that the Treasury Solicitor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office gave the advice that if the beneficiaries are the “party in government” under the current coalition that should mean an 80:20 Conservative:LibDem split.

    No, you’ve just been told the precise opposite!

    The Treasury Solicitor’s Office replied on behalf of the Attoprney General’s Office. If you’d followed the link I provided, you’d have seen what kind of advice they did provide, but I went to the trouble of quoting the key statement – “It did not, nor could have, advised [sic] to whom the bequest should go”.

    “I’m sorry, but as the point I am making still does not seem to have been understood, I’ll repeat it.”

    Matthew, Matthew, you’ve said this about a dozen times now. There’s nothing difficult to understand about it, but it’s irrelevant, because no one here is making the accusation you are arguing against, and no one anywhere has made it for several days. What is being criticised is the parties’ decision to keep the money they had been given, knowing what they did of the circumstances.

  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Aug '13 - 9:27am

    @SImon Shaw
    “For example, can you see the major potential difficulty with this: ‘for whatever Government is in office at the date of my death for the Government in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.'”

    There is nothing ambiguous there. I take “Government” to mean, er, the Government.

  • “Someone made an analogy about receiving too much change from a shopkeeper and knowingly pocketing it. It is a good one.”

    Given the sums involved, a better analogy would be an unwarranted payment of £500,000 into a bank account as a result of a technical error.

  • “Given the sums involved, a better analogy would be an unwarranted payment of £500,000 into a bank account as a result of a technical error.”

    I agree.

  • That statement by a LIb Dem spokesman – “The party accepted the donation in good faith on the advice of the executors and on the understanding that they had sought advice from the Treasury Solicitors and the Attorney General’s Office” – is really rather strange in the light of the statement by the Treasury Solicitor’s Office that “It did not, nor could have, advised [sic] to whom the bequest should go”.

    If the spokesman had wanted to avoid misleading people he should really have added “but they said they could not advise the executors.” What was said looks like a careful choice of words designed to mislead without actually resorting to a falsehood.

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