Daily Mail accuses “grasping politicians of pocketing spinster’s £500,000 legacy”. Let’s have some facts first, please.

by Stephen Tall on August 14, 2013

mail grasping politicians front page - 14 aug 13This morning’s Mail Online has a shocking headline: Grasping politicians pocket spinster’s £500,000 legacy she bequeathed to government to spend ‘as they may think fit’. The newspaper’s front page also splashes on the story (right).

This follows the story we reported here yesterday of Miss Joan Edwards, who had apparently bequeathed £520k to the two Coalition partners as the current governing parties. This was divided 80:20 between them, with the Lib Dems getting almost £100k.

The Mail disputes that interpretation, asserting instead that she intended to leave the money as a bequest to the nation. They say the will’s wording was not (as claimed in newspaper reports yesterday) for the money to be passed “to whoever was the party of government of the day” but that it should be passed to “whichever Government is in office at the date of my death”. On that basis, the paper accuses the Conservatives and Lib Dems of deception bordering on fraud.

My Twitter timeline today suggests two things. First, everyone believes the Daily Mail when it suits them. Secondly, that there are a surprising number of people who think they’re experts on legacy bequests.

I’ve handled a few in my time in my fund-raising day-job. What normally happens is this: you receive a letter from the executors of the estate informing you that your organisation is a beneficiary under the terms of the will. This seems to be what happened here, according to the Mail’s own report: ‘A Tory source briefed: ‘This money was donated out of the blue.’’

The power for deciding what happens rests with the executors, the persons legally charged with dealing with the estate. In this case, the executors are solicitors, so they should know the law (possibly better than the Mail’s reporters).

The key line in the Mail article is this one: ‘Somewhere along the line, somebody decided what she meant by this was for her hard-earned cash to fund the Conservatives’ and Lib Dems’ campaigns to win the next election.’ They do not report anything which suggests that decision was taken by the Tories or Lib Dems: indeed, legally it simply couldn’t have been.

I haven’t seen the full wording of the will, and the Mail only quotes an excerpt. The paper claims to have a copy, but as it hasn’t been fully settled yet (and therefore the executors haven’t yet filed it) that seems unlikely.

It may well be that the will’s wording has been mis-interpreted. None of us knows. Depending on any ambiguity in the will’s wording it may be impossible for us to know.

But if there is fault (and I stress the word ‘if’) it’s most likely to lie either/both with the solicitor who drafted a will which didn’t reflect their client’s true intentions, and/or with the executors who didn’t interpret them accurately. What I suggest is highly unlikely is that the Mail’s implication that the Tories and Lib Dems swindled the estate is in any way accurate.

A Lib Dem official I’ve been in touch with this morning who dealt with the bequest said: “I followed our legal advice and established they had talked to the Treasury solicitors about whether it was government bequest before I entered into the discussion about a split with the Tories.”

There may well be questions to be asked in this case. But the Mail’s cheap accusation of “grasping politicians” is very unlikely to be anywhere near the truth in this case.

Update 2: the Lib Dems have announced they will hand over the party’s share of the bequest to the Treasury. See my story here. However, let’s be clear: the implication of the Mail’s story — that the Lib Dems tried to swindle a spinster out of her legacy — is wrong, pure and simple.

Update: Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb was asked about the case this morning:

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and edited the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.