DAVID Cameron has said it is “right” that the Tories and Liberal Democrats give up a £520,000 bequest from a former nurse amid confusion over whether she actually meant the money to go to the government.
The Prime Minister said the wording of Joan Edwards’ will made clear that her intention was for the money to “benefit the nation” rather than political parties.
The legacy, disclosed along with other donations yesterday, sparked a bizarre row after a copy of the document emerged.
Conservative and Lib Dem officials previously briefed that they had split the money because it was earmarked for “whichever party was in government”.
But the text obtained by the Daily Mail showed Miss Edwards - who died in September aged 90 - identified the beneficiary as “whichever government is in office at the date of my death”.
As the backlash gathered pace, both coalition partners declared they would hand the funds to the Treasury as a gesture of good faith.
However, shortly afterwards the executors of Miss Edwards’ will, Bristol solicitors Davis Wood, released a statement insisting that she had indeed intended the cash to go to political parties rather than the government.
“The will was drafted by a solicitor at Davis Wood in 2001,” the law firm said. “At the time of the instructions received from the late Miss Edwards, the solicitor specifically checked with Miss Edwards about the unusual nature of her proposed bequest and it was confirmed by Miss Edwards at the time of her instruction that her estate was to be left to whichever political party formed the government at the date of her death.”
Speaking during a visit to the Commonwealth Games site in Glasgow, Tory leader Mr Cameron said: “It is a slightly confusing situation, the facts as I understand them are these, the executors of the will decided it was right to pay the money to the parties of government, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
“But I think when you look at the wording of the will it seems to us the intention was more to benefit the nation, so what we’ve done, the Conservative Party has done, with our part of the donation is give it to the Treasury so it can help to pay down the national debt, which I think meets the spirit of what this very generous lady meant.
“The executors of the will decided to pay the money to the Conservative Party, they thought that was what was meant to happen so we accepted the money in good faith.
“But having been able to look at the wording of the will and consider the matter I think this is the right decision and I am pleased we’re paying the money to the Treasury and therefore it will pay down the national debt.”
It is unclear whether the parties were aware of the ambiguous wording of the will when they agreed to accept the money earlier this year.
The Treasury is understood to have been sent a letter by the executors disclosing the existence of the bequest, and raising the possibility that the exchequer could be a beneficiary. Sources indicated that the missive included the key extract from the text of the will.
Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg personally approved the forfeiting of the party’s £100,000 share this morning.
“The Liberal Democrats have taken the decision to pass the donation granted to us by the executors of Ms Edwards’ will to the Treasury,” a party spokesman said. “Party officials have been instructed to contact the Treasury to make the necessary arrangements.
“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.”
Tory chairman Grant Shapps called for Labour to follow his party’s example over a £1.65 million donation it received in shares from businessman John Mills.
“It’s right to give Edwards’ donation to Treasury,” Mr Shapps said. “Now will Labour pay tax avoided on Mills’ donation which should be funding NHS, etc?”
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan also took the opportunity to highlight other controversial funding episodes.
“It’s good that the Tories and Lib Dems have finally done the right thing on Joan Edwards’ donation,” he said.
“But now it’s time for the Tories to pay back the £440,000 of stolen money they accepted from Asil Nadir, and for the Lib Dems to pay back the £2.4 million they took from convicted fraudster Michael Brown.”
Former neighbours of Miss Edwards in Acton Road, Fishponds, Bristol, spoke of a very private lady.
Lucy Sanders, 46, said: “I suppose people would term her ‘old fashioned’.
“She led a very quiet and frugal life. She was just a charming, lovely lady.
“I think it’s fantastic she kept herself to herself.”
Ms Sanders, who lived next door to Miss Edwards for 13 years, said she had “absolutely no idea” the former midwife had amassed a fortune of more than £500,000.
“She was a working person who worked hard her whole life,” she said.
“She worked as a midwife and later a ‘nit nurse’ and I suppose she could have had an occupational pension.
“She was 90 when she died and lived a very frugal life.
“She still had the original 1930s kitchen in her house when she passed away.”
Ms Sanders said that as Miss Edwards was a very private person she did not discuss her political views in public.
“I think the statement in her will did not have any strong political beliefs because she left her money to the government of the day,” she said.
“I am so pleased the Conservatives and Lib Dems have changed their minds.
“I was thinking of how some civil servant had been so insensitive about something that meant so much to this lady.
“I think Miss Edwards would have made it quite clear in her will if she wanted the money to go to a political party.
“I think also that she would have thought that the Government was a moral body and would do the right thing.”
She added: “I think she would have absolutely abhorred that her personal wishes are being discussed so publicly.”
Ms Sanders said that Miss Edwards’ bequest should be spent on projects in the Fishponds area.
“Cossham Hospital has just had a new maternity unit open and the money could have gone towards that,” she said.
“I think something in the community and to do with children would have pleased her.”
She said that about 20 people attended Miss Edwards’s funeral, which was a traditional service.
“I found out more about her from attending the funeral than you ever did living beside her,” she said.
“She was one of the first people ever to ride a motorised cycle.”