Donation row: the Tories and Lib Dems might not be to blame but they look as shifty as rats

The £520,000 bequeathed by Joan Edwards was intended for "whichever Government is in office", so how did it end up in the coalition parties' coffers?

Among the list of party political donations published by the Electoral Commission yesterday, the most curious were those from "Ms Joan L B Edwards", who was reported as giving £420,576 to the Conservatives and £99,423 to the Lib Dems. Initially thought to be a rare act of pro-coalition generosity, it transpired that the money was left in her will, which, according to party sources, stipulated that it should go "to whoever was the party of government of the day". Since this is a coalition, the money was split between the Tories and the Lib Dems based on the number of MPs they have. 

But today's Daily Mail casts a strikingly different light on the story. The paper reports that the will, written in 2001, in fact stated that the £520,000 should go to "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" and made no reference to any political party. Based on that, it is patently clear that she intended the money to be used by the government to fund public services or pay down the national debt, not by political parties to fund spin doctors and poster campaigns. As shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy tweeted last night, "this looks dodgy as hell by Tories&Libs". 

In response, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have both stated that the executors of the will, two solicitors, informed them that they were beneficiaries. A Conservative Party spokesman said: "The solicitors for the deceased, acting as the executors, informed the Conservative Party that it was a beneficiary of the will." A Lib Dem spokesman said: "The Liberal Democrats were notified that the party was a beneficiary of Miss Edwards’s will." In other words, if anyone is to blame for the apparent misappropriation of the money it is the executors, not, as the Mail would have it, "grasping politicians". 

What remains unclear is at what point (if any) the executors were advised that the money should be treated as a party political donation. The Mail was told that the executors "initially contacted the Government’s Treasury Solicitors department to ask where to send the cash, and that both the Treasury Solicitors and the office of Attorney General Dominic Grieve – a Conservative MP – then ruled it was a 'party political donation'" But the Attorney General's Office replied that "The executors of Miss Edwards’s estate contacted the AGO about her bequest but the Attorney provided no advice.

"The Treasury Solicitors replied on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office setting out further steps the executors may wish to take to identify the correct recipient of the bequest. It did not, nor could have, advised to whom the bequest should go."

The BBC's Robin Brant reports that the executors are currently not commenting but "may release a statement this afternoon". Only then, perhaps, will it be clear who was to blame for the misinterpretation of her will. In the meantime, the Tories and Lib Dems are left looking as shifty as rats. With each successive scandal, the case for state funding grows a little stronger. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.