Interview: Graham Benfield

The recently retired chief executive of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action tells Susannah Birkwood about the gains the Welsh sector has made in the last 25 years - and the dilemmas it faces now

Benfield's vision is of a society where the private, state and voluntary sectors work together to provide services communities need
Benfield's vision is of a society where the private, state and voluntary sectors work together to provide services communities need

It was 1989 - the year in which the Berlin Wall came down, and Britain was in the final throes of the Thatcher government. Wales was still recovering from the devastating effects of the miners strike of five years before, and Graham Benfield was just starting out as chief executive of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action.

"It wasn't an easy time for the third sector," says Benfield. "The government was not terribly interested in the 32,000 organisations that made it up - only in the very small number of organisations it funded directly. I can recall, both at a political ministerial level and at a civil service level, proposing that we should have a regular dialogue with the government. It said no."

Twenty-five years on, Benfield is a month into his retirement. He has just got back from a trip to the Seychelles and as soon as he has finished having his picture taken by Third Sector's photographer, he removes his tie. "I said I would never wear one again once I retired," he explains. He had also resolved not to return to the WCVA headquarters, where his office's bay windows overlook the Coal Exchange near Cardiff Bay, for at least a year.

Luckily for the WCVA, most of Benfield's other resolutions haven't ended in failure. When he took on the top job at the umbrella organisation, he had a number of things to do. Little was known statistically about the country's voluntary sector. No one knew how many organisations or how many volunteers there were, or what the sector's income was, so it fell to Benfield to commission research to find out. Armed with the resulting knowledge, he set to work on building up the WCVA's membership from the 200 when he started in 1989 to the 3,500 organisations that it represents today. But, for almost 10 years with no Welsh assembly, an unsympathetic England-centric government in Westminster didn't really want to know.

But in 1997 it was all change. Even before he had won the general election, Labour's Tony Blair travelled the country, courting the sector with the message that he wanted voluntary organisations to be partners in a new Britain. "From our point of view, that was great," Benfield recalls. Another positive was that Labour proposed devolution referendums for Scotland and Wales. So when the party was elected, the National Assembly for Wales was created in 1998 after a resounding yes vote from the Welsh people.

There was more good news to come. The Government of Wales Act in the same year mandated the Welsh assembly to "make a scheme setting out how it proposes ... to promote the interests of relevant voluntary organisations".

"One of the most important things about putting it into legislation was that, before then, it all depended on the whim of the civil servant," says Benfield. "If the civil servant was interested in the sector, you could do some business. If they weren't, you couldn't, because they didn't have to. But with the arrival of the scheme, and legislation, suddenly they had to do it, whether they liked it or not."

The new government had also promised that each and every minister would meet the sector twice a year. In order to capitalise on those meetings, and to get a sense of how government and the sector were getting on, the WCVA facilitated the founding of the Third Sector Partnership Council. The body, which still exists, is made up of representatives from 25 areas of the voluntary sector and three delegates from the WCVA.

The next decade was an exciting time for the sector across the UK, but there was a sense that Wales was even more fortunate. None of the other countries had promotion of the sector protected by law, nor the guarantee of regular interaction with ministers. "You saw a huge development of the sector, particularly in terms of paid staff," says Benfield. "It is fair to say virtually every community benefited." Joint programmes, such as Cynnal 21st Century Halls for Wales, which the WCVA ran with the Millennium Commission, helped to foster an acceptance across the UK that the sector was a partner with government in building society.

However, that acceptance began to diminish, says Benfield, with the onset of the economic crisis in 2008. He says three separate, competing approaches were touted. One was the big society, which Benfield says is stereotyped by many as "everything can be done by volunteers". Another was the philosophy of the Labour Party that "all this wiffle-waffle with the third sector was all very well when times were good, but if times get hard, everything can be done by the state".

The third approach, he says, was to put everything out to competitive procurement and turn the sector into a supply chain. The result, Benfield says, is that there is no longer a coherent narrative for the sector, so when things go wrong there is no firm response because of a lack of political agreement about which approach to take.

When the coalition government came to power in 2010, Wales braced itself for the comprehensive spending review to make 30 per cent cuts. "It didn't happen, but it would have been a seismic change if it had," says Benfield. "We can't just go on rearranging the deckchairs, we would have said. Something more fundamental would have had to happen. But because the cuts have been spread over about five years, people have absorbed them and moved on. But there will come a point at which the existing system will not be able to cope with what people need and expect."

Benfield's solution is to replace the current "austerity of approach", where he says the government has reverted to a narrow view of the sector filled with checks and balances, with one of co-production. His vision is of a society where the private, state and voluntary sectors work together to provide services that communities need, and the state functions as an enabler. He says one factor holding back the development of this model in Wales is fear among charities that they should not be too critical of the government. "The state has got to be a little bit more modest," he says. "It has got to get back to a feeling of trust and partnership with the third sector and the people."

On co-production, Benfield says the model does not mean amateur service provision. He cites the Citizens Advice Bureau, for example, as a highly professional collaboration between volunteers and paid staff, with state backing. "People will do things they believe in," he says. "They won't do things they think the state should do, such as raise money to heat a community swimming pool - but they might be prepared to staff it."

Benfield may be a good example of co-production. He has just spent a weekday afternoon of his retirement talking to Third Sector about issues that have been close to his heart for 25 years.

Winning battles under the Conservatives

Three important battles were won under John Major's premiership. The first involved securing funding for the sector from the National Lottery, which was introduced in 1993.

From its inception, a slice of the lottery's income was ring-fenced for "good causes", as determined by parliament, but these causes did not at first include charities. "One of the roles of a national body that looks after its members is to look ahead, even if your members can't," says Benfield.

"It was a big achievement to get charities as one of the good causes. Doing that has been worth £1bn to the sector here, which is a hell of a lot of money for Wales."

The sum is especially significant in the context that two-thirds of the country's voluntary organisations have annual incomes of £10,000 or less.

The WCVA was also instrumental in ensuring that the decisions about lottery funding for Wales were taken at home, even before separate committees were set up to take such decisions in each of the four countries of the UK.

Another coup for the WCVA was to get support for the sector from the European Structural Funds, delivering employment-related programmes on the back of European money, which over the years has been worth another £500m.

"Our members said it was all very well for us to give them advice about where to get money, but what they wanted us to do was to go into the wholesale market, including Europe," Benfield says. "So Europe gives us millions of pounds, then we get it out to our member organisations in small lumps. The little organisations could never deal with having cash-flow problems with Europe."

The body's third achievement around this time was to forge a closer relationship with local government, which Benfield believes had aims more compatible with those of the sector than the Conservative government.

Together they produced Towards Shared Aims: a good practice guide for local authorities and voluntary organisations, a predecessor to the local Compacts more recently adopted by many councils.

Different in Wales: The key points

- The Government of Wales Act requires the Welsh government to have a scheme to promote the interests of the third sector. This is unique to Wales.

- The Voluntary Sector Scheme, updated this year, includes provision for a Third Sector Partnership Council for engagement with the sector.

- The scheme includes ministerial meetings focusing on high-level issues affecting the sector.

- It outlines the government's commitment to support sector infrastructure, such as the WCVA, county voluntary councils and volunteer centres, as well as supporting communities and volunteers. It contains a code of practice for how the third sector should be funded.

- A report on its implementation is laid before the Welsh assembly every year.

- Wales receives significant European funding, especially west Wales and the valleys. Through subcontracting to deliver services, the sector has accessed more than £140m from the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund.

- More than 32,000 third sector organisations are active in Wales. More than 90 per cent of these are local groups.

- Unlike the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the WCVA has always given out grants. In 2012/13, it ran 15 schemes, and payments worth almost £9m were made to 957 bodies.

- The WCVA estimates it has awarded more than £250m in grants, loans and contracts since 2000. Its loan schemes, CIF 1 and CIF2, awarded almost £600,000 last year.

- The Welsh voluntary sector had an income of £1.6bn in 2012, up from £500m in 1996.

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