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What would Lord Beveridge say?

Published: 23/06/23 | Categories: Information & support, Author: Fiona Liddell

Helpforce Cymru Manager, Fiona Liddell looks back at a 75 year old survey on voluntary action.

Lord Beveridge has been described as the architect of the welfare state. Following detailed reports on health and on employment, his third report, published in 1948, was on voluntary action.

When clearing out our office in Baltic House last year I was delighted to come across this volume and take a closer look at it, through the lens of the voluntary sector as we know it today.


Philanthropy in the Victorian era was largely associated with reform of prisons and other institutions, relief from poverty and care for the destitute. By the end of the 19th century, new expressions of voluntary action were emerging:

Societies for the defense of rural and urban amenities were formed, achieving the lasting preservation of open spaces and footpaths, with significant benefits for generations to come. As Beveridge says ‘London owes its lungs to voluntary action.’

Social surveys, such as those carried out by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, were important as impartial studies of social conditions and informed criticism of public measures. Beveridge comments that these ‘…must always be one of the subjects of voluntary action. The state can play its part in this field and is doing so increasingly today,’ but ‘…should never attempt to absorb the whole of it’.

Now, as then, voluntary organisations have a vital role as an independent ‘critical friend’, working with but not controlled by governments and statutory bodies.


An interesting development in the early 20th century was the formation of Councils of Social Service in order to provide free and independent coordination and support for voluntary organisations.

WCVA is indeed the successor of such an organisation. Infrastructure bodies at national and regional level not only provide advice and support for their members but also serve as contact points for government and other bodies who want to connect with the voluntary sector. They represent their members’ voice in local and national policy development.


At a time when the welfare state was coming to being, it is worth noting that Beveridge clearly identified areas of need which would lie beyond what the state could realistically address and which would necessitate the ongoing involvement of the voluntary sector.

Broadly, these included special needs relating to older people, children, people with physical and mental disabilities, the ‘chronically sick’ and discharged prisoners. Newer emerging areas of identified need included provision of equitable opportunities for use of leisure, combatting antisocial behaviour such as gambling and the provision of citizen’s advice and information in a world of growing complexity.

Today there is much discussion about the shape of our future health and care system. It is recognised that statutory services cannot keep pace with demand nor meet popular expectations and that a radical rebalancing is needed in favour of preventative action and community led support. Clearly the contribution of voluntary and community organisations will become increasingly significant.


Beveridge heralded the achievements of voluntary action as ‘…one of the outstanding features of this report’. It shows the strength of ‘being able perpetually to take new forms… voluntary action is needed to do things which the state should not do… It is needed to do things which the state is most unlikely to do. It is needed to pioneer ahead of the state and make experiments. It is needed to get services rendered which cannot be got by paying for them.’

Though we’re no longer predominantly concerned with meeting basic needs, there is still vital work being done which is best delivered by voluntary organisations.

Then, as now, the need for funding and volunteers is a challenge. A concluding chapter of Beveridge’s report discusses how the state can support sustained voluntary action without compromising its independence. No longer sustained by wealthy patrons, governments ‘…on behalf of democracy, may have to do what the aristocracy did before,’ in supporting the sector financially.


WCVA has been exploring how volunteers and the voluntary sector can be enabled to contribute most effectively to health and care in Wales. A paper The values and value of volunteering: our hidden asset has been published by the Bevan Commission. A companion paper ‘The values and value of the third sector’ will be published shortly, raising some issues and pointers to a resourceful, integrated system in which the voluntary sector plays its full and effective part.

We are looking forward to the Bevan Commission conference The tipping point: where next for health and care on 5 and 6 July 2023. We will be facilitating an interactive workshop and also launching a new video which highlights the potential of volunteers and the voluntary sector in health and care.

Wouldn’t it be good to know what Lord Beveridge has to say about our deliberations?


Helpforce Cymru is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 CVCs), Welsh Government and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering to support health and social care services in Wales.

Visit the Helpforce Cymru webpage, or to receive email updates, sign up here and choose the option ‘health and care volunteering’

Reference: Voluntary Action. A report on methods of social advance. Lord Beveridge. George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1948