OBITUARY:Lord Benson

Henry Benson was the outstanding accountant of his generation. For 30 years he exercised a major influence on developments in the profession - a period when its size more than doubled and its role in the support of business and government grew out of all recognition.

His achievements were many and wide. He led his firm Coopers & Lybrand (during much of his time Cooper Brothers & Co) from modest beginnings to a leading position in the UK and international accounting scene. At the same time, he gained a unique reputation for investigating, advising and reporting on the main issues of the day. He was among the first to recognise the need and demand for management consultancy. He pioneered the development of International Accounting Standards. He presided over a large and happy family and all who worked with him gained from the experience.

Henry Benson was born and educated in South Africa. His father had emigrated as a solicitor and his mother, Florence Mary Cooper, was a daughter of Francis Cooper, one of the four Cooper brothers who founded the firm in 1854. So it was natural that he should join the firm in London. He never returned to live in Africa but retained a strong emotional attachment to the country. He had some of the stubbornness associated with South Africans and he loved the open spaces. After dinner on holidays in Scotland, the men would stand round the tree in the African manner.

Benson qualified with honours in 1932 and, two years later, at the age of 25, was made a salaried partner at £1,000 a year. He learned much commercially and socially in the early days from his uncle Sir D'Arcy Cooper, who left the firm to chair Unilever through difficult times. When war came Cooper arranged for Benson to join the Grenadier Guards. Posted to Windsor Castle for guard duty, he wrote a report on improving communications.

More demanding work was to come. The Royal Ordnance Factories, supplying guns, ammunition and explosives to the three Services, had grown enormously, employing 400,000, and their accounts and controls were in chaos. In 1943 Benson was called in to sort out the mess. He regarded the next few months as the most hectic he ever spent. The control of cash, stores, wages and costings all had to be tackled at great pace. In 10 months the job was done and the accounts in good shape. It was a watershed. He had demonstrated publicly his extraordinary organisational powers and the ability to get things done.

After the war, Benson returned to Coopers and became joint Senior Partner with John Pears. Different individuals, they formed a powerful team. Drawing on their war experience (Pears had been principal controller of costs at the Ministry of Supply), they introduced new services in planning, organisation, administration and systems (it was said the first three consultants were named True, Perfect and Speed), and formalised techniques to ensure quality in all aspects of work (later published as the well- known "Manuals").

Above all, they had a burning ambition to take the firm to the top. Within a few years the changes were immense. In 1945 there were 173 staff in the UK and 66 overseas. By 1975 when Benson retired, there were 2,207 in the UK and 16,179 overseas, and Coopers was a leading firm in every sense.

The effort required was total. "While I was at Coopers it was my life, and practically everything else was subordinated to it. The dedication was, for practical purposes, complete." Working for Benson was an experience not easily forgotten. It was his enormous concentration, clarity and logical thought that impressed rather than any brilliance of ideas. He was a complete master of English. He would sit with paper and pencil poised; a disturbing feature was that if the material served up was poor, the argument lax, the result could be one or more pencils snapped in half.

Benson was much involved in the affairs of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. He served on the Council of the Institute between 1956 and 1975 and as President in 1966-67. He foresaw the importance of International Accounting Standards, and, as President, pioneered, with the US and Canadian Institutes, the practical steps that led to the creation of the International Accounting Standards Committee. Benson was the first chairman of this important committee, from 1973 to 1975.

Outside the profession, Benson was better known for the enormous range of public assignments he undertook, many of high visibility. He helped clear up the "Groundnuts Scheme", appearing in the process before the Public Accounts Committee. He made a major contribution to the Fleck Report, reorganising the National Coal Board in the 1950s. This led to similar work for the iron and steel industry and the Ministry of Defence. He advised the National Trust and the horse-racing industry and was closely involved in the establishment of the CBI. He advised the Government, attending cabinet meetings when Rolls-Royce was assailed by the RB211 problems and was a Board of Trade inspector into the collapse of Rolls Razor.

In recognition of his public and professional work he was appointed CBE in 1946 and knighted in 1964. He was created GBE in 1971 and a life peer 10 years later.

Somehow Benson found the time for recreation. He shot in Scotland and at Drovers, in West Sussex, and sailed from Itchenor and at Cowes. As was to be expected, standards were set high and crew could expect to be disciplined. He enjoyed woodwork and the speaker's lectern in Chartered Accountants' Hall is his work.

Henry Benson was a big man in every sense, strong in personality and opinion, but with great humour and affection for the young and those in need of help. All else was dropped when a staff problem arose. He was a family man. Those who had the good fortune to be invited to a holiday remote in Scotland with all generations happily together saw him in his real element.

Brian Jenkins

Henry Benson was an Adviser to the Governor of the Bank of England from 1975 to 1983, a period of exceptional strain and adjustment for British industry in the wake of the oil-price shocks and, later, the strength of sterling through the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, writes Sir David Walker.

The challenge was to find ways in which, without any commitment of public funds, the Bank could assist as honest broker to ensure that basically sound businesses had time to adjust while the proper interests of their bank and other creditors and shareholders were protected; to promote rationalisation where a trusted and respected external catalyst could play a useful role; and to encourage greater board effectiveness in rooting out weak management and sponsoring the best.

Benson's contribution to the wellbeing of British industry during this critical phase was huge and its extent has been underestimated: discretion was a necessary element in the success that he almost invariably achieved - so that in many cases knowledge of the seriousness of financial difficulties that Benson had helped overcome was confined to a small circle.

His approach was no- nonsense and direct; there was no tolerance for waffle or what he saw as second-rate or footdragging, and bruised egos were often left behind on all sides. But Benson's indefatigable determination, wide experience and vision went a long way toward ensuring at least a practical and often a very successful outcome in any situation in which he was involved.

A prominent example of his initiative was based on his conviction - several years before the recent corporate governance debate - that company boards need a leavening of high-quality non-executive directors and his leading role in the launch in 1981 of Proned, the agency for the promotion of non-executive directors.

His commitment and engagement in business matters was formidable but it was complemented by a personal simplicity, humour and zest for life that made him a great mentor for colleagues, who found it both stimulating and a privilege to work with him.

Henry Benson was beyond normal retirement age when he embraced yet another profession to which he was to give signal service, writes Lord Alexander of Weedon. In 1976 he was appointed Chairman of the Royal Commission on Legal Services. It was an immense task, which Benson led with his formidable intellect, incisiveness, and energetic command.

The inquiry took almost three years. The outcome was a definitive study, meticulously researched and backed by statistics, of the services given by the legal profession; it swept aside all cobwebs and displayed a deep understanding of all aspects of the framework and practices of the law. He probed relentlessly, and expressed his conclusions with forceful moderation and pellucid clarity.

The recommendations of the Royal Commission disappointed some of those who clamoured most radically for change. It rejected, on the almost unanimous evidence of all parties involved, some cries for fusion of the two branches of the profession. It left intact barristers' rights of audience. It mostly preserved the conveyancing monopoly of solicitors, although it paved the way for licensed conveyancers. For Benson believed deeply in the professions, and sustaining their basic values. Where he saw good in traditional practices, his aim was for evolutionary change, preserving the best of the past and adapting it to modern needs. His clear mind and deep humanity went to the heart of what really mattered. He understood and emphasised that it is a fundamental function of a civilised state to provide equal access to the courts. Practical, as ever, Benson appreciated that delay and cost were formidable barriers to obtaining this end.

But in another respect the Report was highly radical. Organisation had never been the strength of the legal profession. Henry Benson was a superb administrator, and he produced a blueprint for the future. It included the recommendation for a Council of Legal Services, which he regarded as essential to keep practices under review and advise the Lord Chancellor. He saw this as "a necessary condition of considered action by both government and the profession". The Report suggested a mechanism for bringing law centres and citizens' advice bureaux into the mainstream of legal services and their funding. He urged one single, strong governing body for the Bar, rather than the fragmentation of responsibilities divided between the Bar Council and the Inns of Court. There were cogent proposals in every area: from equal opportunities to recondite conveyancing issues.

It would be idle to pretend that Benson was enthusiastic about the reception of the Royal Commission Report. The Government took years to respond, and did not grasp positively his recommendations. No Council for Legal Services was created. Law centres and citizens' advice bureaux are not even yet within the mainstream of legal services. Even his suggestion that the Lord Chancellor should have a junior minister in the House of Commons took 12 years or so to implement. The profession for its part gladly welcomed those parts of the Report which endorsed their practices, but were much less positive about his proposals for sensible change. The Law Society resisted the creation of licensed conveyancers. The Inns of Court fought a vigorous rearguard action against the strengthening of the central body of the Bar. Six years later the then Chairman of the Bar had cause for gratitude to Benson in helping him secure at last much strengthened power for the Bar Council.

But it was perhaps saddest of all for Benson that the gap between the principle of equal access to the courts and the reality became ever greater over the next 15 years. At the heart of his Report was a belief that "part of the population suffers permanent and multiple deprivation" and that the first priority should be to ensure for them adequate legal services. He failed to detect from government a principled response to this fundamental issue. Not surprisingly, the draconian cuts in legal aid eligibility of 1993 were anathema to him.

These very disappointments emphasised one of Henry Benson's great virtues. Not for him the delivery of a Royal Commission report and a disappearance from the scene. He retained a close involvement in the affairs of the law, speaking on them with clarity, cogency and economy of language from his place on the cross-benches in the House of Lords. He won many admirers in the legal profession and made good and enduring friendships. For, impatient as he was of nonsense and trenchant in his views, he had an underlying cheer of spirit and enjoyment of good company. He deeply appreciated that he was made a Bencher of the Inner Temple. He shared with enjoyment the hospitality and conversation which long ago Baldwin characterised as "the pleasures of the Temple". If he embraced the profession, the profession warmly embraced him.

Men are rightly said to be debtors to their own profession. But in Benson's case he was not a lawyer, yet the legal profession is his lasting debtor.

Henry Alexander Benson, chartered accountant: born 2 August 1909; partner Coopers & Lybrand (formerly Cooper Brothers & Co) 1934-75; CBE 1946, GBE 1971; Kt 1964; Adviser to the Governor of the Bank of England 1975-83; Chairman, Royal Commission on Legal Services 1976-79; created 1981 Baron Benson; married 1939 Virginia (Ginny) Macleod (two sons, one daughter); died 5 March 1995.

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