Sir Richard Tilt Reveals the Seventh Annual Report of the Independent Review Service for the Social Fund
October 19, 2007, Press Dispensary. Sir Richard Tilt, Social Fund Commissioner of the Independent Review Service ( IRS – http://www.irs-review.org.uk ) – the organisation to which people can appeal against discretionary Social Fund decisions made by Jobcentre Plus - yesterday revealed his seventh annual report to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Peter Hain. Accounting for the work of Social Fund Inspectors in 2006/2007, the report was presented at Sadlers Wells, in an event featuring renowned journalist and broadcaster, Paul Lewis, as guest speaker.
Sir Richard Tilt used the occasion to highlight key issues, including the importance of feeding back to frontline decision makers to improve standards, awareness of and access to the Social Fund; and what can be done to streamline the fund’s processes, in light of long-standing criticisms that it doesn’t respond quickly enough to urgent needs.
Feeding back information to primary decision makers is a useful tool that grievance bodies can employ as a means of helping to improve standards of decision making and administrative processes. This is an area in which the IRS is uniquely placed and has vast experience. As well as reporting back on case work and delivering training workshops, it monitors the content of Social Fund forms, leaflets, letters and training materials as well as commenting on Social Fund legislation and policy.
Sir Richard believes that the IRS model is one which could apply to other grievance bodies, including tribunals.
On the charge that feedback processes may damage people’s perceptions about the independence of the grievance body, Sir Richard said: “This need not be a problem if the right processes are in place and they are transparent and impartial. Indeed, I consider there is risk of greater damage if organisations cannot draw on the wealth or information and expertise to improve primary decision making.”
Sir Richard Tilt drew attention to the lack of awareness about the Social Fund and misconceptions concerning its purpose and who can apply. He said: “Pensioners receive only 10% of the available grants budget each year, which is surprising given that one of the main purposes of grants is to help people maintain their independence in the community rather than go into care.” The fund can meet a diverse range of needs, from minor household repairs to clothing.
The IRS is currently involved in a pilot scheme in Gateshead with The Pension Service and Jobcentre Plus to raise awareness of the Social Fund amongst pensioners, with the aim of increasing successful take-up of grants from pensioners and their families. Sir Richard Tilt hopes that, if this is successful, the findings will be used for a nationwide strategy.
Sir Richard put forward three key changes that, if made to the Social Fund, could result in a more responsive service for the vulnerable people it serves. These are: to telescope the review process from a two stage review into a single independent review; allow applications for review of crisis loan cases to be made by telephone; and change clearance time targets in Jobcentre Plus, as well as how these are measured. He pointed out that, typically, the process from initial application to independent review can take three months, which is unacceptably long. These suggestions, if adopted, would result in a significantly improved service for customers.
Paul Lewis graphically illustrated that, other than the Social Fund, the sources of credit available to those on a low income are limited and high interest. In his opinion, banks are a utility and should be accessible by everyone. Unfortunately the current banking system works against the poorest in society. He said: “The answer is where the money is - banks and government.” Government could shift the tax burden on poor people and banks could cap interest rates. If affordable credit were available through the banks for those on a low income and interest free Social Fund loans for those on benefits, this would go a long way towards reducing financial exclusion.”
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Notes for editors
The Independent Review Service (IRS) is a statutory body set up in 1988 to deliver an independent review of discretionary Social Fund decisions made in Jobcentre Plus offices. Based in Birmingham and employing around 90 staff, the body serves England, Scotland and Wales. The Social Fund Commissioner, Sir Richard Tilt, heads up the IRS and is appointed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. A separate office in Belfast serves Northern Ireland.
In 2006/2007, IRS Inspectors substituted more than half of the Jobcentre Plus decisions they reviewed. As part of its remit, the IRS provides feedback to Jobcentre Plus about issues arising from casework and highlights areas for improvement. It also delivers workshops on a range of Social Fund topics and provides relevant information to the public.
In July 1997, the IRS was recognised as an Investor in People and has continued to receive this accreditation.
For further information, please contact:
Pauline Adey, IRS manager
Independent Review Service
Tel: 0121 606 2106
Tel: 0121 606 2114