Welfare rights: Independent Review Service and Social Fund appeals

If, like me, you’re a fan of American cop shows, the initials IRS conjure up images of the Inland Revenue Service finally nailing the bad guys for failing to submit their tax returns.

In the UK, the IRS stands for the Independent Review Service and, in their own way, they can help bring the bad guys to justice too – because the UK’s version of the IRS can help you and your clients challenge those sometimes bizarre and often apparently arbitrary Social Fund decisions.

When the Social Fund was set up in the mid-1980s to administer community care grants, budgeting loans and crisis loans, one of the biggest criticisms of it was that there was no right of appeal. Crucial decisions about essential furniture for people coming out of care or prison, emergency payments for people without an income, grants and loans for families under severe stress due to domestic violence or disability – all of these would be handled by Social Fund officers operating to cash-limited budgets. Not only that, but such decisions would be made without the independent scrutiny offered by an appeals and tribunals system.

As one of the biggest critics of the Social Fund system, I’ll admit to being pretty scathing of what was offered in the place of appeal rights – an allegedly independent review service that seemed bureaucratic in nature, limited in scope and cumbersome in approach.

Teeth that bite

But something odd has been happening over the last few years… the Independent Review Service has grown some teeth and it’s beginning to bite. That can only be good news for claimants and their advisers, especially as the Social Fund system approaches virtual meltdown. Apart from the pressures caused by the recession, reductions in staffing levels at Job Centres, new phone-based application processes and delays in “ordinary” benefit payments, the Social Fund is under pressure to simply exist.

In the latest Welfare Reform Bill, the government is proposing external provider Social Fund payments, where credit unions, banks and others would step in to offer loans – but not at the 0% rate offered by the Social Fund. So the IRS has never been so vital – especially as the quality of decision-making seems to be going down as, not surprisingly, the number and complexity of demands on the Social Fund continue to rise.

So it is surprising that so few people know of the IRS’s existence. They can scrutinise any discretionary Social Fund decision – crisis loans, community care grants and budgeting loans.

Their office in Birmingham can be contacted on 0800 096 1926 or by e-mail at em@irs-review.org.uk. They now produce some very good publicity material about challenging Social Fund refusals – available from their website www.irs-review.org.uk. They will even come out to your organisation to run free seminars and training courses on how to get the best deal out of the Social Fund.

The inspectors that work for the IRS will get the client’s file from the Social Fund office that made the decision to refuse or reduce a payment. They claim to be able to deal with most cases within 12 days or less – and can challenge crisis loan refusals within 24 hours. More than half of the community care grant refusals that they looked at were overturned after their intervention and they were almost as successful with crisis loans.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question e-mail natalie.valios@rbi.co.uk

This article is published in the 2 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading  Social Fund decisions easier to challenge with beefed-up IRS

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