More firms are offering online advice for claimants but adisers must beware the charges and the quality of the service
I like Google – it’s quick, efficient and seems reliable. But using it for accessing benefit advice can lead you, and your clients, into a world where advice that you can get for free will cost you £1.50 a minute, doctors can charge you £65 for “supporting evidence” even though they’ve never met you and a firm that specialises in disinfecting burger vans can help you claim disability benefits.
A few months ago, I told you about an organisation called Benefits Helpline, that charges £1.50 a minute for benefits advice. If you type the words “benefits advice” into Google, up pops a sponsored site that directs you to a premium rate number. The cost of the call and a disclaimer saying that “the information this service provides is available for free in the public domain” is in a very small typeface. So at least people with excellent vision will know that a 10 minute chat about benefits will cost them £15.
But it doesn’t stop there unfortunately.
I recently took a call from a social worker and was surprised when she said the contact number for the child benefit office, taken from the website she found via Google, was a premium rate one.
So I Googled “child benefit” and the top link was to a private company called Child Benefit Information which is an unofficial site with an 11p a minute call rate (higher from some mobiles) which gives advice about claiming child benefit. It’s the same advice that you can get for free from www.hmrc.gov.uk or from any reputable advice service.
I’m grateful to a website called Benefits and Work (www.benefitsandwork.co.uk) for the following information. It found a company called IB Assist, also found on Google by typing “incapacity benefit advice” into the search box. Their website requests the sum of £35 (although some parts suggest £65) to issue a questionnaire to the Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance claimant.
Once the claimant completes and returns the questionnaire, IB Assist will produce a report, compiled by a qualified doctor, which the claimant can use when making their IB or ESA claim. But how much value will the Department for Work and Pensions put on a medical report from someone who hasn’t met the claimant?
Benefits and Work discovered that two of the people who set up IB Assist in August 2008 were doctors who had worked for Atos, the private company who conduct medicals on behalf of the DWP. These doctors took Atos to an employment tribunal, claiming they had been unfairly dismissed for wanting to find more claimants fit for work. One of the doctors even wrote an article for the The Daily Mail headlined “How doctors like me are punished for exposing sicknote scroungers”. It seems odd that the same doctor set up a service that is supposedly designed to help people make successful benefit claims.
In January 2009, the two doctors resigned as directors of IB Assist. They were replaced by Gary and Yvonne Heath. The former is also the director of HCS Ltd, a company that cleans and decontaminates catering premises, including mobile burger vans. The Heaths resigned from IB Assist and it’s not clear at present who is now running the company.
So the moral of the above seems to be that claimants and advisers should steer clear of “unofficial” websites and phone lines, unless directly provided by government departments or known and reputable organisations.
Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries direct. If you have a question e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is published in the 25 June 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline When Googling for advice stick to the trusted and free sources