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10 June 2009

A costly service supposed to help claimants successfully claim IB and ESA was set up by two former Atos doctors who lost their jobs after protesting that Atos was too soft on claimants.  The company has since passed through several hands, including those of a burger van decontamination specialist.

IB Assist home pageIB Assist is a web based company which advertises its services on Google. It claims to help claimants complete the ESA and IB questionnaires and prepare for a medical.  People who pay the £65 fee are sent a detailed questionnaire by IB Assist to be completed before filling in the DWP questionnaire.  On the basis of your answers, IB Assist doctors will:

‘provide a comprehensive report in which we will make recommendations on what we believe to be the important aspects of the case, and advise on the information that should be included in the questionnaire (IB 50 or ESA 50) and conveyed during the examination.’

The company claims to use ‘doctors who have experience and knowledge of the Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance systems’ and ‘have examined many thousands of claimants’.

In other words, Atos, or former Atos, doctors

IB Assist charge £65 for their help.  If your claim is unsuccessful after appeal they will refund £45 of your fee.

The website gives no indication at all about who is behind the company.  However, Benefits and Work has discovered that two of the people who set it up in August 2008 were Dr James Branton and Dr Gail Young.  These two doctors hit the headlines in May last year after taking Atos to an employment tribunal claiming they had been unfairly dismissed for wanting to find more claimants fit for work.

According to the doctors, claimants who complained about their medicals were much more likely to be found incapable of work than those who did not. When Atos failed to respond to their concerns Branton and Young wrote to Tony Blair and were suspended.  

Branton later wrote an article for the Daily Mail headlined ‘How doctors like me are punished for exposing sicknote scroungers’, by a whistleblower’.  In it, he claimed that 70,000 people a year – about a fifth of all those examined by Atos - are wrongly found incapable of work and given benefits.

He also claimed to be paid £40 for each medical he carried out and said that he if he worked hard he could earn £4,500 a week.  This amounts to around £200,000 a year and would require Branton to have carried out 112 medicals a week.

The outcome of the case was never reported. It seems very likely that the parties reached an out-of-court settlement.

It was not long after this that the two doctors set up IB Assist to help more claimants succeed in being found unfit for work.

The third person involved in setting up IB Assist was Debra Ann Howard.  Howard had already set up a company called UK IBC Ltd, though it is not clear whether this company is still trading.  Claimants were invited to send their completed IB50 questionnaire to UK IBC, where doctors formerly ‘employed to score and scrutinise [incapacity benefit] applications on behalf of the DWP’  checked through the form ‘to assess how likely it is to succeed’.

Following this check ‘Possible adjustments are discussed with the client and when the application is ready to be sent off it is then submitted directly to the DWP on the claimant's behalf.’

It is difficult to see how this practice could be lawful unless the form contained a declaration that it had been altered by someone other than the claimant after having been signed and dated.

However, in July 2008 Howard resigned as a director of UK IBC Ltd and, in August of the same year, became a director of IB Assist.

But not for long.  In December 2008 Howard resigned as a director of IB Assist.  In January 2009 Dr Branton and Dr Young also resigned as directors, having been replaced by Gary Heath and his wife Yvonne.  Heath is also the director of HCS Ltd, a specialist cleaning company which uses revolutionary new ‘pro-biotic’ chemicals to decontaminate and remove germs, mould and fungi from catering premises including mobile burger vans

Unfortunately, the Heath’s both resigned in March 2009, leaving the company trading without any directors, an offence which normally leads to a company being struck off the register at Companies House and losing its limited liability status.

When we contacted Mr Heath he claimed that the company was still being run by Dr Branton who, he said, had resigned as a director due to ‘personal circumstances’.

Dr Branton, however, claimed that he no longer had any connection with the company, which he asserted was now run by a Dr Wakeman and a Matthew Grinham for whom he had no contact details.  He suggested we contact them via the email address on the IB Assist website.

We did so and received an unsigned reply stating that IB Assist was in the process of appointing new directors.  The email had the name Jakes Branton in the ‘from’ line.

When we asked Dr Branton how it was he still had access to IB Assist’s confidential emails if he no longer had any connection with the company he responded ‘ I am no longer connected with the company and was only trying to be helpful.’ He referred us to a firm of accountants for any further information.

We have since heard from the accountants that IB Assist now has one director, a Mr M Grinham, who lives in Birmingham.  We have been unable to discover anything more about Grinham or his background.

Dr Branton, meanwhile, is not the only former director who appears to have kept close connections with the company.  Debra Howard lives in a farmhouse in Chard in deepest rural Somerset. The contact PO Box number on the IB Assist website leads to – the very same farmhouse in Chard.

There is, then, a tangled web and considerable mystery connected with who runs IB Assist.  We would advise our members to think very carefully before handing over money to a company set up by doctors who wanted to see more people thrown off their benefits and which has changed ownership so many times in such a brief period.

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