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27 August 2008
It is good to talk and there is plenty of truth in the old saying that a problem shared is a problem halved.

Benefits hHelpline home pageBiting the bullet and asking for help can often be the hardest step. So to then receive advice which is nothing short of worthless merely adds to the sense of confusion, desperation and stress that many are feeling at such a difficult time.

And that makes the likes of the Benefits Helpline even more outrageous.

Anyone searching Google for terms such as “incapacity benefit” and “disability living allowance” will come across a sponsored link to the Benefits Helpline website.

It will inevitably draw people in who are searching for some kind of light at the end of what can feel like a very long tunnel.

But that is where the problems start. The smiling faces and professional look of the website certainly adds to the expectation, but there is no guidance on the site itself other than bold claims that the service it provides ensures “benefits forms are made simple” and visitors are a call away from “comprehensive benefits advice”.

For this “expert” advice, the website directs visitors to a premium rate phone line – charges stand at £1.50 a minute.

The Google advert itself suggests experts in claims for incapacity benefit, income support, sickness benefit, disability benefit and disability living allowance are waiting to dispense advice. Yet calls we made with fairly straight-forward enquiries suggested the experts on the other end of the phone line know virtually nothing about benefits.

The organisation’s boast on its website that callers will “speak to a straightforward, articulate and friendly telephone support agent” was certainly not the experience we had. It is made clear the helpline is not linked to any government or official body, but not as prominently as the bold promises of expert advice.

In my initial emailed enquiry I presented a scenario familiar to many of you and which would pose few problems for anyone with a good understanding of the benefits system:

“I've had a letter saying I've been found fit for work and my incapacity benefit is being stopped. My arthritis is so bad I get higher rate care DLA. How can they think I can work? Is there anything I can do?”

After receiving an automatically generated response telling me to call the premium rate helpline, I dialled and listened to a 90-second message informing me I would next be asked for my name, address, telephone and email and then given a time slot to call back and be put straight through to an adviser. Nothing happened, so I tried again and drew another blank.

I then called another number in the footer of the site and was told to ring the main helpline again. This time when I gave my name they read me my email address so had clearly got my message explaining my problem.

The following conversation took 7.5 minutes – more than £10 – and the person I was put through to clearly had little, if any, understanding about benefits.

The advice he should have given is that as I get higher rate care DLA I am automatically exempt from the personal capability assessment and cannot be found capable of work. I should inform the DWP immediately and, to be on the safe side, also challenge the decision within the one month deadline via a revision or an appeal.

My “expert” had no idea about any of this and was, it appeared to me, even struggling to use the information system he was operating. He didn’t ask what rate of DLA I get, didn’t tell me I was exempt from the PCA and didn’t advise me to appeal or tell me what the deadline for appeals was.

He gave me two telephone numbers:

· 0800 882200 (which is the benefits enquiry line) and said this would help me to check I was still getting my DLA even though I had already told him I was;
· the second was 0800 0556688 (the Jobcentre Plus number) which he suggested was so that I could check there had not been a mistake about my incapacity benefit.

I also received three emails with links:

· www.dwp.gov.uk/eservice/ which he said was a link to claim JSA;
· www.dwp.gov.uk/eservice/ which he said was to claim DLA;
· Online form www.dwp.gov.uk/advisers/claimforms/sc1.pdf;
· Printable form www.dwp.gov.uk/advisers/claimforms/sc1_print.pdf which he said were links to claim incapacity benefit.

In short, the advice was worthless and my “expert” offered absolutely no explanation and answer to my enquiry. The fact that this was such a straight-forward issue with a fairly simple solution – and yet Benefits Helpline failed to respond correctly – makes their claims of expert advice even more scandalous.

There are also some obvious alarm bells that this site starts ringing. For example, it hasn’t been possible to claim invalidity benefit for many years.

The site also refers to “DSS benefits” and the DHSS. The DHSS/DSS no longer exists, having been renamed the Benefits Agency and then DWP years ago.

Passport helpline The Customer service address at the bottom of each page is a PO Box in the name of “Passport Helpline”.

There is an absolutely identical website at www.passporthelpline.com, only the premium rate number has been removed. The pictures and most of the text are identical.

We have attempted to make contact with those behind Benefits Helpline without any success. Calls are greeted with recorded messages and emailed enquiries for information regarding the helpline, the “experts” and the lack of advice they provide have not received a satisfactory response.

When we did get through to someone to ask to be put through to someone in a senior position, the “expert” on the other end of the line initially refused and then hung up.

Our email enquiries simply receive the same automated response as benefits enquiries. As did similar emails to the Passport Helpline.

Further enquiries are taking place through various channels to discover who is behind the Benefits Helpline.

We will update you on these enquiries in our next newsletter.

In the meantime, our advice is simple and free – steer well clear of Benefits Helpline.