3 February 2004
Disabled claimants could have their benefits reduced to just 10p per week as a result of relying on Community Fund sponsored information provided by registered charity Barton Hill Advice Service (BHAS). In spite of repeated complaints BHAS continues to publish out-of-date, incomplete and misleading information on its website and, when pressured to update material, has even resorted to copying other charity's work and claiming authorship and copyright for itself.
BHAS is a small, East Bristol based agency providing welfare benefits advice and representation to disabled local residents. In 2001, using a funding underspend, BHAS set up a website to allow visitors to download its easy to understand, step-by-step guide to claiming disability living allowance on mental health grounds. The site attracted a great deal of positive feedback from service users and support staff and further guides to claiming disability and incapacity benefits followed. By late 2002 around 8,500 guides a month were being downloaded, amounting to over 100,000 guides a year.
However, in spite of its success in attracting visitors and extremely positive feedback, the BHAS site ran out of funding in January 2003. Although the organisation has a full-time Community Funded Development Worker post no further funding appears to have been sought for the site since. The lack of funding has not, however, prevented BHAS from continuing to publish material that it knows to now be out of date.
Attendance Allowance from ages past
The most comprehensively outdated guide currently available from the site is the BHAS guide to claiming Attendance Allowance (AA). AA is a benefit for disabled people aged 65 and older who have difficulty with everyday activities such as washing, bathing and dressing themselves. The 46 page BHAS guide explains in great detail how to complete a two part 33 page claim pack for AA. However, the AA claim pack was dramatically reduced in size to just 19 pages in October 2002. BHAS, nonetheless, continue to publish a detailed guide to completing a pack that does not exist.
This is particularly inexcusable as staff at BHAS work in the Bristol area, where the shortened AA pack was piloted for over a year before being introduced nationally. Nor can BHAS staff claim that they were unaware that the pack had gone national: apart from all the other sources of information available to them, such as welfare rights publications, websites and forums, they were specifically told in a letter of complaint in October 2003 that the AA guide was now out-of-date.
For older people struggling with long-term illness or disability, making a claim for AA can be a difficult and distressing experience. Downloading a 46 page step-by-step guide to the process, which you may have had to pay 10p a sheet to your local library to print off, only to discover it bears no relation at all to the form you actually have to fill, out might well be enough to make some disabled claimants give up in despair. The BHAS guide bears the logo of the Community Fund and BHAS' charitable registration details, encouraging people to believe that they can rely upon it
Wales on 10p a week
The most alarming departure from accuracy on the site, however, is contained in a publication entitled Getting the best from work-focused interviews. Work-focused interviews, which look at ways of improving claimants' work prospects, are compulsory for an increasing number of people, even if they have been found incapable of work. Failure to attend and participate can lead to a claim for a benefit being turned down or existing benefits being reduced.
According to the BHAS site, their interview guide explains 'what you have to do in order to avoid losing your benefits'. Sadly, for visitors to the BHAS site from pilot areas in Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taf; Renfrewshire; Inverclyde; Argyll and Bute and Derbyshire the opposite is true. The BHAS guide tells readers that:
'Your personal adviser will be keen to draw up an action plan with you which sets out the steps you are going to take towards getting a job. You don't have to do this if you don't wish to.'
In fact, since October 2003 claimants in the pilot areas do have to draw up an action plan. If they decline to do so their benefits will be reduced by £10.93 a week. Worse still, in the pilot areas claimants have not one but six work focused interviews in the first six months of their claim. At every interview at which they follow BHAS' advice their benefits will be reduced by a further £10.93 a week until they are left with just 10p a week to live on.
The pilots have been extremely well publicised. They were first set out in a government green paper, Pathways to work, in November 2002. There was then a lengthy consultation period before the pilots were introduced. They have also been written about in virtually every welfare benefits periodical that a reputable advice agency is likely to subscribe to.
Once again, the BHAS guide bears the logo of the Community Fund and BHAS' charitable registration details, encouraging people to believe that they can rely upon it.
"That's a nice guide . . . I'll have that"
In the face of continued complaints about how out of date their Guide to Permitted Work had become, and publication on this site of details of users right to sue if they suffered financial loss as a result of relying upon it, BHAS finally replaced their guide in September 2003 with a four page publication entitled Permitted Work Rules. The author was given as Barton Hill Advice Service and copyright was attributed to Barton Hill Advice Service from July 2003.
In fact, the document has been copied, almost word for word, from text which appeared identically in two Department of Health funded Disability Alliance publications: Moving into Work and Self-employment - why not? (both first published in December 2001). The main change was the substitution of the term 'permitted work' for 'therapeutic work'. Disability Alliance is a registered charity which relies on the sale of publications such as these to generate income to allow it to carry out its own charitable activities. The guides were co-written, and the copyright is owned, by the author of this article.
After their plagiarism was pointed out in October of last year, BHAS removed Permitted Work Rules from their website and posted a notice stating that: "Due to copyright problems we have removed our information sheet. We hope to replace it at a later date". More than three months later no such replacement has appeared. Nor has BHAS, whose development staff are well aware of copyright issues, been prepared to offer any apology or explanation for their actions. Naturally, the plagiarised guide bore the logo of the Community Fund and details of BHAS' status as a registered charity.
Not forgetting . . .
There are a wide, and growing, range of other problems with the BHAS site, including:
- advice to visitors to claim benefits which no longer exist, including Disabled Person's Tax Credit and Working Families Tax Credit;
- ailure to warn visitors about the controversial shortened DLA claim packs being piloted in London and the south east of England or the option of opting out of these trials;
- failure to reflect the content of a number of recent commissioners decisions particularly in relation to mental health, including: CSIB/53/2003, CIB/748/2002, CIB/5336/2002 and CIB/4404/2002;
- making old, discontinued editions of DWP publications available to download from the site including booklet IB214 Incapacity Benefit - the personal capability assessment and booklet GL24, If you think our decision is wrong, which contains information about how to challenge a DWP decision and an appeal form for claimants to complete.
Don't blame us, we're really trying.
BHAS publish glowing feedback from disabled people, mental health service users, advisers and support workers on the site in order to reassure visitors that they can safely rely on the contents of the guides. In addition, they continue to display the logos of Advice UK, the Community Fund, LloydsTSB and other funders, plus their charitable registration details, again encouraging people to believe they can rely on the information on the site.
In September 2003 BHAS agreed to draw visitors attention to the DLA pilots taking place in London and Glasgow and the possibility of opting out of them: they have not done so. In November 2003 BHAS claimed that "We have updated our website so no incorrect benefit rates, earnings limits or benefits which no longer exist are included". In fact, the most perfunctory reading demonstrates that there are still guides with incorrect benefit rates and non-existent benefits.
BHAS' final word in response to complaints is to state simply that: "[we] feel we are doing as much as we can to ensure our website is as good as we are able to make it".
In the world of BHAS, it would seem, it doesn't matter if you confuse and mislead disabled claimants and they lose money as a result, just so long as you feel you were doing your best. Copies of this article have been sent to the Charity Commission and the Community Fund as part of a formal complaint in the, probably vain, hope that they will exert influence where others have failed. Fully updated versions of all the BHAS guides can be downloaded from the Benefits and Work website.