I was really excited to appear on BBC Radio 5 live today to talk about the newly re-launched www.direct.gov.uk 'online benefits adviser' service.

The online calculator has been criticised by the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group http://www.litrg.org.uk/news/latest.cfm?id=688 and I was invited to speak on the programme as a guest benefits expert.

You can listen back here:

http://www.lhtc.co.uk/leehealeyonradio5livesep2009.mp3

I really had to agree with the findings of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group. Online benefits calculators sound like a good idea in principle but in reality it is so difficult to design an easy to use calculator which covers all benefits and tax credits as well as all of the circumstances and situations that households or individuals find themselves in. Benefits calculators have to try to cover so much and as a result they are not terribly user friendly and to the untrained eye they can baffling, full of questions that have no relevance.

I was pleased that the DWP acknowledged that it's benefits calculator should really only be used as a starting point and as a basic guide - I have always said that benefit calculators are NOT suitable for comprehensive, detailed checks and are for basic guidance only. The best way for someone to understand their entitlement and to maximise their income is to speak to a benefits expert, either on the telephone or face-to-face.

Anyone using a benefits calculator should always follow it up by seeking some expert, independent advice from a benefits advice specialist – this might be an advice service or citizens advice bureaux that have in-house benefits expertise.  

It is clear when discussing topics like this that the benefits system does need to be simplified – it isn’t fair that the majority of people do not understand the system and do not understand their entitlement . But of course, this is what Income Max is all about and I can't wait for our service to start having an impact on the issue of understanding entitlement.