A word in your ear

From lawyers to nurses, a new army of advisers is waiting for the call. Tim Cockerell reports on a national information service
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The Independent Online
We all, to paraphrase Two Brains Willetts, want advice, in the sense that we all need it. But how and where do we get it, when we want it? Free advice is often poor quality. Advice we have to pay for may be too detailed (perhaps to justify its cost), lengthy and lead to countless other avenues of discussion - sending the person with a problem deeper and deeper into the solutions minefield. At the top end, if expensive expert help is sought directly, costs can mount up in a frightening fashion.

This week a new advice line, First Advice, has been launched nationally, claiming to offer a service that lies somewhere between these extremes. It is, they say, the first time the public has been offered collective and substantial expertise directly from established service providers, covering professional, legal, financial, taxation and personal matters.

"By corralling these services and adding domestic factors, we can offer the general public an affordable route to useful, relevant information that can be further channelled to appropriate field experts," says Tony Fisher.

Yes it does cost. For pounds 65 a year plus a pounds l0 joining fee, First Advice members and their immediate family have "unlimited access to confidential impartial and professional advice via the telephone on personal concerns ranging from legal and financial matters to stress counselling".

The First Advice "conduit" has eight core advice channels - legal, tax, employment, domestic, personal support, impartial investment advice and medical.

The legal lines - on everyday problems and employment law for employees - are handled by Mondial Assistance. They are manned by qualified professionals (solicitors and legal assistants) trained in giving telephone advice. If the advice fits the need, it compares favourably with an hour's session with a solicitor, which can be upwards of pounds 75.

Any personal legal matter can be covered - from neighbour disputes, property, matrimonial, family and wills to motoring, consumer affairs, crime and injury and EU law. Advice on travel, medical and domestic services also comes to First Advice via Mondial, Europe's largest assistance provider, with 300 specialist advisers in the UK.

"The personal medical information helpline is staffed by highly trained nurses who will provide practical information," says Tony Fisher. They can talk on background for medical treatments, advise on hospital waiting lists and give details of support groups for the sick and disabled. "However, no diagnosis or comment on specific medical conditions will be undertaken."

ICAS provides the personal support, debt counselling and family-care wing of the First Advice network. ICAS has set counselling standards in the UK and is recognised by national bodies including the Employees Assistance Professionals Association, the British Association for Counselling and the British Psychological Society.

Its service lines are operated by qualified professional counsellors who work in confidence. ICAS is already used by organisations in most UK business sectors.

Advice on taxation comes via Hambro Assistance, a subsidiary of Hambros Bank which claims eight to 10 million business clients on its books.

One final but important benefit is that all lines go straight to a real person and calls are charged at standard raten First Advice is on 0800 777115.

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