Advising Advisers – Supplementing the Book: Ask CPAG

Ask CPAG is a ‘new subscription-access digital services platform for advisers to navigate the [UK] social security system’. In November 2017, its development was boosted by a large grant (£186,000 or $237,000) from the Legal Education Foundation (funders of this website). This was to put CPAG’s Welfare Rights Bulletin online; to develop digital versions of CPAG handbooks and ‘expand[ ] … content, providing tactical online support to advisers on problematic areas of social security law [to include] professional tools such as wizards and a pro-forma letter tool to aid advisers.’ At the moment, you can get a free trial for a month. So check it out if you are interested.

CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) will be recognisable to most UK readers and all UK advisers. For others, CPAG (of which I should disclose that I was once the in-house lawyer) was founded in 1965 as a pressure group to support payment of family allowances and to campaign against family poverty. It rapidly added a Citizens Rights Office based on experience of the welfare rights movement in the United States. CPAG is a leading player in the welfare rights movement in the UK, producing an ever growing mass of material aimed originally (and often still nominally) at claimants but increasingly relied upon by advisers. Its guides to the UK’s byzantine social security system have grown ever longer, heavier and more numerous. There are currently 15 active titles in print or available online. Combined with training income, these have provided the group with an independent, if not wholly suffiicient, source of income.

Ask CPAG has allowed the organisation to develop and improve its ‘digital offering’. Business director Naomi Jessop explains, ‘We have developed AskCPAG as a response to the needs of advisors, and in ongoing development we intend to migrate all our Welfare Rights content across from our main website to the AskCPAG platform in the coming year – creating an essential hub of information for advisors’. CPAG has begun with six of its most popular areas of information including  personal independence payments. Under these headings are grouped a pick and mix of online tools, Welfare Rights Bulletin articles, chapters from the relevant guides and information on training.

CPAG’s choice of a PIP review tool allows comparison with similar assistance by other information providers. It does relatively well though something can be leant from them all. This is an area where the Department of Work and Pensions has improvement to make. Statistics for successful appeals have now reached 75 per cent. The Department publishes guidance on the descriptors of how assessments are to be undertaken and the tool providers have used this as the basis for their offerings. The issue for claimants is often to provide sufficient detail of their condition to pass through the hoops and qualify – particularly difficult where conditions are variable. 

The CPAG tool takes the user through guidance and then into document assembly by inviting you to add a reason why the descriptor applies and thereby making your application fuller. It invites a general reply before going onto the detail:

In the box below please explain your health conditions/disabilities and describe how these affect you. Detail any medication you are prescribed. If a medication causes side effects which affect your ability to perform any of the activities relevant to the PIP assessment, please also explain which medication this is and its side effects.

CitizensAdvice has basic guidance which does not directly help you draft a letter but does provide useful assistance. AdviceNow prepares a letter for you which takes you into the detail, for example, of advising you to set out the detail of variable conditions.  C-App, developed by SeAP (once the South East Advocacy Project), places more emphasis on the face to face assessment that applicants will face but also promotes a similarly granular approach to marshalling evidence. It allows you to try out your answers to specific questions about eg preparing food. ‘Are you able to peel and chop vegetables to cook a simple meal on your own. For example, an omelette.’ And it gives you options of yes, no, most of the time and sometimes. It builds up a list of your answers. Overall, the CPAG version stands up well to comparison. At some future time, there might be some advantage in exploring collaboration by the agencies concerned.

In the jargon of the market, AskCPAG would be categorised as a B2B, business to business, product rather than one which is B2C, business to consumer. And, clearly, one good use of technology in access to justice is to support advisors through digital networks of one kind or another. Another UK organisation in this field is rightsnet which provides less formal means of communication between benefits advisers and is determinedly digital. 

The interesting question for AskCPAG is the extent to which it represents a final destination or a half way house. Is the ultimate logic of digital support for advisers the creation of one interactive database which incorporates information from all sources – books, newsletters, tools etc? Or is AskCPAG’s mix of media likely to be stable and lasting? Naomi Jessop is clear, ‘We did an immense amount of research. Our advisers really like and rely on our books. A lot still want to have them physically. We have taken this into consideration when developing the online version of this handbook – so subscribers can add notes and bookmark section as they would with the paper copy. We hope to have recreated the experience digitally. They – and we – do not want to do away with them. AskCPAG is an alternative to our ways of providing information, not a substitute.’ Personally, I can relate to that. But then I belong to no less than four libraries and, in addition, purchase inordinate numbers of books. Won’t the young just want one electronic source? We shall see. But, whichever way the future goes, CPAG should have positioned itself nicely.

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