‘Can you manage to plan, start and finish daily tasks?’ said a panic-stricken Simon, reading aloud from the Department of Work and Pensions ESA50 Limited Capability for Work form. He was struggling with Section 2, which was inviting him to describe his ‘mental, cognitive and intellectual functions’ by answering questions furnished with multiple choice answers such as ‘Never’, ‘Sometimes’ or ‘It varies’. While you and I have been enjoying the sight of the political class changing direction like a shoal of spooked sardines, hundreds of thousands of ordinary British people on disability benefits have had only one thing on their minds — form ESA50.
Simon has got himself into a right old state about it. For years and years, the British government has humbly recognised his incapacity for work owing to his chronic state of anxiety and depression, and it has done everything that it possibly could for him and his numerous brood, especially financially. He hasn’t even had to go to the trouble of signing on. And now this. The dreaded ESA50 has dropped through his letterbox and by all accounts it seems likely that this time the Department of Work and Pensions is not going to be as understanding of his delicate mental health as it was before, possibly leading to a radical curtailment of his lifestyle. He’s brought the form around to my boy’s house, begging for advice and assistance.
I’m there lying on the sofa watching Cloudbabies on CBeebies TV. And as luck would have it, Luke is there on the sofa watching Cloudbabies, too. Luke has limited capacity for work because he is addicted to drugs and alcohol, has been for years, and he is a wily and authoritative old hand at filling out forms. ESA50 doesn’t frighten him. His one is already filled out and in the post. His ready advice to Simon has the beauty of simplicity. ‘All you’ve got to do is answer the questions like you are a total fuck-up,’ said this aristocrat of non-labour. ‘Can you plan, start and finish daily tasks? Of course you can’t.’ ‘I can sometimes, though,’ said Simon, naively indignant. ‘Just put “never” and move on to the next question,’ said Luke, irritated already.
Simon shakily applied his leaky Biro to the form, then read out the next question, which was, ‘How often do you behave in a way which upsets other people?’ The optional three answers were: ‘Every day’, ‘often’, and ‘occasionally’. ‘That’s easy, I do it every day,’ said Simon, regaining a measure of confidence in the creditworthiness of his depressive condition. No help needed there. The leaky Biro was put to paper with something approaching jauntiness.
‘Can you learn to do a simple task such as setting an alarm clock?’ said Simon, continuing to read aloud from the form. Again the Biro was applied without prompting from expert Luke. The answer was clear. The truth will set you free. ‘We haven’t got an alarm clock,’ he said, triumphantly ringing the word ‘No’. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. There was a subsidiary question. It was: ‘Can you learn to do a more complicated task such as using a washing machine?’
But here too it was roses, roses all the way. ‘We haven’t got one of those, either,’ he chuckled. ‘And if I need help down at the launderette there’s a woman.’ His Biro was applied to form ESA50’s ‘No’ option with an air of sarcasm, if not outright contempt. The examiner’s earlier terrifyingly stern grip on reality
was at this point showing clear signs of weakening.
We moved now to a section called ‘Physical functions’. ‘How long,’ Simon narrated, ‘can you stay in one place, either standing, sitting, or a combination of the two, without help from another person, without pain or exertion?’ My own reaction, which I kept to myself, was admiration for the questioner’s valiant attempt at clarity and the Biblical cadence. The optional answers were: less than 30 minutes; 30 minutes to one hour; more than one hour; it varies. ‘I had to wait over an hour for the bus yesterday,’ offered Simon to start the debate. Luke considered this one. ‘If in doubt, put, “it varies”,’ he said. ‘Then they can’t pin you down.’
‘Can you lift at least one of your arms high enough to put something in the top pocket of a coat or jacket while you are wearing it?’ said Simon, continuing to quote from the form. ‘It varies,’ dictated Luke without taking his eyes off Cloudbabies, who were saying goodnight. Down went Simon’s Biro, obediently. The next question was: ‘Can you pick up and move a half-litre (one pint) carton full of liquid?’ Substitute the word ‘glass’ for the word ‘carton’ and Simon could almost be said to be a semi-professional at it. I kept this observation to myself, also. ‘It varies,’ dictated Luke in a bored monotone. ‘Goodnight! Goodnight!’ trilled the Cloudbabies.