1m working people could be affected by new benefits policy. Photo: Getty
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Ministers are reaching beyond "scroungers" and aiming at Britain’s working poor

David Cameron has started targeting the low-paid in a new benefits trial; this message could undermine his claim to be in favour of Britain’s "hardworking people".

Jessica was 22 weeks pregnant and walked more than two miles to get to the food bank because she was too poor to take public transport. She was receiving Employment and Support Allowance for mental health problems after giving birth to a stillborn baby eight months before. After she failed to attend a "work focused" meeting one day, she was sanctioned

Speaking to the Work and Pensions committee last month, welfare reform researcher Kayleigh Garthwaite described how the woman’s mental health problems spiralled, her debts mounted and she was forced to live off he sister's children's leftovers. Following her sanction, Jessica said: “I haven't had my fridge or cooker switched on for three weeks, I can’t afford the electric. I sold the telly last week – there was no point in keeping it ‘cos I couldn’t afford to use it anyway.” 

This was just one rather damaging message about David Cameron’s benefit system, one of many that have been vocalised by charities, local authorities and politicians.

Yet when the prime minister announced on Saturday he was thinking of docking sickness payments for those who do not accept treatment for obesity, drug and alcohol problems, he was displaying a side to a future benefit reduction programme that he hoped would gain more sympathy.

The fat and the feckless would not be allowed to scrounge off hard-working citizens under a future Conservative government, he proclaimed. Although elements of his own party criticised the announcement, Cameron would have hoped it stuck with voters who say they are sick of paying for people who say they are sick.

But the contrast between this weekend’s announcement and the Jessica’s story shows what a fine line the government and the Conservatives are treading to prevent ‘fairness’ being seen as ‘nastiness’.

One change in particular threatens to scupper Cameron’s claim to be on the side of Britain’s hard working people. In an alteration to legislation that went largely unnoticed at the end of last month, the government introduced a pilot for 15,000 low-paid working universal credit claimants. Those participating in the mandatory scheme may find that their benefits are reduced if they do not actively seek to work more hours or increase their salary.

The change is important because this policy goes beyond targeting jobseekers, the sick and disabled. If penalises those who are hard at work, maintaining part-time, low-salaried jobs

Labour peer Baroness Sherlock said in the House of Lords before the secondary legislation was introduced: ‘If you have been on benefits and you get a job, you do not expect the department to ring you up at work saying, “Come and talk to me because you’re not working enough”.

‘I think that people who feel that they have escaped the tender ministrations of the jobcentre are going to be a little taken aback when they find that it starts following them to work.’

Sanctions can apply of claimants working less than 35 hours a week on minimum wage (typically £12,000 a year) who do not comply with the scheme. Failure may include failing to attend ‘job focused interviews’ or failing to apply for a job that might bring in extra hours. Welfare reform minister Lord David Freud says "tougher" conversations will be had with claimants after two months.

For claimants, one of the most worrying aspects of the programme – called work related requirements – is that it can apply to housing benefit (technically the housing cost element of universal credit). That’s potentially a chunk of your rent lost to the DWP if you do not take active steps to get a better-paid job.

The pilot starts in April and if successful, the government intends to roll the scheme out for most universal credit claimants. Data comparison from the DWP's Stat Xplore shows that 1,078,413 people in Britain are claiming housing benefit and in work – meaning they are likely to be on low salaries. That’s more than 1m working people who could potentially be affected by the policy if the reform is rolled out with universal credit.

This policy is ill-conceived because the Prime Minister is currently trying to prove that he is on the side of those who are slogging away every day in a job. It won’t work if the "hardworking people" he so often praises suddenly start finding they themselves could be Jessica.

Photo: Getty
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Mark Sampson's exit leaves the FA still trying to convince itself of its own infallibility

Football's governing body won't be able to repair the damage to its reputation in silence.

By the end, it appeared as if Mark Sampson was weathering the storm.

Despite personal reflections that the uproar and scandal that has surrounded his recent tenure as England women's football manger was taking a toll, he seemed, as of Tuesday night, firmly ensconced in the post he had held since 2013.

Player Eniola Aluko’s claims of bullying and racism against the coach – given little backing from teammates and, on balance, disregarded by consecutive enquiries – remained a persistent story, yet talk of a fresh investigation were trumped in importance by Sampson’s continued presence at training and in the dugout.

The BBC’s occasionally rabid attachment to proceedings gave the saga prolonged oxygen, but when Sampson seemed to retain the FA’s support – taking charge of the Lionesses’ 6-0 win over Russia on Tuesday night – the worst appeared to be over.

With hindsight, the vultures were simply sharpening their talons.

Sampson’s sacking – less than 24 hours after that Russia game – came after a report was unearthed detailing a historic complaint against him from his time coaching Bristol Academy – a job he left to take up the England post.

In what has long become customary, the FA received these claims nearly four years ago yet failed to act definitively – initially concluding that their new coach was “not a safeguarding risk”. However as the recent crisis depended, the full details of these initial accusations were allegedly not revealed to senior leadership.

Confirming Sampson's departure on Wednesday, FA chief executive Martin Glenn carried a pained expression reminiscent of former incumbent Mark Palios, who, in another entry in the annals of great FA crises, resigned in 2004 as a result of an affair with FA secretary Faria Alam.

Glenn will hope that his own head is not sought in the weeks ahead as his conduct throughout the Sampson saga is probed.

It also marks yet another turbulent 12 months for the beleaguered governing body, who almost exactly a year ago to the day, parted company with England men’s coach Sam Allardyce after just a single game in charge – the former Bolton and Sunderland coach getting the bullet as a result of transfer advice offered to undercover journalists.

The Allardyce departure was handled with uncharacteristic efficiency – a symptom, perhaps, of the initial scepticism behind his appointment rather than any particular reflection on his crimes.

With clear-eyed judgement, it is difficult not to have a portion of sympathy for Sampson – who, cleared by those investigations, maintained the very visible backing of his squad – right up until Wednesday’s bitter denouement.

That he’s been paid in full for the three-year contract signed last summer speaks for how soft a line the FA took on the events that forced the sacking – hoping, perhaps, for as quiet an ending as possible for both parties.

Regrettably, for the FA at least, considerable damage to their reputation will not be something they can repair in silence – not in an era where women’s football enjoys such a high profile in the national consciousness and the body continues to mark itself an easy target for criticism. 

The exact contents of those 2014 allegations and that report are sure to be known down the line – non-disclosure agreements willing – but are as of now only conjecture and innuendo.

Without details, it’s difficult to know how hard to judge Sampson. The facts of his performance on the pitch mark him out as having been an accomplished coach. That is no longer the exclusive measure of success.

Detractors will murmur darkly about there being no smoke without fire, while his supporters will point to the unique nature of the job and the often confrontational elements of its duties.

Sampson, at 34, is still a relatively young man and may be able to coach again once the rancour has subsided – although with a reputation severely bloodied, will look on the two-year salary windfall with some gratitude.

Despite Glenn’s insistence that his former manager is “clear to work” in the sport, it’s hard to envisage his career ever resuming in the women’s game.

The FA itself is again left rudderless as it tries to convince itself of its own infallibility. Flabby management structures and the perception of being an antiquated country club – valid or not – will be revisited with relish.

Perhaps positively, it could herald a more honest conversation behind what success looks like for the national game as a whole. Inclusiveness and development of a robust culture are often the first words to disappear from the vocabulary once on field results start to falter.  

For once, the identity of the next coach is not the urgent dilemma facing the FA.

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