Editorial: Who said the nasty party had gone away?

Government rhetoric pitting scroungers against 'strivers' is disingenuous

Share
Related Topics

There are any number of reasons to reform the welfare system – it is inordinately complex, hugely expensive and sometimes rather unfair, to name but three. Yet the Government – or its Conservative half, at least – appears incapable of approaching the issue without descending into rabble-rousing rhetoric pitting scroungers against "strivers". Such tactics are not just unnecessary; they bear an only nominal relationship with the truth.

The most immediate clash is next week's parliamentary vote on the Chancellor's plan to squeeze welfare payments for the coming three years. With Labour intending to oppose the measure, Christmas was barely over before the Government was firing its first salvos. First came Whitehall figures showing that benefits payments have risen nearly twice as fast as workers' pay over the past five years. Although the 10-year view paints a rather different picture (as the Opposition duly pointed out), it is nonetheless true that, since the financial crisis, working people have felt more of a squeeze on their incomes. But the debate soon gained a rather nastier edge, with the Work and Pensions Secretary's claims that error and fraud have ripped off Labour's tax credit system to the tune of £10bn.

Nor will the matter end with Tuesday's vote. Indeed, with the Government's flagship universal credit scheme due to start in April and continue throughout the year, welfare is set to be 2013's defining policy battleground.

The Government's proposed reforms are not the trouble here. Given last year's 5.2 per cent rise in benefits (calculated using the soaring inflation levels of late 2011), a couple – or even three – years of squeezed payments are far from unjustifiable. Similarly, while the oft-repeated refrain that the universal credit will "make work pay" may be less straightforward than it sounds, and the logistics of the scheme's introduction may be fraught with peril, efforts to streamline the benefits system are long overdue. Plans to cap total payments at the level of the average wage also make sense, in terms of both simple cost and more complicated questions of social equity.

If the policy is not the problem, the toxic positioning from the Tory side of the Government surely is. The Chancellor set the ball rolling with his party conference speech describing a shift worker leaving home in the morning and looking up at the closed curtains of their neighbour "sleeping off a life on benefits". Now, with the party still behind in the polls, and little hope of respite from the torpid economy, the opportunity to turn to political account an austerity-minded public's increasing scepticism about welfare claimants is simply too good to miss.

Except that public opinion has, in fact, already swung further than the facts allow. True, welfare is a considerable burden on the public purse. But, as this newspaper reports today, the proportion of the budget that goes to the unemployed is far lower than most people think. And the number of genuine shirkers is lower still. Likewise, levels of fraud are fractional compared with common perception, for all Iain Duncan Smith's £10bn price tag.

It would be nonsensical to suggest the Government should rise above politics. But there are depths to which it is irresponsible to sink and the deliberate encouragement of erroneous social divisions is one of them. The attempt to carve society into those that work and those that live on their coat-tails is both simplistic and disingenuous; it is no strategy for a Government with a good case for reining in welfare.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Whoever and whatever Arthur was, he wasn’t Scottish

Guy Keleny
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea