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Editorial: Who said the nasty party had gone away?

Government rhetoric pitting scroungers against 'strivers' is disingenuous

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.