Can we turn around the welfare supertanker?

The shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, tried to seize the ‘firm but fair’ mantle on Monday after being outdone by the Tories and Lib Dems on welfare, says Benedict Brogan on his Daily Telegraph blog.

Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May wrote a column in The Daily Mail criticising Labour for “throwing cash at immigrants when it was in office”. They announced that, as of April, new EU migrants will not be able to claim Housing Benefit as well as Jobseekers Allowance (JSA).

So, Reeves unveiled plans to strengthen the link between what people pay in and take out of the system, while benefits for those unable to meet basic standards in maths, English and IT would be conditional on training.

Reeves’ speech was trailed in The Independent as a mission to “create a fair and affordable social security system with sticks and carrots”, says Dan Hodges in The Daily Telegraph. In fact, her “mission is to make Britain think she is planning ‘tough’ reforms” while reassuring Labour she is doing nothing of the kind.

Her tests are a “nice little micro-policy”, but not even a “scratch on the paint” of the supertanker of our welfare system.

Labour should “shut up about welfare”. It’s clear Miliband is not about to make the case for real cuts. “It may be a politically crazy stance”, but at least it’s “ideologically credible”.

The problem with today’s debate is that it sees the system as a “credit card statement” of “burdensome cash transfers, which can simply be cut, frozen or increased”, says Gillian Guy in The Independent. This is too simplistic.

Our ageing society faces deep questions about how to support each other. Short-term solutions such as cutting housing support for the young “obscure the importance” of investing in people’s futures. Tough decisions must be made, but proper deliberation is vital.

It is, agrees Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. The “brilliant” Channel 4 programme Benefits Street shows how complex the issue is. Yes, our costly welfare system supports a “helpless dependency”, but it’s also clear that “withdrawing that help” doesn’t end fecklessness. People need support to stand on their own two feet. “The challenge for the right is that independence doesn’t begin automatically when dependence ends.”