A second report on social welfare from a working group headed by Paula Rebstock has passed without much discussion.

This may be because the report on "options", like the first on "issues", is inconclusive; the panel's proposals are promised in a final report in February. Or the lack of discussion may arise from a sense that we have seen this sort of exercise so often before.

Every government comes to office determined to tackle welfare dependence, but the problems remain. National devises tougher work capacity tests, Labour appoints more case managers, but people continue on benefits for long periods, sometimes for life, sometimes bringing up the next generation with no greater expectations.

"Intergenerational dependency", says the Rebstock working group, is increasing. Long-term dependents still numbered 170,000 last year. They had spent more than five years of the past ten on a benefit.

The good news in its report is that more than a third of people who go to Work and Income seeking a benefit do not get one. They are assessed by the job search service and they find work. More than a quarter of those who do go on a benefit stay on it for less than six months. But those who do not land a job within three years are likely to stay on it for 11 to 14 years, usually until they reach 65 and go on the pension.

National superannuation, the country's most costly benefit, is outside the brief given to the Rebstock committee. John Key does not want advice to raise the qualifying age, as comparable countries are doing to tackle the rising dependency ratio of an aging population. That will not happen here while he is Prime Minister.

But Paula Rebstock has her sights on some other beneficiaries who traditionally have not been expected to work. They include widows, the disabled and sickness beneficiaries, and as sole mothers with infants. The report says: "This judgment that sole parents, older women and people with sickness and impairment cannot and should not work, is out of step with current employment rates for women, for people with sickness and disability, and for older women."

The working group suggests that as few as 20,000 of the 144,000 sickness and invalid beneficiaries might be exempted from job-search requirements. It contemplates requiring sole parents to seek work when their child is as young as three, or even a year old, not six as at present.

It is true that most couples on two incomes are both back at work within a year of a baby's birth, often much less. It is true that support services for the mentally or physically impaired encourage them to greater independence these days and the law does not allow discrimination against them. It will also be true that more older women are in paid work. It is coming up for 40 years since women asserted the right to a career.

But does it follow that widows, sole mothers of pre-school children, invalids and others who would prefer to stay home, should be obliged to take a paid job? If the answer is no, how should the system distinguish them from any other type of long-term beneficiary who does not find organised employment to be congenial?

As with its first report, the Rebstock working group wants to hear public reaction before it comes to any conclusions. It seems to have shied away from the social insurance system floated in the first report, indicating it is prepared to listen.

But change often requires defiance of public opinion. There has been no drastic reform of social welfare since that driven by Ruth Richardson nearly 20 years ago. Paula Rebstock might yet put her name to change that is equally brave, but it seems unlikely - the final report is due in election year.