Rachel Reeves interview: ‘You will always find more rich people playing the system than the very poor’

She may not be watching ‘Benefits Street’, but Rachel Reeves tells Andrew Grice why Labour is getting tough on welfare

As next year’s general election looms into view, Britain’s political parties have started to emphasise their strengths and tackle their weaknesses.

The job of addressing one of Labour’s weakest spots – the Conservatives’ claim that it is “the welfare party” – falls to Rachel Reeves, the 34-year-old shadow Work and Pensions Secretary. She makes her first big speech in the role today.

Her billing as one of Labour’s rising stars is about to be tested. The former economist at the Bank of England and British Embassy in Washington has been MP for Leeds West since 2010. She was fast-tracked into the Shadow Cabinet the following year as  No. 2 in Ed Balls’s Treasury team and promoted to the sensitive welfare post last October. She is one of the band of Ed Miliband loyalists from the 2010 intake presenting a new Labour face to the voters.

Ms Reeves leaves no doubt that her new brief is to be tough, to counter Labour’s image as being too soft on the claimants some Tories depict as “skivers” as they champion Britain’s “strivers”.

In an interview with The Independent, she talked as much about taxpayers as benefit claimants as she pledges to make sure every pound spent on welfare is properly used. Her mission is to create a “fair and affordable social security system”, with “sticks and carrots” to get the unemployed back to work, which will be good for them and for taxpayers.

She is trying to match, or even outflank, the Tories on an issue they regard as a trump election card. Labour, she says, would increase “benefit sanctions”: the jobless who do not make enough effort to find work would lose their jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). Ms Reeves’s big idea is for all newly-unemployed people to take a “basic skills test” in English, maths and IT within six weeks of claiming JSA, rather than languish on the dole for up to three years before getting such help.

Under Labour’s “compulsory jobs guarantee”, adults unemployed for two years would receive 25 hours of work and 10 hours of training each week for six months. It would kick in for under-25s after one year. Again, those refusing the offer would lose their JSA.

“It is hard, but it is also fair. You can call it tough love,” says Ms Reeves. “It is a responsible policy. That is what taxpayers want. What people claiming JSA want more than anything is to get working.”

Far from being the welfare party, she insists, Labour is reverting to its original brand as “the party of work”. She wants to revive and extend the “contributory principle” behind the post-war Beveridge report which led to the modern welfare state. That could mean a higher JSA rate in the early stages of unemployment for those with a longer work record.

“It is absolutely right that if you pay into the system, you should get something out,” she says, but admits this “could not be done overnight”.

Such an approach could enable Labour to tackle another problem – migration from the European Union.

“If you have just arrived in this country, or you haven’t paid into the system, you shouldn’t be entitled to the same as someone who has worked all their life,” she says.

Ms Reeves is ready to support the Government if it tries to prevent EU migrants claiming benefits for two years (instead of the current three months). She also wants to stop EU migrants whose children do not live in Britain receiving UK rates of child benefit.

“Paying child benefit to children in other countries around Europe is not what child benefit is designed for, not what Beveridge envisaged,” she says. “It is clearly a loophole that needs to be addressed.”

But is there a danger that Labour’s attempt to neutralise the welfare issue will look as if it is also attacking “skivers” ?

“No,” she replies quickly. “I do not think people who have been out of work for  six months, a year or two years are shirkers. People who come to my constituency surgery have filled in 300 job applications and not had a single reply. They are not shirkers.”

Ms Reeves has not seen and will not watch Benefits Street, the controversial Channel 4 programme which has been accused of being exploitative “poverty porn”.

She says: “A majority of people on in-work benefits are not earning enough to live on. Most people out of work desperately want to work… You are always going to find people who are playing the system. You will find more very rich people playing the system by not paying their taxes than very poor and overclaiming their benefits. Maybe that will be the next documentary Channel 4 makes.”

However, Ms Reeves is “not boycotting” another TV programme, the BBC’s Newsnight, even though its editor Ian Katz branded her “boring, snoring” in a tweet.

The label may stick. David Cameron tried to pin it on her when he told Westminster journalists last Thursday: “There’s a chronic shortage of anaesthetists in parts of London and she’s dealing with the most difficult cases.”

Ms Reeves insists: “I am not really that bothered. If that is the biggest insult they can manage, I am not doing too badly.”

She may rattle off statistics about the number of jobless and the cost of social security, but her own backstory is anything but boring. Unlike many MPs, she had a taste of life at the sharp end, attending a comprehensive in south-east London. Although she was the junior chess champion who made it to Oxford and the London School of Economics, she felt “the odds were stacked against” her classmates.

“The sixth form was two prefab huts in the playground,” she says. “Our library was turned into a classroom because we didn’t have enough of them. We didn’t have enough textbooks to go round.”

Noted for her competitive streak, Ms Reeves is determined that she will never allow her daughter Anna, now 10 months old, to beat her at chess. How do she and her civil servant husband juggle looking after her?

“It is a challenge but a fantastic one,” she says.

She adds that she feels lucky when she meets mums in her constituency struggling to make ends meet with three part-time jobs, saying her six months of maternity leave gave her an insight into some of the challenges facing “normal people” outside the Westminster village.

Ms Reeves has been tipped as Labour’s first woman prime minister, although Yvette Cooper might have something to say about that.

“It is not something I aspire to,” says Ms Reeves. “I love being an MP and being in the top team. I also see the sacrifices you have got to make as leader. I am not sure they are sacrifices I would like to make in terms of my family life.”

On a recent visit to a school in her constituency, the head teacher asked pupils if they knew who “Rachel” was. One boy said: “She’s a shadow, isn’t she?”  Her ambition, Ms Reeves smiles, is “not to be a shadow but someone making decisions at the Cabinet table.”

Read more:
Exclusive: Labour will make jobless take maths and English tests  

Q and A: Rachel Reeves

Where was the last place you went for dinner?

Sheesh Mahal Restaurant, Kirkstall, Leeds

What was the last album you bought or listened to?

I bought the latest Emile Sande album.

What was the last event you attended?

I spent a great morning with campaigning with 40 Labour members campaigning in New Addington, Croydon on the #costofcameron.

What was the last sporting event you went to?

Chess championship in West London in December, which included pupils from my constituency.

What was the last book you read?

A new biography of Sylvia Pankhurst by Katherine Connelly.


peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
musicHunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original  manuscripts
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Life and Style
lifeAiming to show breasts in a non-sexual way for cancer awareness
New Articles
i100... while following the referendum
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special
tvNick Frost, Natalie Gumede and Michael Troughton step up
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer, Douglas Booth and Jack Farthing in ‘The Riot Club’
filmReview: Sheer nastiness of Riot Club takes you aback
Arts and Entertainment
tvBut something’s not quite right
New Articles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week