An open letter to Tim Farron on unpaid internships

Dear Tim,

We are writing to you to express our feelings on the subject of unpaid internships.

There can be all sorts of barriers for people who wish to undertake internships and it is crucial that the Liberal Democrats, and our Parliamentarians, do all we can to make sure that the internships we offer are as open as possible. This is about minimising barriers, one of which is affordability. Some of us have worked in the past as unpaid interns; we know that sometimes people are happy to work for free, or feel they have to in order break into a profession. This doesn’t make it right, and it is not an option for many people.

The Queen’s Speech recently guaranteed that we will, for the first time ever, set out the definition of an apprenticeship. We need to enforce the definition of an internship. We are concerned that in spite of the strong words from Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson, amongst others, that a Specified Associated Organisation is advertising for an “intern” to be based at Liberal Democrat Headquarters in a position for up to three months with a list of various duties they could be asked to carry out.

We do not believe that this is right and suggest that it is considered that:

  • Any interns to be based in Liberal Democrat Headquarters are paid in the same way LDHQ interns are.
  • The party does not provide facilities to be used by unpaid interns.
  • The Liberal Democrat Headquarters Internship scheme considers recruiting interns in cooperation with SAOs and AOs to ensure equal treatment for every intern working at party HQ.

There is a clear distinction between unpaid internships and work experience placements, and it is the former- not the latter- that we are raising our concerns about.

We want to see interns paid fairly for their work, in line with Liberal Youth policy, and believe that all Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians and organisations can help set an example on this. Where a party organisation lacks the financial means themselves, it should be considered that an intern position is paid for centrally from the Liberal Democrats.

We are proud of our party’s aim of building a stronger economy in a fairer society, but paying interns fairly for their work is a crucial part of this.

Samuel Barratt
Alex Smethurst
Paul Edgeworth
Liz Dawson
Alex Dunn
Kavya Kaushik (Co-Chair, Liberal Youth)
Sam Fisk (Co-Chair, Liberal Youth)
William Dyer (Policy Officer, Liberal Youth)
Steven Haynes (Communications Officer, Liberal Youth)
Callum Leslie
Kevin McNamara (President, University of Kent Liberal Democrats and Liberal Youth Representative, Canterbury and Coastal Liberal Democrats)
Tim Oliver
Harry Matthews
Jack Robinson
Simon Williams
Alex Barry
Angharad Bethan Jones
Ellis R. Palmer (Secretary, University of Birmingham Liberal Democrats)Cadan ap Tomos (Chair, Univeristy of York Liberal Democrats)
Louis Gill (Youth and Student Representative, Oxford West and Abingdon Liberal Democrats)
Daniel Jones
William Dyer
Troy Hill (President, Leeds Liberal Youth)
Katie-Scarlett Wetherall
Sebastian Bench (General Secretary University of Nottingham Liberal Youth)
George Carpenter
Euan Davidson (President, Aberdeen Liberal Youth )
Andreas Christodoulou (Treasurer, Northampton Liberal Democrats)
Dr Clare Mills (Membership Development Officer, Berwick Liberal Democrats; Leadership Programme participant)
(All have signed in a personal capacity)

NB: Tim’s office have received the letter, however Tim has taken his wife and children away to Scotland for the week. His staff will make sure he sees it when he gets back and he will reply then.

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24 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 24th May '13 - 8:30pm

    I don’t want to be down on this, but you have perhaps inadvertently just shown up one of the problems with the mantra of, ‘stronger economy, fairer society.’ The unspoken assumption is that the former – a stronger economy – will result in the latter – a fairer society. Palpably it does not.

    Internships are a symptom of a problem – not its cause per se. The problem is that we have seen a massive devaluation of labour. Internships just show up by how much labour has been devalued. Now if you are sitting in a house that is exploding in price and eroding the mortgage, then this is not perhaps something that will unduly trouble you. But the devaluation of labour represents a very large problem for those without valuable assets. How on earth does society at large benefit from a situation where returns in the (stronger) economy accrue ever more to capital and not labour. We are setting up a situation where capitalism is great for those that have capital.

    A stronger economy where the returns accrue not to mass-labour but to capital may be fair on some level if that wealth, ‘trickles down,’ but there is painfully scant evidence of that actually happening. Take a look at patterns in rents for an idea of how the wealth associated with returns in the housing market appear to be trickling up. Take a look at the closure of final salary pensions, or the off-shoring of jobs for an idea of how economic returns have trended and concentrated.

    We should, of course, recognise that there have always been glamour occupations that have been difficult to break into – internships are nothing new nor are they bad things in and of themselves. No one has a God-given right to work for a political party or at an international legal firm. However we are now in a situation where hundreds of people are applying for jobs that can hardly be called prestigious. The downward pressure on wages is significant. It is telling just how many people who are in work also need some benefit or another (most notably Housing Benefit) to live off.

    And perhaps some liberals might do well to ask themselves quite how liberal it is to have wage arbitrage resulting from large-scale economic immigration. When engineering is seeing a 10+% graduate unemployment rate then there is a problem somewhere in the system.

    To be truly meaningful a stronger economy has go beyond some claptrap about, ‘aspiration.’ As these interns will attest, ‘aspirations,’ do not put food on the table or a roof over one’s head – wages do that. It is all well and good to talk of a need for deficit reduction – and indeed I personally take the view that there is a very strong argument for restraining many areas of government spend. But what internships show is that hard work is not necessarily its own reward. How much benefit will an intern see from higher tax thresholds?

    The economy can be as strong as it likes. If it is only generating returns for relatively few then there is a problem. Fairness can not just be about how much gold-plating gets put on the state pension or how many pupil premiums are paid. Or how slowly £27k fees are theoretically paid back. It is about fair RETURNS in a strong economy. New Labour, of course, had very significant short-comings, especially on housing, but the lack of any acknowledgement of the devaluation of labour on the part of the coalition is deeply troubling. Not least because the young are hit harder.

    There are, of course, no easy answers. Plainly the signatories of the letter are not suggesting that opening up internship opportunities represents some panacea. But no one (including, I recognise, myself) seems to have any idea of what to do when a strong economy does not bring about social progress or, dare I say it, social mobility for the many.

  • Tony Greaves 24th May '13 - 9:57pm

    “however Tim has taken his wife and children away to Scotland for the week.”

    What an extraordinary comment. Surely Tim and Rosie have jointly taken their children to Scotland?

    Tony Greaves

  • Simon McGrath 25th May '13 - 6:29am

    Quite right. My local party submitted a motion on unpaid interns in the Party to the last but one Conference but it was not taken. Gareth Epps, member f the FCC ( and ironically leading light of the SLF) said it was ‘naive’.
    The EMLD should be ashamed of themselves:
    http://www.w4mpjobs.org/JobDetails.aspx?jobid=40356

  • William Jones 25th May '13 - 8:11am

    I feel very uneasy about the concept of unpaid internships in the Liberal Democrats who are working for a fairer society. If we are to be seen to be serious about a fairer society the concept of unpaid internships are surely an anachronism. Every unpaid internships because of their unpaid nature is a brick in the social exclusion fort that keeps out those who cannot afford not to be unpaid. I know it is easy to say that Liberal Democrats should have no part in unpaid internships, but in reality because of the way our party is funded it is not easy to do practically.

    I would say that as a party we should be moving away from unpaid internships towards volunteers and work placements instead.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 25th May '13 - 9:22am

    @Simon McGrath As former chair of EMLD, and still involved and supporting this SAO, I feel compelled to respond to his unwarranted attack. Of course we all agree in an ideal world interns should be paid. But singling out EMLD as an SAO, which has received the princely sum of £2k pa funds from the Party for the past decade, is hardly illustrative and fair. Many MPs have and some still do use unpaid interns. EMLD have only done this a handful of times, and specifically, given these opportunities to young people from a black or minority ethnic background, who are pretty much excluded from working for MPs – how many of ours employ people from BME backgrounds? Until recently, Lib Dem HQ, was pretty much an all white organisation. While some progress has been in recent years, we are still not known for our diversity. We were very pleased that our last intern, who was able to work with us for 3 months, gained valuable experience and then went into paid employment. EMLD relies on the enormous voluntary work done by our active and dedicated Executive committee members, as I know all SAOs do. In my experience, the majority of local parties also rely on the work of volunteers. Are you suggesting they should also be banned? We would be delighted if the Party decided to give EMLD funds that would enable us to employ paid staff. But as you well know, this is naive. In the meantime we rely on fundraising, and the support of volunteers to support the much needed work EMLD is doing, to ensure we reach out, recruit, and contribute to policy development that takes into account the UKs growing BME communities. For £2k pa, we punch well above our weight. We are one of the most active SAOs, with a growing membership of 350+. I would think that is a record to be commended, and not to be “ashamed of”

  • All this self justification above still leaves the essential question – is it correct to hire someone for no pay? To me this is as bad as zero hour contracts and isn’t justifiable anywhere, anytime, full stop. To justify it on the grounds that some occupations are difficult to break into completely misses the point.

  • Sam Barratt 25th May '13 - 1:02pm

    In regard to some comments referring to a lack of resources for some SAO/AO to pay interns; this letter explicitly refers to this issue, and asks that it is considered how internships based in HQ for SAOs etc can be supported in delivering paid internships- possibly through the HQ internship scheme which are paid positions.

    Personally I am uneasy with the idea of two people being hired as “Interns” and working in the same building one being paid and one not, just because one is interning with an SAO not the HQ.

  • Alex Smethurst 25th May '13 - 1:14pm

    This letter is not about singling out any organisation. It cannot be right to have two tiers of interns within the same walls of Lib Dem HQ (the HQ internship programme PAYS interns).

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 25th May '13 - 3:50pm

    @Simon McGrath why have you made such a statement as “EMLD should be ashamed of themselves”?

    I have asked you elsewhere, but you have chosen not to respond, but I will ask again “what exactly is the problem? ”

    EMLD is working extremely hard to change the culture within the Party, and to represent it as a political group that minority ethnic communities will feel more inclined to be associated with. Our membership gives up a considerable amount of time, energy and pays for this pleasure with hard cash, but the reward, it would appear is to be further attacked.

    Even though you have responded as you have, I am more than willing to communicate with you on a personal level and answer any questions that you have, and hopefully explain what EMLD is all about, and why it is necessary, for I do not see you as a lost cause.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    EMLD – Vice Chair

  • Simon McGrath 25th May '13 - 4:12pm

    @Merel, Lester and Ruwan: I have not singled out the EMLD, they are advertising for an unpaid intern on W4MP at the moment I have previously criticised our MPs and the party itself for doing the same thing, have asked questions at 2 Conferences and written a motion which my local party submitted to Conference.

    No doubt EMLD does good work and doesn’t get much money – the party doesn’t have much to give. I have no idea what process the party goes through to allocate funds between different SAOs but how does that make a difference. Either it is wrong to use unpaid interns or it isn’t . I’m glad that your last intern found work – but as you are well aware many people can’t afford to work for nothing for 3 months.

    @Merel “given these opportunities to young people from a black or minority ethnic background, who are pretty much excluded from working for MPs ” How are people from ethnic minorites excluded from working for MPs ?

  • Daniel Jones 25th May '13 - 7:28pm

    I think there seems to have been a bit of confusion – the letter is to Tim Farron not to the EMLD or any specific SAO and is about party approach to support SAOs to avoid this kind of two-tier situation where two people doing the same job side by side would be in such drastically different financial situations.I don’t believe the letter denigrates the hard work of interns or that they do get something out of it – as it says, many of those of us who signed it are former interns ourselves, but we must ensure equal access in the party and fairness.

    People have said how those who took up internships got so much out of it – but how much did all of those who were unable to take up the opportunity get out of it? At best they got nothing, at worse they were left with a feeling that the Lib Dems is a hobby for those with money and not for them – because interning is one of the ways often brought up as a way of getting the key experience needed in the party. That is why the letter suggests that the party works in co-operation with the SAOs and AOs to deliver internships. It also does not seek to impose any dictates upon SAOs, but merely on the condition of use of party property.

    As a party we have campaigned against this, it seems impossible that we could allow this to continue on party premises.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 25th May '13 - 7:43pm

    @Simon McGrath I’m surprised you have singled out EMLD, but not a Lib Dem MP, who is currently advertising for a volunteer with a wide ranging job description.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 25th May '13 - 7:48pm

    @Sam Barratt you make a valid point. Until such time something is done to resolve this anomaly, throwing about ill advised comments on a public forum to EMLD is insulting to all the work carried out by our volunteer members.

  • Sam Barratt 25th May '13 - 9:58pm

    Meral- I am not sure if the second part of your comment was directed at me, or more generally, but just to be clear I haven’t referred to the work of EMLD at all.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 25th May '13 - 11:22pm

    @Sam Barratt – it was directed at Simon McGrath.

  • Meral, is there a particular problem with the rich kids of BAME families finding employment? I thought it was the disadvantaged kids that particularly struggled and you’re (inadvertently) excluding them from this.

    Have you considered that £2k could be better used for funding a campaign or something else rather than just dropping it into the pockets of someone who is already well off and advantaged?

  • Simon McGrath 26th May '13 - 12:08pm

    @merel – No they are no different. But EMLD have been promoting this role on FB and this artcile is about an SAO not an MP.

  • Simon McGrath 27th May '13 - 4:20pm

    @Geoffrey – how on earth am I ‘smearing EMLD’. It was they who decided to advertise for an unpaid intern. And to reiterate a point you have ignored ,I have a track record of raising this issue, not just on this occasion.

    Perhaps you should ask a member of the FE why EMLD have only been given a grant of £2,000.

  • Simon McGrath 27th May '13 - 4:22pm

    Also slightly suprised to find you saying ‘noone has suporte my campaign. What on earth do you think the letter above is doing ?
    “We are concerned that in spite of the strong words from Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson, amongst others, that a Specified Associated Organisation is advertising for an “intern” to be based at Liberal Democrat Headquarters in a position for up to three months with a list of various duties they could be asked to carry out.”

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