Interning for MPs: exploitation or experience?

Donal MacIntyre and Hannah Barnes have reported on MPs’ interns for BBC Radio 5 live:

MPs could be breaking the law by not paying their parliamentary interns. Hundreds of young graduates are putting in thousands of hours of unpaid work at Westminster. This practice is excluding many young people without independent financial support from a route that many see as the first step on the ladder to a political career. But, this is not just a question of pushing the bounds of fairness. Minimum wage regulations require that some of these interns should be paid.”

You can listen to the podcast of last Sunday’s show “Parliament’s unpaid workers” here.

Among Liberal Democrat MPs, practices vary: Phil Willis and Alistair Carmichael pay their interns the national minimum wage while others pay only travel and lunch expenses.

I spoke to Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, who puts his interns on a contract as part-time researchers:

He agreed that his situation is very different from, say, an inner London MP with a heavier caseload. Many of the issues that English or Welsh MPs deal with, have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and so Alistair finds that one intern is adequate for the work.

Disclosure: I was an intern for Lynne Featherstone and got not only travel and lunch expenses, but an excellent range of training and experience. Now, I was fortunate enough to be able to work unpaid, or should I say in return for non-monetary benefits, but I’m conscious that able people without financial support don’t have the same opportunity.

What do you think of unpaid internships in MPs’ offices: A valuable apprenticeship and a good addition to a CV? Or exploitation and a scandal on a par with that of MPs’ expenses?

How can access to a more diverse range of people be improved, and how should it be paid for?

MPs could always ask for higher expenses to cover increased staffing costs – I think we already know how that one ends…

MPs could ask their parties for money to pay interns – ditto!

Could organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation be approached to fund bursaries?

There is work to be done in MPs’ offices, and no shortage of volunteers (admittedly from a narrow field) to do it.

Read more on this from the BBC website, and post up your thoughts/experiences in the comments below.

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22 Comments

  • Im not arguing that young interns should not be paid, but substitute young intern for old codger, is my MP also breaking the law when I deliver focus for him without pay?

  • I’m someone who started on an unpaid internship before being offered a paid contract. I could not have done the internship had I not got married immediately after graduating. My wife already had a full-time job, meaning that I was subsidised, though not in the usual way.

    It seems to me that the more important issue is that of MPs’ staffing allowances. The article alludes to the discrepancy in workload between an inner London MP and one out in the sticks, and my experience as someone in a highly educated, politically ‘switched-on’ university city is much more akin to the former than the latter. It is ridiculous that the staffing allowance is not tailored to each constituency. In constituencies like this one, it means that the MP simply does not have enough resources to offer high quality services to constituents, and the payment and fair treatment of interns is low on the agenda as a consequence. As Alistair Carmichael admits, he can only afford to pay his interns because of where he is.

    In the current climate it seems impossible that MPs will be offered more resources for staffing, but it is the only realistic option. It cannot be right for elected representatives to rely on unpaid volunteers barely out of university to provide essential support.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Nov '09 - 7:09pm

    If internships are seen as necessary or important experience, certainly they should be paid living costs, for the same reason we have grants and bursaries for students. I am not concerned by whether this is paid as a regular wage, or means-tested, but nobody should be excluded for financial reasons.

  • They are volunteers – no-one requires them to do it, and it is not a requirement to have done one to get a job in politics. That should be the end of the story. We are liberals, right?

    If interns should be paid, should members of FPC and working groups be paid? When I met Shelter to discuss the planning system, should they have been required to pay me for an hour of my time? Do Amnesty International have to pay people who write letters in defence of the wronging imprisoned?

    There are also foreign students who do one day a week internships, partly to understand how politics works here. As I understand it, they are not allowed to work for payment. If we ban unpaid interns, these people would not be able to do this. Would that really be good?

    Finally paying people the minimum wage would still favour people who do not have to pay housing costs. Try working in central London for £40 a day with no external support – it would be an easier proposition if your parents live nearby than if your parents don’t.

  • Richard Huzzey 13th Nov '09 - 11:19pm

    Tim – I would be astounded if there were any/many MPs’ researchers who had not done an unpaid internship before winning their job. Likewise, other careers – such as barristers – expect unpaid pupilages, arrangement for which often involves family or personal contacts. These have become requirements for entry to these sectors. I think there is a serious issue for liberals if public offices in politics and the law are closed to talented people who aren’t from establishment families.

  • @ Richard
    “Likewise, other careers – such as barristers – expect unpaid pupilages, arrangement for which often involves family or personal contacts.”

    That system was scrapped several years ago. There now all funded to at least some degree and have to be openly advertised.

    @ Tim
    “They are volunteers – no-one requires them to do it”
    The point is that several MPs are recruiting interns to work specific hours for a set term. That (arguably) means they cease to be volunteers and fall under minimum wage legislation. There are also students who have to spend a year working for an MP as part of their degree. From what I’ve heard some are treated pretty badly (arrangements to pay expenses not kept, “work experience” including clearing out the MPs loft – as it is part of their degree there is an obvious difficulty with saying “f*** this” and walking out”.

  • Herbert Brown 14th Nov '09 - 1:03am

    These have become requirements for entry to these sectors.

    Politics is an employment “sector” now, apparently. Oh dear.

    I’ve seen a lot of soul-searching about ways of getting more women candidates, more ethnic minority candidates and so on. All very laudable, but I wish there could also be an appreciation of the need to get more candidates who aren’t one-dimensional career politicians who have been intent on climbing the greasy pole since the day they graduated. And I dare say if that could be done it would in itself take care of one or two of the other concerns.

  • Richard – you might be astounded – but I am pretty sure that neither of my local MPs – Susan Kramer and Ed Davey were interns. Was Alastair Carmichael really a Westminster an intern? Chris Huhne?

    MPs misuing degree interns is another matter: that should not be accepted by the university concerned.

  • I’m somebody who wants to spend his working day supporting the Lib Dems rather than making profit for shareholders, but needs to keep a roof over the head of my disabled partner. I’m pretty frustrated by my inability to do this – obviously the party can’t afford to employ everybody who wants to work for it, but it does limit the time and energy I can invest in what I really want to be doing.

  • Richard Huzzey 14th Nov '09 - 12:42pm

    Tim and Herbert: I wasn’t meaning that being an intern is always the first step to being an MP. More that it was almost essential to be a researcher (in think tanks as well as political parties, I suspect) – a sector of political work.

    Hywel – I was sloppy in referring to pupilages. I was thinking more of mini-pupilges and placements, which are all valued by employers (http://www.lawcareers.net/barristers/minipupillages.aspx). But I admit that my impressions of restrictions to entry into the law are merely impressionistic and it may be that recent reforms have opened it up?

  • Richard – I am sorry, I did misread you. But Ed Davey was a researcher once, and no, he wasn’t an intern at any point (I checked this afternoon).

    If we think that volunteers should be paid if they agree to work regular hours, does this mean that charity shops need to pay all their volunteers, if they do regular shifts? I “work” regular hours on my church creche – do I have to be paid? Regular hours seems a bit of red herring – there is no liberal reason why someone should not volunteer regular hours.

  • There might be one fairly close to Accrington – get your bum up the M65 in the holidays and you might have some inside knowledge too 🙂

    (mainly teasing as I know your University is also in a Lib Dem held seat)

  • Herbert Brown 14th Nov '09 - 10:36pm

    “And I object to being called a one-dimensional career politician. I’m not in it for the money or the prestige, I’m in it to improve this country and help people!”

    All very laudable – and it would be lovely if the state were able to provide salaries for all those who wanted to spend their lives making the world a better place – not only in the realm of politics, but in all sorts of other spheres of human activity. But sadly that’s not the way the world works. And – sorry to be blunt – green as I was when I was at college, I knew that much!

    As for one-dimensional career politicians – what worries me is the prospect of parliamentary candidates being selected primarily from among those who have followed a political “career” rather than having to “make their way in the world”. Not a very representative way of choosing representatives. And what also worries me is that career politicians will be so anxious to protect their careers that they may make that – rather than political principle – their overriding priority.

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