Opinion: End unpaid internships with MPs? Sure – just show us the money

There has been no little discussion in recent days about the cosy world of unpaid internships. Nick Clegg has rightly drawn attention to their increasingly powerful status as a barrier to social mobility. Of course, organisations such as Intern Aware and Interns Anonymous have long been making the same point.

But the almost universal response to this truth – that unpaid internships are wrong, and should be ended forthwith – actually raises more questions than it answers. What people really mean when they say internships should ‘end’ is that interns should be ‘paid’. This is because everyone recognises the benefit of internships – particularly those offered by MPs – and no one wishes to see the opportunity removed completely.

This applies most of all to MPs, of course. Politicians of all parties recruit, and often rely on, unpaid interns.

Once you accept these two fundamental premises (that internships should continue, and that they should be paid), the questions become increasingly simple, but the answers more and more complex and unpalatable. How much should we pay, for example, inexperienced undergraduates, and by what mechanism?

One possibility is to amend minimum wage legislation so as to enable MPs to contribute from existing staffing budgets, while recognising at the same time that this is often as much a training opportunity for interns as it is a job. However, such a suggestion would inevitably lead to outrage from many, particularly on the left. It is in any case deeply questionable whether many MPs have sufficient slack in their staffing budgets to add even an additional employee on, say, £4 an hour – after all, that budgetary constraint is why many MPs have interns in the first place.

But once you have discounted that option, there remain just two more: a major increase to MP staffing budgets, or a central pot of Parliamentary money for interns. In either case, the politics are impassable; show me an MP willing to agitate publicly for more expenses following the scandal of 2009, and in the present austerity. The same restrictions would apply to a Parliamentary fund, but such an approach would also make internships less beneficial and more impersonal by removing direct recruitment by MPs.

The response of pressure groups to this is simply that interns should be paid – full stop. Again, the obvious answer to this is simply that there would no longer be interns if that were enforced, surely a situation no one realistically wants. Such an approach would fix nothing: reducing opportunity, killing aspiration and (an often overlooked further downside) reducing many MPs’ ability to provide a high-class service to their constituents.

There is no silver bullet for this seemingly intractable problem. But in order for a solution to be found, a sea change in public attitudes to MPs – and, crucially, their expenses – must be effected. In order to bring in young people from different backgrounds internships are vital; so is finding a fair way forward.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Having previously been a parliamentary intern and then gone into third sector public affairs/policy work it occurs to me that reducing the ammount of internship opportunities might actually not be disaster, proiided those that remain are paid.

    Not that this would change the OPs original point about this needing more money – since many MPs office rely on interns for their most vital work (casework, basic media monitoring etc). However it is likely that MPs would decide they need less labour in general if they started to have to pay for all of it.

    Currently graduate employment in some occupations is turning into a form of arms race. It doesn’t matter how relevant your degree is, how much volunteer work you did on evenings and weekends, how brilliant your transferrable skills are etc – you need months of full time work experience to even get a job photocopying and doing basic admin. People even do multiple internships, one after the other, to get ahead.

    But surely part of the reason why employers in the sector (agencies, MPs, parties, NGOs, think tanks etc.) require this, is because there are so many people available who have this experience? It’s hard to turn down a pool of candidates who have effectively been working full time in the industry for months, sometimes years.

    If the amount of available internships were to be reduced, wouldn’t employers, including MPs have to do what they are supposed to do in the first place – find ways of identifying and nurturing graduate talent? It would mean lower paid, shorter term intiial contracts as employers worked out who was any good (indeed that is what internships would effectively become); but at least these would be openly advertsied and available to people who didn’t have either rich parents or at least parents who still had a spare room in London/South East.

    I’m not an expert on the labour market, so this could be very wrong – but I don’t think it follows that internships are the only ways of supplying opportunity, and might actually prevent fairer ways evolving.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd May '11 - 10:17pm

    Guido Fawkes

    Here is a revolutionary idea – politicians should raise money from supporters to pay their staff. Not hard to grasp is it

    Right, so the politicians who spout out propaganda on behalf of the international money men who are sucking this country dry get plenty of help paid for by their backers, while the politicians who speak out for all those Brits who have no money left thanks to being sucked dry by the fat cats get none?

    Yes, this is your politics Mr Fawkes – you don’t give a **** for Britain or British people, all you care about is the power of money, and making that powerr even more powertful and running down what is left of the true voice of British people as expressed through what is left of our democratic mechanisms.

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