Opinion: Forcing payment for internships could actually reduce opportunities

There has been plenty of talk recently about the unfairness of Westminster internships and calls for all internships in Parliament and in political parties to be paid. I understand the good intentions behind this argument but am concerned about the effects this could actually have on opportunities.

There are two issues being discussed around internships and it’s important not to get them confused. The first is the issue of informal internships – Daddy getting you an exclusive internship because he plays golf with somebody influential.

This is what Nick Clegg is talking about when he says that “it should be what you know, not who you know”. This is quite right and I agree fully with him. The ambitious youngster who wishes to take on formative work such as this should be able to be accepted on the basis of their own merit.

The second issue is over whether all interns should be paid. I applaud the recent Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme, which aims to provide a certain amount of paid internships in Parliament to help those from underprivileged backgrounds.

But on the whole internships are an investment by an individual in their own future, much like a degree. To force all people to pay interns a wage will only result in reducing the amount of internships available, and actually reducing opportunities for those who seek them.

I have recently completed an unpaid Parliamentary internship with a Liberal Democrat MP at the age of 31, having chosen to change career. Like most interns I only received money for lunch and travel.

Coming from an underprivileged background myself, I received no financial support, and earned the internship on my own merits through previous attainment and demonstrating my abilities volunteering during the General Election campaign. I quit my job in Bristol and moved to London, interning part time and working part time to pay my way. Despite this, I still racked up around £2,000 in debt. But I would do the whole thing again tomorrow at the drop of a hat.

Since then I have been employed (for proper money) both by the Liberal Democrats and soon in a Parliamentary capacity by a Lib Dem MP. I am certain I would not have got either post without previously interning and gaining that invaluable experience.

So if money can be found to provide extra internships for people coming from poorer backgrounds, by all means create more opportunities. But please don’t force payment on organisations and restrict opportunities. It will not help the ambitious amongst us, and I doubt satisfies our liberal ideal that individuals should be free to work to better themselves, regardless of their circumstance or background.

* Glyn Ley is a Lib Dem member and Constituency Organiser for Thornbury & Yate.

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13 Comments

  • patrick murray 15th Nov '11 - 10:48am

    i think we need to distinguish what makes an internship different from just volunteering. political parties are built on volunteers, and that is always going to be the way. i have to say i got into politics through volunteering in my local mps office ten years ago – nowadays that might well be called an “internship”. i knew what i was getting myself in to and was happy to do it. at the same time it led to other opportunities. fwiw i was on benefits and unemployed at the time so its not like it was that restricted. i just rang up and asked if they wanted some help. not every political opportunity has to be in westminster.

    the growth in the concept of internships seems to me to have left political parties in particular with a real problem -previously people were prepared to volunteer because they wanted to, now people expect payment for basically the same thing.

  • Andrew Falconer 15th Nov '11 - 11:18am

    First things first, the law on the national minimum wage is unambiguous. Unpaid internships as described above are illegal unless for a charity or as part of a course of education.
    But it is good to talk about the principle. Like many LDV readers and Glyn too, I undertook unpaid experience which ultimately led me to a full time, paid position with a MP. It cost me a fortune. If you sit in a LD staff meeting in Portcullis House and look around you’ll see just how a) white and b) middle class we are. There is a reason for that which the party needs to address.
    And I’m sorry to say that many of our MPs exploit unpaid interns. If you speak to those in other parties you’ll see that our MPs continue to rely much more heavily on unpaid labour despite the allowances available. Of course internships are great and essential but there needs to be a middle-way approach to funding them.
    My preference would be a social fund available to any SME / equivalent seeking to benefit from interns that could be applied to with a case outlining both the business benefit, if any, and the educational benefit for the intern. The fund would then meet a proportion of the NMW which the employer would top-up to meet the minimum wage. This would create greater equality and encourage mobility – something we talk a lot about but rarely seem to practice.

  • I think this misses the point that by having unpaid intern-ships those who can’t afford to take them are disadvantaged. This is admittedly more of a problem for full time than part time places, but you have ended up in a situation in some careers (poltiics, banking etc) where an intern-ship is the main way to get a job and indeed almost a prerequisite. The issue isn’t about creating more opportunities but is about creating equal opportunity for everyone. I am not here arguing for pointless levelling down (if they can’t have an intern-ship no-one can) but am relying on the fact that intern-ships are done either to get a job directly or to look good on a CV and so their existence is genuinely a disadvantage to those who can’t take them. I realise your post tries to deal with this (where you talk about working part time and taking on debt) but for some people this isn’t possible (if they are younger than you and looking at a first career not career change they won’t have savings that you could have built up before starting, they won’t have a credit history to let them get an unsecured loan or assets to secure a loan against, and part-time inter-ships are harder to come by and look less impressive than full time placements, as others have pointed out those with children/dependants cannot afford to work only part time).
    I think forcing intern-ships to be paid (or at least forcing any full time intern-ships to be paid – i.e. more than 2/3 days a week) does help the ambitious amongst us, or at least the ambitious but less well off, and does fulfil our liberal ideal that individuals should be free to work to better themselves, regardless of their circumstance or background. Emphasis on regardless of circumstances or background.
    You have to bear in mind that intern-ships help some people get a job but by that same token they make it far more difficult to get a job for those who can’t get intern-ships for a variety of reasons.
    In response to Patrick – the division has to be over whether it is a role done primarily to benefit the party (i.e. leafleting or envelope stuffing) or in the interest of getting something to add to a CV or making contacts to get a job (i.e. working as a researcher in parliament or even the constituency office). Obviously this is difficult to draw a line, and whilst some cases are obvious there would be cases in between the extremes where people argued over it and some governing body would be needed to resolve disputes, but as a broad principle I think that is the dividing line.

  • Having re-read your post I should look to clarify one point. My argument (to at least an extent) does rely on the idea that intern-ships give you a relative more than an absolute advantage. By that I mean that the benefit from an intern-ship is partly that it makes you better at the job you are intern-shipping for – but only slightly, ultimately the skills you pick up could be taught in the same amount of time or probably quicker at the beginning of a paid job (quicker because companies have more incentive to invest once you are staying with them for the foreseeable future, not just a few months). (The one advantage that does come here is that having done an intern-ship you know what the job entails so are less likely to hate it and quit after getting appointed). The main advantage, I would argue, comes from the contacts you make, and from the fact that by putting it on a CV you show you are keen and interested and have a good idea about what the job entails – thus giving you an advantage over those who don’t take intern-ships. Of course it is difficult for employers to differentiate between the people who haven’t done intern-ships, they can’t tell whether they are; 1 – those who could do but chose not to take an intern-ship, 2 – those who were unable to but would have if they could afford to, could find one etc etc and 3 – those who were unable to but wouldn’t have chosen to anyway, so can use not being able to afford to as a cover. Clearly 2 demonstrates just as much interest and keenness in the career as someone who has done an intern-ship. But even if it is clear that the individual in question could not do an intern-ship (is not number 1) companies cannot tell if they are 2 or 3, and so will opt for someone who they know did do an intern-ship, particularly in the current more competitive jobs market. This is why it is such a disadvantage to those who can’t take them.

  • Glyn – But there are obviously levels of can’t afford, and it may have been difficult for you to do and have required you to get into some debt, but for others it would be even more difficult or impossible (such as I pointed out, those who do not have the credit history to get into debt, as others pointed out those who have dependants etc, of course the student loan style system suggested would help this but I wonder what the cost would be).
    And I’m not saying intern-ships won’t be reduced, they clearly will be; the point of my post was that a drastic reduction in the number of intern-ships – but those intern-ships being paid and therefore genuinely open to all (or at least almost all, there are still some issues but they are harder to avoid) – is preferable to the current situation where only some (the more privileged generally) can do intern-ships.
    The point regarding widening opportunities is not to give people from all backgrounds access to intern-ships but to give people from all backgrounds access to jobs. I do not think reducing opportunities for intern-ships will reduce opportunities in this more important sense because it will become far easier to get a job without one, where-as at the moment it is a prerequisite that only some can afford to have on their CV. The point I made in my second comment is that the advantage one gains from intern-ships is a competitive advantage over those who do not do them, and that therefore disadvantages those who cannot do them as well as those who are less ambitious or committed and so choose not to. The latter is fair enough but the former is a major problem and one I am willing to sacrifice absolute number of intern-ships for.

  • Lib Dem Member 16th Nov '11 - 10:33am

    Gosh, this is complicated. I agree that internships should be paid. What is the Benefits situation for people doing internships? Can an intern get Housing Benefit to pay the rent?

    Saying ‘Internships are unfair as not everyone can afford to be one’ is a little like saying ‘Studying is unfair because not everyone can afford to do it’.

    Interns are totally different from ‘volunteers’. An intern will do work to a professional standard, usually during office hours, often on a formal internship scheme.

    Nick Clegg is right about reforming the current unfair system. We must avoid a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Should Parliamentary candidates be paid, given the amount of professional-standard political work they are doing in so many hours of their spare time? Surely not. If a Lib Dem or Tory activist is asked by a ministerial office to write a briefing on a policy area on which the activist is knowledgable, then s/he won’t get paid for it, but it’s still work, and that’s OK – let’s not go crazy and ban such a thing.

    In the theatre, there are fringe venues that are considered to be professional, but where nobody gets paid. Rehearsals will be 9-5 from Monday to Friday, the actors will be trained professionals and the plays produced will be reviewed by the critics of national newspapers. When I was a recent graduate, I got several months’ work as the Assistant Director on three productions at one such London theatre. I was living at home with my parents at the time and was signing on while looking for a job. I persuaded the Job Centre to recognise this work under their Training for Work scheme, so that I could continue to sign on.

    This was a really positive experience. I cast one of the shows, meaning that I spoke to lots of actors’ agents, one of whom then offered me a paid role as a full-time assistant. That actually didn’t work out. Shortly after that, a friend from a youth theatre was doing work experience (as we used to call internships) for a TV production company. Through her, I got in to do it. It was for a maximum of six weeks (was that then the law?), unpaid and with expenses only. And they sometimes sent a cab to get me on very early mornings. I was still living at home at the time. It was an absolute privilege and at the end of the six weeks, my producer got me a two-week paid contract as a junior researcher. He told me I was pushing at an open door, which I promptly failed to push at, but that was my fault, not his. Not long after, a job was advertised at a company that I’d dealt with while I was doing work experience and I got it, meaning that I was then into the world of full-time permanent employment, away from benefits and moving out of my parents’ house.

    I wouldn’t change any of this. We need a less unfair and more equal society, but we also need to allow people to take risks and work for nothing if they want to.

  • Glyn, your argument that unpaid internships should be allowed seems no different from the argument against the minimum wage. i.e. That more posts will be available if employers don’t have to pay as much, or anything at all in the case of internships. It is a true statement, but is that what we want?

  • Lib Dem Member raises a really, really important point about the benefits situation. My main anger with internships is that, at least back in my intern days, I was told, explicitly, by the job centre that it counted as a job so I wasn’t eligible for benefits. I was living with my godmother at the time (she lives in Watford), so was able to do it by also working part time, but without a handy godmother there’s no way I’d have been able to do it.

    I would feel much better about internships if they were:
    – limited, strictly, to a reasonably short timescale (e.g. three months)
    – it was made explicit that interns could claim whatever benefits they were intitled to
    – it was clear that interns could come in late when they need to sign on
    – some kind of system where interns who move away from their home area to take on an internship could still receive benefits without having to go home to sign on.
    – had to be for a voluntary organisation. I can forgive MPs and charities for it, I can’t forgive private PR companies.

    I also don’t see why the party can’t lead the way by supporting interns with accomodation. Fine, there isn’t money to pay people, but why not set up some kind of network of members living in London or in Lib Dem held seats, who have spare rooms and are willing to host an intern for a few months (they can deliver your round for you in exchange, if you like!). That would take care of the biggest cost, and if you can get travel and lunch paid by the internship, free accomodation, and the dole or a part time job for food and other expenses, suddenly it becomes possible for most people. Not everyone, but still a big step forward.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Nov '11 - 1:13pm

    OK, but consider this argument, which may have been made in the 19th century, and perhaps was:

    “Forcing an end to slavery will just take away homes and support for black people” (they would have used another word here, but let’s not now) “Slavery seems bad, but it’s the way the economy works, and it means the slaves are given homes and food by their owners, why it’s almost a welfare state. If you end it, you’ll wreck economic growth, and all those poor people will starve and have nowhere to live”.

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