Opinion: The Government should act decisively on unpaid internships

Last week Alan Milburn’s report Fair Access to Professional Careers was published, with some particularly interesting points about internships. But what’s important on this issue isn’t that he reached the inevitable conclusion that a system – based on who you know, not what you know, and requires people to work essentially full time jobs without being paid – is a bad thing shouldn’t surprise anyone, and the campaign group Intern Aware has been making these points for over a year. What’s important is how the Government responds: with tepid agreement, or decisive action.

The Government has shouted from the rooftops about creating more opportunities for young people, while only muttering quietly about more fairly distributing the opportunities we already have. This attitude has to change, and only the place that change in Government can come from is the Liberal Democrats.

It’s been said that the ‘Big Society’ and Liberalism are much the same thing. Well, I think this issue more than any other shows why they aren’t always the same.

Let’s look at the current situation in the context of the ‘Big Society’. If a successful professional uses their position to get their neighbour’s son an internship at their company for a six months, and in turn their parents (who are also professionals so have a fairly good income) agree to financially support them for that time while they not making money, that to me feels like the ‘Big Society’. Nobody involved is really acting selfishly, they’re all giving up time or money to help someone else, and it’s all people doing things for each other – not having the government do things for them. Just look at all the individual elements and they’re all good things. But put it all together and the result is a deeply regressive system where securing work in many top professions as Alan Milburn describes:

Is possible only for those who can afford to work for free. It means that others –perhaps with equal or better claims . . . are excluded from consideration.

Whereas, if the Government introduces a major communications and enforcement drive from HMRC on existing employment law to ensure that interns who do real work get paid at least the minimum wage, they must also make sure that recruitment is based on talent, not personal contacts. Then the Government can create a society where access to professions is fair, free and open, and that sounds like Liberalism to me.

We talk a lot about making distinctions between us and the Conservatives; this is an issue that highlights the fundamentally different ways we view how our country should be run. But to show the distinction, it’s vital that Liberal Democrats in Government ensure that Alan Milburn’s report is met, not just with agreement but real Government action.

Tom Wood is Chair of Liberal Youth.

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  • “they must also make sure that recruitment is based on talent, not personal contacts.”

    So how, in the real world, are you going to do that then? It sounds like you’re suggesting that some new department of government should be created that will vet all internships. That idea sounds more socialist than liberal to my ears and I can’t see how it would operate effectively anyway (I realise that there is a word limit on these articles so you may have not had a chance to expand on this point, perhaps an explanation here would help).

    As per the comment from Mike Bird, will we now see a stop to all Lib Dem BNMW internships?

  • The issue is surely defining a legitimate internship that is really work experience, from a position that could/should be done by a paid member of staff? It is not clear to me that that is straightforward.

    Also, if the internship pays expenses against receipts, the intern is eligible for housing benefit. So an internship with fares paid, plus £10 per day for lunch would only leave you out of pocket by the cost of breakfast and supper. With £10 for lunch you could probably buy lunch that would cover supper as well.

    If the position is about experience and learning skills, is it really that different to study? In Sweden PhD students get a full wage – should we move to that here too?

  • “If the position is about experience and learning skills, is it really that different to study?”

    What job isn’t ‘about’ experience? Maybe we should abolish wages altogether, and somehow contrive for employees to pay their employers for providing a valuable education in the University of Life!

  • Rebecca Hanson 9th Jun '12 - 1:00am

    One of the problems is that we are missing out on cherishing and promoting the very many other relevant and valuable ‘big society’ opportunities our young people could be engaging in if we were were creating more intelligent structures people could tap into.

    I chat to young adults who are doing internship after internship after internship in journalism or whatever and I get the sense that some of them are rather like people who have decided they are going to be film stars and just won’t consider that they may need to actually get some wider life experience to set themselves apart from every other wannabe. Sure it’s nice to have been on a film set and to have had some acting experience but it’s not enough for most people – is it?

    So what we need are ‘big society’ networks where people can offer others – or each other, or jointly generate a wide variety of ‘life experience’ opportunities and accredit what they have done. Are you doing some DIY in your own house? Why not invite someone round to help? Are you cooking? Invite someone round and teach them what you are doing. Gardening? Cleaning your pigeons? Struggling with triplets? Organising a project which needs volunteers? All this could be much more effectively encouraged, supported and valued if we organised ourselves a bit better. Let’s value and take time to share all these skills and spend some time with each other along the way. Society needs people who understand society. People can’t become entrepreneurial or flexible in what they will do unless they get the opportunity to see, think about and chat through some of the variety of life around them.

    Tom is right. Internships can be a big society experience. But they are just a grain in the sand of what is possible. We need to nurture what is outside the box.

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