Swinson argues against unpaid internships, Leech advertises for unpaid interns. Who’s right?

On the face of it, Liberal Democrats are sending out mixed messages on internships at the moment.

Jo Swinson, as employment minister, has been promoting the Government’s Pay and Rights helpline (0800 917 2368) and talking about it being appropriate to pay interns while John Leech’s office in Manchester is offering an unpaid internship proramme. This is in contrast to the party’s internship programme which is offering the National Minimum Wage.

Jo on Good Morning Scotland (from around 1:52 in) that she wanted to ensure that employers were not unwittingly or unintentionally doing the wrong thing and making sure that people on internship and work experience programmes  know their rights. She added that HMRC were ready to take any employers to task if they failed to pay workers the National Mininum Wage.

Asked when work experience and internships become works she said that if  it’s part of school, or even a week in the holidays, when it’s just adding to experience and businesses themselves are not necessarily getting much productivity because you’re learning rather than working, then you don’t have to be paid. However, that changes:

When you have to come in at a particular time, or are required to work particular hours, if you can be disciplined for not doing particular tasks, these are characteristics of working rather than work experience and when you are working  the National Minimum Wage applies.

On the benefits of internships, she had this to say:

Internships can be an excellent opportunity to get the experience if you’re in catch 22 of not being able to get a job because you can’t get an experience and can’t get experience because they don’t have a job.

The Government has work experience programmes which are part of JobCentre Plus so you can still receive benefits while job seeking and undertaking work experience.

She also flagged up the Facebook page on theNational Minimum Wage.

At the end of the interview she was quizzed on the Liberal Democrats’ record on unpaid internships:

Liberal Democrats have changed our policy to make sure that internships are at the very least getting expenses where it’s a voluntary role and many of my colleagues and people across all parties are now paying interns which is quite appropriate.

So where does that leave us with the John Leech internships? I’ve spent a bit of time talking to his office today and getting my head round how their scheme operates. Office Manager Charles Glover told me that it’s an opportunity to receive structured training and is not in any sense a job replacement. If a situation has arisen, eg a member of staff has been absent and an intern is acting up for them, then they get paid. Charles said that the Leech scheme comes from a desire to give young people who wouldn’t normally get it, an opportunity to receive good quality training which could then lead to permanent jobs in politics. He also emphasised that John Leech himself has no say in who is appointed so there’s none of the getting a job because of who you know stuff that Nick Clegg has so often spoken out against.

They say that 30 of their previous interns have gone on to find jobs in politics, the Civil Service public affairs, third sector, the UN and the European Parliament. That’s all very well, but aren’t they just giving opportunities to affluent young people who can afford to work for nothing. This, says Glover, is where their programme is different. They actively seek people from a wide range of backgrounds and they will structure the length of the internship around so that people can fit in their work with earning enough to live on.

But wouldn’t apprenticeships be a more equitable way of achieving those aims? They looked at it but decided against because they  didn’t know if they’d be able to guarantee a job at the end of it and because they wouldn’t be able to take on as many people as they do.

There’s no doubt that Leech’s office puts a great deal of effort into producing a quality training programme. There’s a 3 day induction (accommodation and meals provided) which is intense. They focus on personal and skills development in a structured way for the duration. They are trying to do good work with the best of intentions. But, at the same time, these young people are spending time working, and after 3 months will have contributed something of value, but will have received no pay, not even travelling expenses.

The party, though, has decided to adopt a policy of paying interns the National Minimum Wage  at its London HQ and in the field following, among other things, a vigorous campaign from Liberal Youth. While the party has no direct jurisdiction over MPs’ employment practices, Tim Farron as President was pretty clear when he wrote an open letter on unpaid internships in the Summer:

It is up to each MP to organise their office but I have asked the Whips Office to reiterate the position of the party – that both Nick Clegg and I have formally stated before – that unpaid internships go against our values and should not be used.

So, while Leech’s interns are  fine legally and the scheme is of good quality, there is little question that it goes against what the party has decided to do. The dilemma is what do we do about it, if anything?  In a perfect world, these positions should be properly funded and paid. What do you think?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I do think the party should insist that our MPs do not “employ” unpaid interns. Internships should be paid at least minimum wage, ideally the living wage. Anything else simply entrenches advantage and privilege, and we should be against that sort of thing. Simples.

  • “They actively seek people from a wide range of backgrounds and they will structure the length of the internship around so that people can fit in their work with earning enough to live on.”

    I worked a 30 hour week while doing my post graduate course at uni to support myself. My uni work undoubtedly suffered. Allowing people to have another job does not cancel out the privilege of independent wealth and it’s a bit rich (see what I did there?) to pretend that it does.

  • Richard Dean 11th Nov '13 - 6:56pm

    Unpaid internships are a disgrace, in my view. The argument in favour seems to be that the intern is receiving the benefit of training and gaining experience. In fact, training is part of any paid job, as in the gaining of experience. In my profession – civil engineering – engineers have to continually train and update experience throughout their working lives, it’s called continuing professional development (CPD), and many professions and trades either strongly encourage it or else insist on it. A company that does not continually update the skills of its employees, while they are paid, is falling behind in today’s world.

  • There is a point in an internship where the main benefit shifts from the intern to the employer. A one week internship is not going to provide anything much of value to an employer. A three month internship most definitely is. I would set a limit of perhaps a month maximum for unpaid internships. Beyond that, the minimum wage should apply.

  • Richard Dean 11th Nov '13 - 9:56pm

    It’s very often the case that a employee does not provide much (if any) immediate benefit to the employer in the first few weeks of the employment, when the employee is learning the ropes. I know we now have to content with IDS’ reforms, but previously we always used to expect an employer to pay a reasonable starting wage for those weeks.

  • Richard, Stuart

    Agree100%. I’ve heard all of these crafty dressed up excuses for not paying people for their labour – it won’t wash and I admire Clegg and Faron for being pretty clear about this issue .

    And this practice could well run foul of HMRC , who are cracking down on non minimum pay employers

  • Of course unpaid internships provide yet more opportunities for the already affluent.
    We are either for privilige or against it, in everything we do. This of course does not prevent Leech and others from enjoying free help from volunteers, as always. In fact, I wonder why unpaid interns are needed at all – unless there’s a problem getting volunteer help?

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Nov '13 - 11:49pm

    I respect Jo’s position on making sure that employers aren’t breaking minimum wage laws, she hasn’t really got a choice but to act here.

    Now for my personal opinion: working for free or below the minimum wage should be a civil right, but it shouldn’t be forced on anyone through welfare sanctions. I’m not completely intolerant of welfare sanctions, I just think they provide the only need for a minimum or “living” wage and state endorsed apprenticeships.

    Banning voluntary work because it reduces the need for paid labour is not a principle I would like to see embraced. Which nobody is offering, but we always seem to have a crowd calling for it.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '13 - 12:57am

    By the way, if ever there was an advertisement not to go into party politics it is this:

    “…I have asked the Whips Office to reiterate the position of the party – that both Nick Clegg and I have formally stated before – that unpaid internships go against our values and should not be used.”

    Being coerced to promote an opinion by a higher authority! We need to get rid of whipping.

  • Eddie, it is not a civil right because the only people who choose to work for less than NMW are those who can afford to allow themselves to be abused.

    It may seem rich for one who has done an unpaid internship to say this, but the truth is that are wrong. I had to work for a year to afford to it. Furthermore, even after a year of saving, I still had to beg my way through those three months by sleeping where ever I could – and the staff at Tesco’s nicknamed me “bargain boy”. I was luckier than most and I still had to really drag myself through this. We should not be putting such a choice on our young, give up your dream or literally allow your health, personal life and even dignity suffer.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '13 - 1:42am

    Liberal Al, nah, I don’t think those on unpaid internships are allowing themselves to be abused. It is like saying anyone who volunteers for the Liberal Democrats is allowing themselves to be abused. I’m not denying that exploitation exists, but the status quo is the lesser evil.

  • There is a whole of difference between volunteer work and an internship.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '13 - 4:45am

    Sorry, I do respect opinions of those who want tighter regulations on internships, it is just that I think they would lead to many internships disappearing altogether and whenever there is a risk of such a thing I generally favour the state not getting involved.

  • “They actively seek people from a wide range of backgrounds and they will structure the length of the internship around so that people can fit in their work with earning enough to live on.”

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind that if these people are over 16, doing anything more than just watching other people work, and not doing an internship as part of a student course, then the only legal basis for not paying them is that they are simply volunteers, John Leech’s web page confirms “there are no set hours and responsibilities and you should be free to come and go as you wish”.

    In that context it’s a bit difficult to see what’s meant by “structur[ing] the length of the internship around [sic] so that people can fit in their work with earning enough to live on”. That sounds very much like arranging set hours that are compatible with other employment, doesn’t it?

  • I think it would be sad to lose good quality unpaid internships. I don’t defend those which aren’t equal opportunity or which expect people to work as if they were in a full time job, but there is a role for a post where there is an equal balance between training / experience and productivity. In the schemes I used to run for the party we offered full board and expenses and had a set list of training opportunities, but no fixed hours or responsibilities. If it had been insisted that we pay a wage in addition to that, we simply wouldn’t have been able to give that opportunity to so many people, many of whom went on to work in politics (or decided to avoid it in future without having committed anything). We did genuinely have some people take part who had no independent means of support, but our local members were happy to provide accommodation because it was their way of helping the party.

  • Roger Roberts 12th Nov '13 - 12:21pm

    The problem for part time researchers/paid interns – I try to pay the living wage rate of £8 plus an hour for, let us say, ten hours a week is that first class applicants who do not have London accommodation are at a tremendous disadvantage. It would be great to appoint applicants from outside the London area and I’m not alone in welcoming viable suggestions/.

  • Robert, the ideas I had were:
    – Not over concerning on Westminster. MPs should be more willing to offer internships in their constituency offices because if someone is really committed to a career in politics, they will know that much of the work happens outside of those cold, damn castle walls. Internships outside of London are cheaper for both the office and the intern, plus they offer an opportunity to really get to grips with much of the grassroots/groundwork politics that are vital to Liberal Democrat MPs. Of course, allowing the interns opportunities to do some work in Westminster is not a bad thing, so giving them a week in the Westminster office is not out of the question should they really want it, but I honestly think there is a lot to be said for getting people to realise that they can gain great experience outside of London.

    – Job sharing. I cannot speak for your office, but the one I worked in simply did not need more than one full-time member of staff in the Westminster office. As such, I think more MPs should look at allowing interns to work a few days a week in their office and a few days a week in another MP’s office. This way, the intern has the benefit of full-time pay as well as even more conducive learning experience because they gain experience of life in two different MP’s offices. If your office can find an MP willing to look at this, it means you can give experience to someone from outside of London without having to worry about them living on part-time wages. It also means you do not need to overload your office.

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