The Independent View: Parliamentary interns deserve better

What do Lib Dem MPs have in common with the Tories and Labour? Hardly any of them pay their interns – along with almost all politicians and media groups. With an increasingly competitive employment market, getting a job today often relies less on your interview skills than your ability to intern for free. An article in the New Statesman highlights this problem, but even they fail to pay those interns who are working for them.

To support yourself in London for three months costs around £2000. The division between those who can afford to do internships, and those who cannot, is greater than ever. Where students are intelligent, qualified and want to work, but can’t afford to live without pay, we have a problem. Britain will be a worse place in 20 years if a generation of potential journalists, fashion designers, TV producers and politicians are wasting their talent because their parents couldn’t afford to fund them why they got a foot on the ladder.

Each year thousands of students and graduates are turned away from the opportunities they deserve because they are unable to complete internships. This isn’t just unfair, going against the basic principle that work should be paid, but it is a growing cause of inequality. The government’s major report into social mobility of last July devoted an entire chapter to unpaid internships. It concluded that “current employers are missing out on talented people… radical change is needed”.

A solution lies in the government’s own minimum wage legislation, which must be changed to recognise interns as short-term employees. It is a national scandal that after over ten years of the minimum wage, many young working people do not receive it and in November, the Employment Tribunal sitting in Reading ruled that expenses-only internships are illegal. This isn’t to stop people working in their local Oxfam: the minimum wage legislation explicitly excludes genuine volunteering.

Today’s internship system leads to inequality. That’s why I launched a campaign called Intern Aware. It started as a Facebook group, Interns Must Be Paid The Minimum Wage. We now have 2,000 members and are supported by the NUS, trade unions, several ex-ministers and MPs and have branches at different universities. We’ve had support from many Lib Dem activists and local groups and are working with Phil Willis MP’s campaign for fair parliamentary internships.

Visit www.internaware.org and ask your MP to support the campaign. Asking people to work for free is exploitation. Interns deserve better.

Ben Lyons is Co-Director, Intern Aware.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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13 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Feb '10 - 1:04pm

    I think that it is a mistake to focus on Parliamentary interns here. It’s just as much a problem for all other interns.

    We have a tax-funded education system precisely because few employers are willing to front the money to train people. Unfortunately, it falls down at the last hurdle: employers in certain fields are not longer satisfied with the output of the education system, and demand an internship as well. The solution seems fairly obvious – we have a servicable system of means-tested grants and loans for ensuring that people can afford to go to university, we just need to extend it to cover internships.

  • Simon Titley 26th Feb '10 - 5:18pm

    It’s important not to focus exclusively on the issue of pay. The pernicious effect of internships is that they give an unfair advantage to the children of rich parents.

    Internships are the main reason why privately-educated people are increasingly dominating politics, lobbying, public relations and the media.

    But I also agree with Jock. MPs are increasingly ‘professional politicians’ who follow this career path: public school > Oxbridge > unpaid internship and/or badly-paid research assistant > lobbyist > MP. We need more MPs who, in Alan Watkins’s famous phrase, have had a “proper job”.

  • Malcolm Todd 26th Feb '10 - 6:15pm

    The answer lies with MPs, and indeed parties. Don’t give a job with any influence to someone who hasn’t worked outside politics for a serious amount of time: no need to abolish internships (or, god help us, start paying interns grants to fuel their careers as whole-life politicians!), just abolish the advantage to be gained from doing it.

  • Does any member of the public really think that paying interns should be a priority in our current cash-strapped times?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Feb '10 - 12:59am

    “Does any member of the public really think that paying interns should be a priority in our current cash-strapped times?”

    Speaking as a member of the public – absolutely not!

    And furthermore, as for these bloody parasitic university lecturers, it’s time they all got proper jobs, and proper haircuts too! Bring back National Service, that’s what I say!

    No, don’t drag me away from the keybaord yet, nurse – I haven’t fin

  • ‘Does any member of the public really think that paying interns should be a priority in our current cash-strapped times?’

    Yes taking advatage of people and getting them to work for free is unnaceptable whatever the state of public finances. You might say that they knew the terms of the position when applying but the whole point is that you then stop anyone who isn’t able to afford to work for free unable to take up an intern position and then you disadvantage such people in the job market. MPs should be setting an example on this issue not taking advatage of a free labour force.

    Interns do a valuable job and as such should be paid for doing it and if that requires an increase in MPs paltry staffing allowances (if they are doing their jobs properly at least) then so be it.

  • @ Jock

    Political internships do not equate to being a career politician. If you want to work for a political organisation or charity you have to do an internship. Even if you have no intention or desire to become an elected official you have to do one to get your foot in the door. Some people do two or three all unpaid. The result, the MPs, their staff and policy makers and advocists across the entire political spectrum are made up of an unrepresentative number of upper-middle class individuals who could afford to work for free. Lower middle and working class people struggle al mightily to get there foot in the door, become disenfranchised, give up and let the spods carry on. Interns need to be paid at least the minimum wage. This doesn’t just apply to politics. there are a huge amount of organisations using interns as free labour and leaving them with little support and no real new skills. It is unfair, unjust and immoral whether it is in politics, engineering, law or manufacturing.

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