Unpaid internships: Tim Farron replies

Two weeks ago we published an open letter to Tim Farron on the subject of unpaid internships. Here is his reply.

Dear Friends,

Firstly thank you for your letter and thank you for bearing with me while I was away for a few days with Rosie and the children. I wanted to make sure I gave you a proper reply rather than a few rushed lines.

In my meetings with Liberal Youth and the campaign group InternAware I was asked about the party and internships. I promised at the time that I would personally not employ people as unpaid interns. My staff are all paid and the two interns who work for me (one in Westminster and one in my constituency) are paid at above minimum wage. This will continue again next year too. Like you, I believe that we must practice what we preach and staff must be paid for the work they do. It is for this reason that Liberal Democrat HQ decided to make the investment to shift from unpaid to paid internships; however this has inevitably reduced the number of interns the Party can take on at a time.

In terms of the Specified Associated Organisation (SAO) mentioned, like you I believe it is inappropriate to have an unpaid intern in HQ, and so I will be speaking to this SAO next week about the issue. I have spoken with the Chief Executive and he has agreed that LDHQ will be happy to work with me to offer support and training needed for the SAO to raise the funds to pay for an intern. I do understand the constraints they are under and I will do whatever I can to help them find the funding required.

But that only deals with unpaid internships within HQ and related bodies. 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.

Finally thank you for taking the time to get in touch with me and if I can help further with this or any other matter please contact me at [email protected] or on twitter at @timfarron

Best wishes, Tim

* Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

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  • Simon McGrath 8th Jun '13 - 2:43pm

    Excellent news. Hopefully the EMLD will agree not to fill the unpaid intern position they are currently advertising

  • Peter Andrews 8th Jun '13 - 2:56pm

    or even better will agree to pay the interns they recruit

  • Simon McGrath 8th Jun '13 - 5:06pm

    @lester as far as I am aware i have never criticised the EMLD on any other issue than using unpaid interns.
    I do believe that no-one in the party should use unpaid interns, including MPs. I have several times asked questions at Conference and my local party has submitted a conference motion (not taken) on the subject.

    On the point at issue will the EMLD now stop using unpaid interns as Tim is suggesting?

  • Foregone Conclusion 8th Jun '13 - 9:41pm

    @Lester – perhaps EMLD has got a lot of stick because people feel disappointed that a body campaigning for greater equality was effectively perpetuating it in this way. It’s also worth pointing out that MPs pay their interns out of public money (which is subject to IPSA approval) or out of their own pocket.

  • So long as any Lib Dem group or MP, however laudable their aims, uses unpaid interns they make the approach taken by Clegg regarding privilege seem hypocritical.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Jun '13 - 10:51pm

    I will ask again – if people can give a clear distinction between volunteers and interns, they may have a case. Otherwise this is all hot air.

    So what does Tim want to do – expel EMLD from party HQ? (They might be better off elsewhere but that is another issue). The stuff about providing “training” to raise a lot more money to pay staff is just patronising.

    MPs get large amounts of public money to pay staff. Other organisations in the party do not. The suspicion has to be that banning volunteer workers is just a means of closing down bodies that might from time to time not be completely on the establishment message.

    Tony Greaves

  • A “volunteer” could be one of two quite different things: an unpaid member of an organisation, who participates fully in that organisation’s decision-making processes, and who spends a significant amount of time working for it; or a casual worker who contributes unpaid labour on off-days, but otherwise has no integral connection with the organisation, and can come and go at pleasure, and probably does, because (unless living on pension) he or she needs a time-consuming source of income.
    An “intern” is a third thing altogether, someone who works full or nearly-full time for an organisation for little or no pay, doing the work that a paid full-time or part-time worker might be doing, but whose primary compensation is supposed to be experience and the ability to say that he or she has interned at organisation X. In reality, of course, it’s a way to get dedicated young people from the financially independent classes to donate their labour for considerably under its actual value, and to avoid having to pay someone who could actually use the money. Using people who can afford not to be paid means, of course, that you avoid providing opportunities for the same experience to people who cannot afford it.

  • Jonathan Webber 9th Jun '13 - 9:31am

    An interesting debate. In my non Lib Dem life I take on about five students a year, all in the middle of a business degree and all required to spend a year ‘in industry’ in order to pass. Indeed, that year contributes significantly to the final grade. We pay expenses – a step up from a couple of years ago when the organisation paid nothing – and in exchange they get to be an integral part of a team , respected, nurtured, trained and given genuine and very real opportunity. Two ex-students are now running significant EU projects for me. Our student colleagues almost always come from minority backgrounds, we ensure a gender balance – and believe no one who tells you that today’s young people are work shy or incompetent.

    In my Lib Dem Life I’m proud to be Regional Chair in the West Midlands with a first-class Regional Executive dedicated to Local Parties, members, supporters and activists. Our fundraising gently improves and we’ve reached the point where we have a full-time Campaigns & Fundraising Officer. To support our single (paid) member of staff I’m committed to raising additional funds to create a (paid) part-time Campaigns / Training / Regional Coordinator from an office paid for by a donor.

    The office is important. At least it is to me for it represents a base from which we can coordinate our (regional) response to two forthcoming elections , managed by the Coordinator (above) and staffed by (unpaid) one or two volunteers / interns. Or perhaps not, having followed this discussion.

    People do take on political and social internships or volunteer positions because of commitment to a common cause, to Liberal Democracy or to further the common good. This isn’t about exploiting free labour but about putting Liberal Democrats in the best position to win with virtually no resource. Come the day those positions can be paid they will be, but for now things are as they are – that’s the reality.

    So, what’s the advice here? If I were able to make this happen, should I – or should I let it go as being incompatible with policy?

    Best to all,

    Jonathan Webber
    West Midlands

  • Tim Pollard 9th Jun '13 - 11:13am

    When I worked in Western Counties I helped run intern schemes on a number of occasions. Local parties could take part as long as they had an office and organiser to manage the intern, and could provide full board, lodgings and travel expenses. In that sense they were unpaid, but it was equal opportunities because they required no independent source of income to take part. They had no fixed job description or hours, but in most cases they worked extremely hard. It gave them the benefit of having tried the job of campaign organiser without long term commitment and to improve their CV enough to make them highly employable within the party. It gave us an extra pair of hands that we couldn’t have afforded any other way, plus a good knowledge of a potential future employee. Almost all the people who went through it who wanted a job with the party afterwards did get one. To outlaw this kind of scheme really benefits nobody, but it seems to have been forgotten in the rush to condemn unpaid internships.

  • This isn’t about exploiting free labour but about putting Liberal Democrats in the best position to win with virtually no resource. Come the day those positions can be paid they will be, but for now things are as they are – that’s the reality.

    So that’s it then …. its ok to win on the back of exploitation? Which is what not paying people to do a job is no matter how its spun.

  • Jonathan Webster

    We were doing industrial placements as part of degrees 25 years ago, and in fact our company does them now for degree and Masters students.

    There is no way we would consider taking them on with no pay – the pay isn’t fantastic but accommodation is provided and so is a salary above living wage levels. How can you justify not paying people to work for a year – how are they supposed to live for that year?

  • Liberal Neil 9th Jun '13 - 12:26pm

    @Tony – Tim’s letter makes it very clear what he thinks EMLD should do (and he was careful not to name them).

    He thinks they should raise the funds so that they can pay their intern and he has offered his own and the Chief executive’s support to help them do so. I don’t think it’s at all ‘patronising’ to offer training in fund-raising. A small team of us from my constituency are currently undertaking training provided by the national party so that we can raise enough funds to do what we need to do and I don’t fell patronised at all. I welcome it.

  • Tony Greaves 9th Jun '13 - 2:49pm

    Come on, There is a limit to the amount of money that the party – in the broadest sense – can raise at a national level. It may be more than is raised now, and tappinginto specialist interests is one way it can be increased. But the dilemma will always be there since there will always be a need for more hands.

    The argument is two-fold. What if anything is paid and how much and on what basis. And how people get to be “chosen” to do such jobs. I will address the first in this posting.

    This year (as usual) I spent a few weeks working at least “full time” on the Council elections (as agent for five candidates). Was I exploiting myself? Of course not. I choose to do it and have enough money to live on and support my political activities. The real argument is of course about young people post- (or even pre-) university who take internships (unpaid, expenses only, expenses+, waged) as a means of gaining skills and experience and “improving their cv”. But how do you “legislate” for them without also legislating (very unhelpfully) for all other kinds of full-time and part-time volunteers (who themselves may well be unpaid, expenses only or expenses+).

    There is a lot of it goes on in the Lords. Individual peers may have people variously called assistants, researchers, interns, volunteers, helping them with their work. Some are paid wages (some indeed may be seconded from the peer’s company or other main source of income), some are unpaid, many are somewhere in between, Some are full-time, many are part-time from a couple of hours a week upwards. Some are linked to peers but doing work for all-party and campaign groups. They are all ages from 18 upwards. Inevitably many fit into the kind of “interns” the argument is about and many will be looking for paid or better paid jobs in the political/lobbying/campaigning area and doing their work in the Lords as a stop-gap/experience builder etc etc.

    Do people thijnk the LD peers should be opting out of all this? If so how should we all find suipport for what we do or should we just wallow along as disorganised amateurs? Or is it okay to have volunteers working for us as long as they are all as old as we are?

    I am interested to know what people think.

  • @bcrombie How can you justify not paying people to work for a year – how are they supposed to live for that year?

    Well of course they can’t live for a year with the support of the bank of mum and dad – and that goes to the heart of the issue – those who have that support are fine – those who don’t are inevitably denied the opportunity unless they get themselves into debt. I simply don’t buy into the argument that Tony is making, namely that its all very difficult to distinguish between volunteers and interns doing a job. I volunteer to provide election support but I don’t expect a job description and fixed hours – and if I don’t turn up one day nobody (I hope) is going to get annoyed with me – and most importantly of all I’m not relying on doing it to get a job.

    I am coming round to the opinion that quite a lot of people would rather not face this one head on (and Clegg at least here is) hoping that their free support isn’t taken away through lack of funds to pay for labour.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Jun '13 - 5:04pm

    Very good points Tony. I think unpaid internships are mostly fine – at worse bad taste but that is highly subjective.

  • @Tony Greaves
    Surely if the Party cannot afford to dispense with unpaid interns then it was very ill advised for Clegg to take the line he has ? As I said in a previous post it now makes the Party look hypocritical. Especially as one of the most obvious attacks come 2015 will be that Lib Dems in power say one thing and do another (Tuition fees, secret courts etc). If interns are retained this will be another example that can be used…

  • Geoffrey Payne 9th Jun '13 - 9:47pm

    Surely there has to be made a distinction between voluntary organisations that cannot realistically afford to pay interns and businesses that can?
    I think Tony Greaves illustrates the point very well in terms of the work he puts in for the party for free.
    The main point Nick Clegg made originally was that unpaid internships mitigated against social mobility as you typically would need financial help from your parents to be able to do it.
    I am not sure that an internship from EMLD would have any of that social mobility issue.

  • Roger Symonds 12th Jun '13 - 10:32am

    I had one of Tim Pollards interns, actually Tim Kent was running the scheme the in 2007. Matt Hemsley is his name. He went on to run Don Foster’s very successful election campaign in 2010 on a paid basis. I like to think I provided the opportunity for Matt to show what he could do – and he did very successfully. He is now Sustrans media and policy officer in Wales.

  • Joshua Dixon 14th Jun '13 - 12:38am

    If you are willing to volunteer for no pay, then that is fine and much welcomed I hope.

    HOWEVER, this should be done at the willingness of the individual who should come forward themselves. I find it incredibly worrying that we continue to list UNPAID internships on websites that are for paid job listings. Is it not a little odd that a CV and Cover Letter are required for these obvious volunteering roles?

    If we want individuals to commit the sort of time that could be used in paid employment then we should do the right thing and pay these people! It is not difficult. I cannot afford to work for no pay. I wasn’t born into riches and I don’t “know” the right people to get me into these jobs. So a paid internship is the only way forward for people like me who desperately seek the valuable experience these roles bring. If paying interns means less internships then so bloody be it. At least when I’m applying I will be safe in the knowledge that if I am lucky I will be financially secure, even if it means a lower chance of me even securing an interview.

  • I’m inclined to agree with Josh ; an unpaid intern is adverstised for, assessed, interviewed and then, in some cases, signs up to some form of contract/agreement on length of time.

    That, to me, is a job. As a volunteer to the party, I can say yes or no, put in as many or as few hours as I can spare, and not walk away with a bad reference on my record as it is classed as an extra-curricular endeavour.

    I understand the lack of funding, but it is a bad excuse. In order to take up an internship at present, you have to have money – that is not going to help us change our pale, male, stale look now, is it?

    There are other ways to do it – taking on students, for example, as apprentices. Or, dare I say it, offering to take those currently unemployed on to help them gain qualifications in certain areas (admin/comms/business etc).

    A mutually beneficial scheme where they could gain experience and, if worked correctly, credits towards their studies while the MPs etc get the help they need.

    In the week where we launch “a million jobs” as a campaign, it is sad to see some defend an out-of-date, exclusive system.

  • Tell you what, Peebee, it does depend on criticality of what you are doing as a volunteer, but people ARE going to get annoyed “if you don’t turn up one day” – and it will quite likely turn into an “unreliability of volunteers” issue. Sorry to disillusion you.

  • I looked into applying for an internship at Party HQ. However minimum wage is not enough for someone my age (22) to move to London and cover both rent, living expenses and travel to work, especially as we may not have certain possessions like cooking equipment, furniture or office clothes. My parents cannot give me any financial support so the salary would be the sole income. Currently I am doing a Policy internship at a charity based in Leicester which is much cheaper to live in, and am payed a net salary of £1000 a month. There is no reason whatsoever why the Lib Dems and MPs cannot pay this (and ideally higher in London) for University educated and motivated young people, If you do not then you limit the possibilities with staff to those who have family in London who can live without rent or those who are from wealthier backgrounds who’s families can spend money on them. If you believe that work should pay, that social mobility is important and that there is innate value in having people from a wider range of backgrounds then this is a worthwhile investment in people who will quite possibly go on one day to be MPs.

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