A Pernicious Barrier to Social Mobility- as Advertised on w4mp.org

They’re everywhere. They’re all around us. Unnoticed by most, they hang their heads, working in dingy back rooms all over the country. We all know the system couldn’t operate without them, but we can’t see a way around the problem. They are… the unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships are a fact of modern political life, and indeed in other high-performing, competitive sectors, such as publishing. Evolving out of work experience programmes in school or summer holidays, the system of unpaid internships is now a semi-official part of the political career path. It is generally accepted that being able to walk in off the street and ask for a job, even with a relevant degree, is a model which is an outdated one. But at a time when criticisms are repeatedly raised of the unrepresentative nature of the UK Parliament, this system now represents a high and almost unnoticed barrier to entry to aspiring politicians and political workers.

THE PROBLEM WITH INTERNS IS…

Having worked myself as an unpaid intern for some months, I can honestly hold my hands up and say that without the generosity of my parents, I would not have been able to survive. This simple fact, that parental support is necessary to be able to complete an internship, effectively excludes the 70-80% of the population whose parents or partners are not well off enough to support their child or partner.

Do not think, however, that this is simply a disgruntled intern’s rant against the system. For this system now represents a major threat to the representative nature of the UK parliament. Like it or not, the old ideal of the ‘gentleman politician’, who would make his name in something else and then get elected, is on the wane. Instead, a large proportion of our MPs have worked for the majority of their working lives within the political and public affairs spheres- for example, David Cameron and George Osborne. The rights and wrongs of this are for another day. However, when the first step to a career in politics (or in related careers, such as public affairs or journalism) is usually an unpaid internship, this provides a huge barrier to entry to anybody who is not from a well-off background. The dangers of an unrepresentative parliament, and of the perception of a political ‘class’ unrepresentative of the population at large have been demonstrated time and again- most recently by the incomprehension of many MPs at public anger over their expenses.

THE LEGALITY OF INTERNSHIPS- AND WHY WE DON’T HEAR MORE ABOUT IT

In recent months, however, it has become clearer that not only is the practice of unpaid internships damaging, it’s actually illegal. In December 2009, an employment tribunal ruled that an intern at a film company was entitled to minimum wage law protection, despite the post being advertised as expenses-only. The law differentiates between a worker and a volunteer, and states that whilst the former is entitled to minimum wage protection, the latter is not. The line between the two is nebulous- however, a House of Commons commission concluded that as soon as interns: “are expected to be at work at specific times or to complete specific work, they are no longer volunteers but employees and some employment legislation will apply, such as the minimum wage.”

What surprises me, however, about these cases I’ve cited above, is that they ever came to be noticed at all. As an intern, you are effectively working for a reference, and as such, almost entirely dependent on keeping the goodwill of an employer. If you make trouble, the chances you will get a good reference or another internship diminish rapidly. So there are no doubt dozens or hundreds of cases of interns being mistreated, denied holidays, or working unadvertised hours, without any prospect of them ever coming to anyone’s attention. There’s a very good reason why the main lobbying forum for paid internships is called Interns Anonymous.

IS THERE A WAY OUT?

So what’s to be done? Many MPs and employers deny that a problem even exists. Recently, Philip Hammond (then Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, now Transport Minister) wrote in an email:

“We are all under intense public pressure to cut the cost of politics and I am trying to reduce my total expense and allowance claims (out of which staff are paid), NOT increase them. I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other Members are obtaining for nothing.”

But the thing is, while he puts his point very crudely, I actually have some sympathy for Hammond’s position. Any increase in MPs’ expense allowances is almost certain to make its way on to an election leaflet; and the idea of paying interns from central party funds is a non-starter (paying for an intern for every Lib Dem MP would cost around £600,000 a year, which is around one-seventh of what the party spent on the 2005 election campaign).

So is there an answer? I believe there is. I believe that a centrally administered pot should be created, for the sole purpose of providing paid, minimum-wage interns to every MP, for perhaps six months of every year, with a presumption that candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds would get these posts, where that were possible. I calculate, very crudely, that this will cost around £2.8 million per year, after the number of constituencies has been reduced. Where is this money to come from? There is enough development money sloshing around to widen access to lower socio-economic groups- and in this case, we know that the money would be going to a direct cause, rather than to a cause which may help widen access. The cost would be relatively low- the consequence, could be the representative UK parliament all parties have worked towards.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent article, this sort of thing is now very common in the world of visual arts as well. Lots of posh galleries, public & private have “volonteers” on the staff.

  2. […] readers (yes, both of you… hi Katie and Donna) might remember that I blogged here about the threat posed to social mobility and democratic legitimacy by the practice of employing […]


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