British democracy is run on unpaid labour

Intern Aware and Interns Anonymous report on the scandal of unpaid interns working to support British democracy.

Scandalous: British parliamentary democracy is run on unpaid labour

By Intern Aware and Interns Anonymous

Well, perhaps not for parliamentarians. Backbenchers earn a basic rate pay of £66,000. But it’s a different story for the people behind the scenes – writing speeches, researching bills and responding to constituents. The trade union, Unite, found that of the 450 interns in parliament, 44 per cent do not receive any form of remuneration – not even travel or food expenses.

This amounted to 18,000 hours of unpaid labour every week.

This matters because internships are no longer a luxury – they have become crucial for many entry-level jobs in politics. It’s not just that both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband started their careers as interns. In a recent survey, Interns Anonymous found that 84 per cent of parliamentary interns believed the experience boosted their job prospects.

We risk the political class being drawn from an even narrower, more unrepresentative group of people.

The attitude of many MPs is startling. In a leaked email, Tory transport secretary Philip Hammond replied to concerns about his own use of unpaid internships by stating that:

“It is an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other members are obtaining for nothing.”

In response to a campaign by Intern Aware, Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office brushed aside the objections, saying:

“As a former employment law solicitor, Chuka is well aware of the legal context in this area.”


A spokesperson for Chuka Umunna MP’s office has clarified:

“IPSA do not provide extra resources for MPs to recruit interns on a paid basis, though the Parliamentary Labour Party has argued strongly for them to do so. We would much prefer to have interns working in the office on a paid basis and, for that reason, a decision was made some time ago to no longer have any interns working in the office despite the many requests received.

“Our website makes it clear that we no longer accept applications for internships. Our preference would be to pay at least the living wage to interns working in the office – unless IPSA change their position we will not be able to do this. We wish Intern Aware and others all the best in their efforts on this issue.”

So it was deeply disappointing that in a package of concessions to MPs, IPSA, the new expenses watchdog, decided to continue to allow MPs to pay their interns nothing. In our joint submission to IPSA, drawing upon the latest case law, academic research and our own investigations, we argued:

• Nearly all parliamentary interns are performing work and are therefore entitled to the National Minimum Wage;

• That the current internship system limits the pool of talent to the financially independent;

• That since the resources necessary to undertake internships are not equally distributed among ethnic minorities and disabled people, the current internship system is a form of indirect discrimination incompatible with the Equality Act.

In 2009, John Bercow (a former parliamentary intern himself) said that this was a matter which could not “be brushed under the carpet”. IPSA have ignored the issue again – to the loss of thousands of young people who cannot afford to work for free.

Thanks to the generosity of Left Foot Forward supporters, Left Foot Forward has managed to hire Dominic Browne as a living wage intern. Dominic is a trained journalist who has experience at the Independent and the Ham and High and is working hard for us.

Here are some of his articles to date:

The Daily Mail, fascism and No2AV: A comedy of errors” – March 29

Budget 2011: The coalition must act on child poverty” – March 23

How to write a Richard Littlejohn column” – March 22

The approximately £4,000 that we have managed to raise for our living wage intern has enabled us to hire Dominic, but we still cannot guarantee him a full six-month contract. If you would like to support Left Foot Forward and our living wage intern programme, you can donate here.

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  • william

    If you want to go into politics, go and work in the real world first, make enough money to insulate you from corruption,and then set out your stall.

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  • 13eastie

    @1 Agree absolutely.

    The last thing tax payers need is a state-funded production line of star-struck teeny-bopper career-politicians being incubated in a Westminster cocoon while they learn the gravy-train timetable by rote.

    Stay in the communities you aspire to represent and earn their respect.

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  • Alex

    But isn’t the issue that the way to get a foot on the ladder is by doing unpaid work. The only people who get ahead are those that can afford to get ahead. It’s about equal opportunities for all.

  • Kennedy

    William; “work in the real world first”

    Please expand on what ‘real world’ work is William. Is it the private sector, propped up by government demand and public infrastructure (airports, roads, educations, health), massively wasteful and bureucratic?
    Some MPs work bloody hard. It’s the not the nature of the job that brings corruption etc, it’s the individual. That’s a reason to stop the flow of people from the business world, as well as well meaning folk who haven’t done much outside of a university education and don’t have any meaningful connection with those they represent (can definitely be said of people in the Labour party right now).

  • william

    Kennedy.’It’s the individual’. So far Tories 1, Labour 5.

  • Sophia

    @ Alex. I see your point, however I do not feel Westminster is the place to be putting that first foot on the ladder. Too many of our leading politicians have ridiculously little experience of life outside the political bubble, and yes I appreciate that politics is not solely centred around the politicians – however I feel expertise should be gained in professions and in practice first in order to gain a grasp of real life issues.

    Furthermore, by enforcing a wage, internships will be massively reduced, it is a simple financial fact that the budget deficit simply cannot allow for the wages, and the transgression from Uni/college into this career path will become even more competitive. Times are simply tough I am afraid, with the legacy of Labour’s massive push on Higher Education, graduate supply far exceeds demand. Perhaps the solution is, sadly, to take your skills further afield.

  • http://facebooksocialistrepublicofmerseyside secretdiaryofnobody

    This is bizarre and disregards the thousands of unpaid volunteers who stuff envelope push phones give lifts leaflet act as agents are activemembers of their CLP and branches. Stop whinging to Unite (who are hardly releveant as they are a Union not an organisation that should support thesnivelling careerist wretches who are stupid enough to enslave themselves in the trap of kissing the political classes arse seeking favour.)
    Sorry if this seems harsh but it got my goat and I just had to let it out. Freedom of Speech and all that
    Apathy Smothers Revolution.

  • Kim

    The reason that politicians often don’t have much real world experience themselves is because they jump from wealthy parents, paid for education, straight into an unpaid internship as an MPs researcher for over 6 months or more. The only way they can afford it is if their parents continue to support them.

    Unfortunately the ‘real world’ for many graduates is one where they have to accept that social mobility is dead, and there are no jobs, and they can’t even aspire to a political career because with a huge student debt they couldn’t afford to work for free.

    The alternative is

  • Mark

    There is a real marked difference between envelope stuffing in support of a cause you support and going to work unpaid for an MP. Set hours and the expectation that someone will complete required tasks mean that these people are workers in law and as such they should be paid.

    MPs whining that they have “no budget” to pay people is exactly like an employer saying they can’t afford to pay their workers so they have to work unpaid on the promise that they will be paid some time in the future.

    Corrupt, divisive and simply bullying.

  • Steve

    Interesting, and understandable, that Chukka’s office decided to stop taking on interns altogether.

    What this campaign fails to understand is that many interns are not interviewed – most MPs offices take on as many, for a week or a month, as they can – because young people want the experience.

    If forced to spend money rather than just time (and interns do often take up more time than they give in return in terms of work produced), you will find not a halcyon system of paid internships, but far fewer opportunities open only to those who are genuinely able and who prob already have the experience!

  • Mark

    Nonsense. These interns are taken on to do specific required work, every advert for an unpaid “intern” screams that in every word. These people are taken on for one thing, and one thing only – to do real required work for these MPs who are happy to find someone to do it for them without the nasty business of having to open their wallets and purses.

    To suggest that MPs take on unpaid interns as some kind of act of benevolence stretches credibility a considerable way past breaking point.

  • Ed

    As someone who has looked into getting an internship for an MP, they don’t pay their interns because they don’t have the money to do so. Yes, it would cost money, but paying interns would really cost a smidgeon of public money.

    Perhaps I should get some Real Life Experience. I’m sure working on the tills for 10 years will prepare me well for political life 😐

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