British democracy is run on unpaid labour

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

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.”


Update

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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