Parliamentary Internships

August 9, 2009 at 10:41 pm / by

Did anyone read the Guardian article about interns? It was published a few weeks ago and raises very important questions about the culture of unpaid internships in Parliament. If you missed it, you can read it here.

I’ve repeatedly argued and written about this issue in the past. Here’s a paragraph from one of my previous articles:

A major obstacle exists within the culture of unpaid internships that is almost necessary before one can really enter into politics. This immediately puts BAME members at a disadvantage as statistics show that 75% of the BAME community live in 88 of the poorest boroughs across Britain. I was lucky that I had the means to intern for free for a whole year but not everyone can afford that luxury. After my internship, I immediately walked into a paid job in Parliament. Why can’t more MPs have paid internship schemes in their offices? Why can’t more local councillors have shadowing schemes and skills training for young people interested in politics?

(If you’re really that bored, you can read my whole article here.)

Although I’m referring to the BAME community in my article, the issue of internships is relevant to all graduates/aspiring politicians.

Anyway, it turned out that my colleagues from my trade union had similar sentiments so our T&G branch decided to form the Interns’ Network last year which offers support to interns in Parliament. You can read more about it here.

Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis has been actively fighting for better rights for interns and has tabled an Early Day Motion backing Unite’s call for an “intern agreement” similar to an employment contract.

Phil Willis said:

“Interns are the real un-sung heroes of our parliamentary system; it is estimated that around 18,000 hours of unpaid work is undertaken by interns in parliament every single week. As MPs we need to recognise this invaluable contribution, and strive to improve conditions for all of those that work in our offices in whatever capacity.

There are two elements to improving parliamentary internships; quality and access. The Unite Interns Agreement is a really significant step towards ensuring that all interns have a positive and rewarding experience in Parliament; over the coming months I will also be looking at how we can widen access to this valuable opportunity.”

At the moment, Phil Willis and his office are hosting a series of Focus Groups with interns from Parliament to find out about their working conditions and their thoughts about internships in general.

I attended the first Focus Group and it was evident from the beginning that interns think that unpaid work is a prerequisite before getting a proper job in Parliament. After the session, I tried to think of a parliamentary colleague who had managed to secure a paid role without doing some voluntary work first but couldn’t think of anyone. (Do such people exist?!)

The interns in the Focus Group talked about the need to have a proper contract and a defined role for interns. One intern worked from 10am-4pm whereas another worked 9am-7pm. One intern said she worked from 9am-5pm and then had two bar jobs at night because she couldn’t afford to live in London.

This raised the issue of parliamentary internships being London-centric. Most Londoners are able to live at home for free while they carry out voluntary internships but this is certainly not the case for everyone. One intern suggested the possibility of grants for people who are forced to live in London while they work in Westminster.

We also discussed the level of responsibility that interns are given. Some interns are only there to do the filing, others are expected to shadow their MPs (which everyone agreed was a bit of a poor insight) whereas some interns effectively do the work of a Caseworker or Researcher.

I can definitely say that my own internship was invaluable. In addition to writing policy briefings and press releases, my boss sent me to the constituency office once a week so I learnt to use Caseworker software. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like all internships have been as beneficial.

Amongst several other ideas, we discussed the following questions:

What do interns actually learn from their internships?

How should internships be advertised? Should universities play a role in publicising internships?

How long should internships be? Should we start to cap internships?

Are internships a means of developing political views or do you need to be a member of a political party before you start an internship?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the knock-on effect of paying interns going to be a reduction in the number of internships available?

Anyway I better go as I want to watch some cricket! However please do email me if you have any thoughts about internships. If you are interested in this issue, you should also check out the Interns Annonymous website here.