Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Sunday, 8 November 2009

Are MPs' interns being exploited?

By Hannah Barnes
Donal MacIntyre show, BBC Radio 5 live

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An estimated 450 interns work for MPs across all political parties

"I was exploited but everyone's exploited. It's the way it works."

Pete Barden spent the past Summer working as an intern for a Liberal Democrat MP, dealing with duties ranging from opening mail to campaign work and engaging with constituents.

There are currently an estimated 450 interns working in Parliament, serving all the political parties; the vast majority working full-time for free.

"If a facility exists whereby you can get highly educated graduates for free, why wouldn't you?" says Pete.

He was one of the lucky ones. He received a nominal wage of £50 per week.

"But I would have loved to have just the minimum wage," he says.

"That would have made my life so much easier."

Prized role

There is no shortage of highly-educated graduates wanting to work for MPs in Westminster.

Most see it as a mutually beneficial arrangement: the interns earn highly-prized work experience and a taste of parliamentary politics; while MPs benefit from the services of an unpaid worker.

"I expected not to be paid ... there's people willing to do the work, and it's acceptable within that culture," one told us.

She has been interning for two Labour MPs for nine months and at times has not even received travel expenses.

She is paying for the privilege of working in Parliament, in the hope that it will provide an all-important first step on the ladder to a political career.

But she is growing disillusioned: "Sometimes it does get to me and it does feel hurtful. You would think by this stage I'd have enough experience. But for some reason I'm not being paid."

Despite her frustration, she remains loyal to the MPs she has worked for, and will not name and shame them - a sense of loyalty shared by many interns working in Westminster.

Yet when asked if she ever raises the topic of being paid she shakes her head, "No! It's just something that's not really acceptable."

Limited opportunities

She is open about the fact that she has been able to rely on the support of her boyfriend and parents.

Critics argue the system of unpaid parliamentary interns is hypocritical, as the same politicians expounding the importance of social mobility are closing off avenues of entry to their own profession.

"The only people who can afford to do this type of thing are really the people who can afford not to work in the first place," she says.

Liberal Democrat intern Pete Barden could not rely on the support of his family, but managed to find a way to support himself.

After doing a full eight-hour day for his MP he ran pub quizzes across London in the evenings.

"If that hadn't happened then there's absolutely no way I would have been able to support myself whatsoever," he says.

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However, even Pete reluctantly accepts the status quo: "It's almost like an initiation and it's trying to figure out who's going to put the hours in and who really cares about it."

He adds: "It's understood that if you're doing something on a voluntary basis you really want it."

But the law appears to suggest these young graduates are not "volunteers" and they should be in receipt of the national minimum wage of £5.80 an hour.

Minimum wage

Genuine volunteers are exempt from minimum wage regulations, but a recent House of Commons Commission report on the Employment of Members' staff by the House says: "As soon as they [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."

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Interns working fixed hours must be paid the minimum wage

And guidance issued to MPs in January 2007 is even clearer: "labelling someone as an intern or as a volunteer does not automatically mean that the national minimum wage is not due."

Yet a number of MPs from all parties appear to be acting against the spirit of the rules.

One advertisement posted by Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell over the summer sought "a full-time Parliamentary Assistant."

The applicant had to be available to commit to 12 months.

Mr Rosindell's office told the BBC they did not recruit from this advert, but that it was "explicitly approved by the House of Commons Administration Office."

Other adverts posted in the past week include one offering a "full-time (5 days per week) internship in Westminster for approximately 3 months."

None offer any payment other than travel expenses.

Even the government's own higher education minister, David Lammy, is currently advertising for an unpaid internship.

Mr Lammy's office insisted that "interns are under no obligation to perform specific duties."

Mr Lammy told the BBC: "Unfortunately, in common with other MPs of all parties, my ability to pay interns is constrained by the amount of money provided by the House of Commons with which to pay staff.

"I think the time has come for Parliament to look seriously at the issue of internships."

Pressure to change the culture has been launched by Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis and the trade union Unite.

As one of the few MPs who pays his interns the national minimum wage, Mr Willis says: "We wouldn't be able to manage without our interns.

"If we in Parliament cannot have a Rolls Royce system where we set the standard, how can we expect others outside Parliament to match these aspirations?"

For the hundreds of interns currently working in Parliament without payment, changes to the system could not come soon enough.


This story will be broadcast on the Donal MacIntyre programme on BBC Radio 5 live on Sunday 8 November 2009 at 1930 GMT. Download the free podcast. You can contact the programme by emailing donal@bbc.co.uk.



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