Enough! MP advertises his NINTH unpaid internship… So we report him

Enough! MP advertises NINTH unpaid intenrship... So we report him *STORY PICKED UP BY THE GUARDIAN!* “CONSTITUENCY INTERN” WANTED FOR UP TO 100 DAYS OF “VOLUNTEERING” A politician who advertised nine unpaid internships has been reported to officials for investigation by HM Revenue and Customs. The ‘Constituency Intern’ role is stated as “60 to 100 days of volunteering” to be completed over 3-12 months, on either a part-time or full-time basis. Regular readers will know that we have written before about Lib Dem MP John Leech, who is Parliament’s most persistent advertiser of unpaid internships. When we drew his attention to this back in April – after he advertised his eighth unpaid position – his people blasted back a shockingly personal ten-paragraph rant, accidentally letting slip that many of Leech’s fellow MPs were “secretly” hiring interns through their own networks, so at least Leech was doing it publicly (or something). When the story was covered by the BBC, we hoped Leech and his team might have learnt their lesson. But it seems not. A Graduate Fog reader spotted a new advert for a ‘Constituency Intern’ posted on the notorious W4MP website used by many MPs for recruiting young, unpaid staff. Despite listing several must-haves including “team working, computer and writing skills and an understanding of confidentiality”, and “an energetic can-do attitude” the salary is stated as ‘None – volunteer’. (Why they would need those things if they are only work shadowing is not made clear). Here it is:

Constituency intern May 2014 cropped

You may have spotted that there is one thing that’s new about this advert – that weird bit at the bottom about set hours and responsibilities. Is Leech making an effort to get it right on interns at last? If so, we’re still not sure he’s managed it. So we decided to report him to HMRC and let them figure it out. Our correspondence did not start well. Like most HMRC staff, our contact spoke largely in riddles and was keen to “chat” on the phone rather than write anything down. But we did manage to get him to confirm in writing his office’s pledge to look into all allegations of wrongdoing, which presumably includes this one. But it’s worth showing you how difficult it is to get a straight answer from these people, when trying to submit evidence to HMRC about unpaid internships. When we emailed our initial complaint, our contact at HMRC responded with this:

From: HMRC To: Graduate Fog I can confirm I have received your e-mail. I would like the opportunity to chat with you about this referral but unfortunately I am out of the office most of this week. I have some availability on Friday morning. Would you be free on Friday morning and is there a number I may contact you at? Regards

We wrote back:

From: Graduate Fog To: HMRC I would prefer to keep our communications to email if that’s okay. I look forward to hearing more from you later this week. thanks again, Tanya

He said:

From: HMRC To: Graduate Fog I write further to your original e-mail dated 6th June and my response dated 10th June. You did make reference to additional information which I am quite happy to receive from you. I did suggest a conversation with you clarifying the HMRC position on the entitlement of volunteers and interns to the national minimum wage may prove beneficial. If you care to provide a contact number I can call you otherwise I am available on my office and mobile numbers both Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Kindest regards

We said:

From: Graduate Fog To: HMRC It seems you missed my email (pasted below) in which I explained that I would prefer to keep our discussion to email, for the sake of clarity. Once again, I would be grateful if you could just answer this question: Will these nine adverts be investigated by HMRC or not? Having campaigned on internships for four years, I feel I have a fairly good grasp of the minimum wage law. If you do not feel that these interns would qualify as a ‘worker’ (who should be paid the minimum wage) and will therefore not be investigating, then I would be grateful if you could briefly explain on what grounds they do not qualify. Thank you. Tanya PS I sent you a Dropbox invitation from where you can view the nine adverts. I am unclear on whether you have received this and have access to these documents, can you please confirm?

He then said:

From: HMRC To: Graduate Fog Further to your e-mail from earlier this afternoon. Again I can confirm receipt of all e-mails. I did also receive a DropBox invitation; unfortunately HMRC Computing restrictions do not permit access to DropBox. I would advise that HMRC cannot confirm nor deny whether we are investigating any individual due to our duty of taxpayer confidentiality. We take any allegations of wrongdoing very seriously and investigate all allegations as far as is necessary You will notice I have copied my colleague Sara into our communications. Sara works within our corporate communications team. Further communications on this matter should be directed via Sara who will be happy to provide a contact number. Kind regards

Painful, isn’t it? As HMRC can’t handle Dropbox (?!), we then emailed each advert as an attachment, which we understand were received. The prospect of more cloak-and-dagger jibberish from HMRC’s corporate communications team didn’t appeal hugely, so we decided to leave it there. What next? If HMRC’s current form is anything to go by, we can expect a long period of deafening silence, punctuated by ongoing refusals to supply us with any kind of update on this case. The next time a list of minimum wage dodgers is published, either Leech’s name will be on it (unlikely), or it won’t (likely). If it isn’t, we’ll have absolutely no way of finding out what happened with the investigation. Did it even happen? Although some improvements have been made, Graduate Fog feels strongly that HMRC still has a long way to go on improving efficiency and transparency when it comes to the system for reporting unpaid internships. From where we’re standing, HMRC’s cherished commitment to “taxpayer confidentiality” is still prioritised way above “the right of interns to be paid a legal wage for their work” and “the right of the public to know what the hell is going on at HMRC”. More often than not, we hear about payouts when former interns contact us directly. Otherwise we would never know. Are they actually doing these investigations – or just putting our emails straight in the bin? Why is it so hard to get a straight answer from anyone who works there? Why is non-payment of the minimum wage (including internships) being treated as a tax issue, when really it is a legal issue? Why doesn’t the public get to know what’s going on? And is it really so hard to create an investigation system that works for everyone?

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