The Labour MP Hazel Blears has declared that unpaid internships are “bad for democracy.”

After yesterday’s “Imagine a world without interns” rally outside Parliament, interns and interns’ rights activists gathered inside the House of Commons for a round-table meeting. On the agenda: What do do about the dire situation in which too many young people are being either exploited (by working for free) or excluded (because they can’t afford to work for free).

Hazel made her comments after noting that politics and media were among the worst offenders when it came to exploiting interns. These two industries, she noted, were instrumental in maintaining a fair and functioning democracy. Of the danger of relying on unpaid interns in politics, she said:

“I’m worried that all our politicians are coming from the same background. They graduate, work for free for an MP, become a researcher, then a special adviser, and then get parachuted into a safe seat somewhere. Everyone ends up being the same because you can’t do that unless you’ve got money, live in London or have the right connections. We’re creating a political class that excludes everyone else.”

Hazel, the former communities minister, has already been praised by interns’ activists for her role in setting up the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements initiative, which opens this summer. The first intake of 12 recruits will take up their posts from October, with each working for an MP for the whole parliamentary session. Crucially, these interns will be paid the London living wage – £8.30 an hour – for their work.

The Commons Speaker John Bercow – the son of a taxi driver – has put his name to the scheme, describing the current situation as “bad for the House and bad for political life in general”. Hazel’s scheme has also gained the support of Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw and Lib Dem Jo Swinson – and says plenty more MPs are keen to get involved.

On the current unpaid internships system, John Bercow said:

“It contributes to the House being less socially inclusive than it ought to be, and more remote from the experience of large parts of the electorate.”

Everybody acknowledged that the use of unpaid internships within Parliament was happening across parties, and nobody was denying that their own colleagues were guilty of using unpaid interns, either now or in the past. The point was raised that fears about MPs’ own ‘skeletons’ emerging could prevent them from supporting interns now, moving forward into the future – as they would not wish to be accused of hypocrisy.

Also speaking at the event – organised by the NUS – were Stella Creasy MP, Ross Perlin, author of new book ‘Intern Nation,’ and Keri Hudson, the former intern who won over £2,000 in back pay, holiday pay and damages from her employer My Village.

Graduate Fog was also on the panel of speakers. As time was short, I chose to focus on the two big points that regularly emerge through discussion on this website:

1) The general public are extremely confused about the facts on internships. Although we on Graduate Fog are pretty clear on the law when it comes to internships, the fact remains that many employers – and the general public – are not. Although a bunch of us are doing our best to raise awareness, it is not fair that the responsibility is falling to ten (?) of us to educate the entire nation on this. Where is the support from Government? I said I felt that so far our politicians had actually done more harm than good in this respect – and that the ‘Clegg-up’ furore at Easter had been a disaster for interns. (Remember how Nick Clegg’s attempt to raise the issue of internship was blown off-course when David Cameron undermined him by saying he was ‘relaxed’ about internships – and then the press discovered that Clegg himself had done an unpaid internship?) Although the press seem obsessed with nepotism – and this ‘sharp-elbowed parents’ idea – most of Graduate Fog’s users actually see nepotism as a secondary issue to that of PAY. I called on the Government to do more to clarify the fact that it is never okay to use unpaid workers – of any age, and at any stage in their career.

2) That we already have a law to protect most interns – the problem is that it’s not being enforced I said there is no point in having the National Minimum Wage law unless we are prepared to enforce it. There is no point in being proud of it unless we are prepared to enforce it. I called for an overhaul to the reporting system, to make it easier and more appealing for anybody (not just interns who have been exploited) to report unpaid internships. I said the current system is fatally flawed as it places too heavy a burden on the intern (Why would you report someone you’re trying to impress?). I also said we must be tough with companies who ignore the NMW laws when it comes to interns. We need to start imposing formal warnigns, fines and prosecutions.

*Are you encouraged to see some political support for interns at last?
Does it matter if an MP has used unpaid interns in the past – if they are prepared to come out and support you now? Would you think they were a ‘hypocrite’ – or would you just be glad that they had seen the error of their ways and were now doing something to put things right? Do you feel I represented your views accurately, given the time that I had? Is there anything you would like me to raise next time I have this sort of opportunity to put your views across?

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