Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday launched a new campaign to open up recruitment at some of Britain’s biggest companies to young people from all backgrounds. Yet campaigners have raised concerns that it falls short of what is necessary as it fails to insist that companies stop using unpaid interns.

The so-called “business compact” has been signed by more than 100 big companies, including Barclays, HSBC, Tesco, Marks and Spencer. Coca-Cola, Nestle, the law firm Allen and Overy and oil companies Shell and BP. Mr Clegg – who has previously spoken out about valuable internships being grabbed by those with “sharp-elbowed middle classes” – said:

“This is an important step towards a society where it’s what you know, not who you know, that counts. Working with the Coalition, the biggest hitters in the City of London are helping lead the way to a fairer, more open society. By opening their doors to young people from all walks of life, this marks the start of a culture shift at the heart of British business, driven by the belief that ability and drive should trump connections and privilege.”

Yet those who read the small print say something is amiss. While the compact states that those who sign it will make access to internships open and transparent, without barriers for people from poorer backgrounds and advertise work experience places fairly and recruit fairly, it does not include a pledge not to use unpaid interns.

When journalists questioned Clegg’s team on this point specifically, they clarified that those who signed the compact should pay at least minimum wage or travel and lunch expenses “where possible,” so that poorer applicants were not excluded. “Where possible”? We’re talking about some of our banks and law firms here. Are any of them seriously saying they can’t afford £250 a week so that their hard-working interns can eat? If so, we would like to know who they are.

The announcement came as new research was published underlining the edge that internships give over those who are unable to work unpaid. According to High Fliers, more than a third of the graduate vacancies this year are expected to be taken by people who have already worked for the firm in some capacity.

Graduate Fog’s friends at the interns’ rights campaign groups welcomed the pledge – but raised concerns that the details of the compact may not go far enough.

Ben Lyons, co-founder of Intern Aware, said:

“We welcome this announcement and it is great to see that some of Britain’s biggest companies are committing to the principle of fair internships. This scheme will help young people without parents in that cosy dinner party circuit where a quiet word can lead to a job. Smart employers know that it makes business sense to hire on merit, not background.

“However, not enough is being done to ensure that interns can afford to take up opportunities. Employers don’t need an opt-in scheme to have a legal duty to pay their interns. A few pounds a day in expenses is not enough for anyone to live on without huge support from the bank of mum and dad. If Nick Clegg is truly committed to social mobility he will make sure that HMRC enforces the minimum wage for interns.”

And Becky Heath, co-founder of Internocracy, said: “Yet another Compact is just lip service and is not committing to any real change for young people looking for a way in to a career.” She also remarked that, “his Compact could have gone much further than signing up 100 or so large firms”, pointing out that small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) make up 99% of employers in the UK.

We’ve said it a thousand times before, but we’ll say it again – because a lot of (supposedly clever) people just don’t seem to be getting it:

These companies can make their recruitment as transparent as they like – and advertise them as widely as possible. But if the experience that applicants need to get the jobs is only available to those with the means to work for months without pay, they may as well not bother.

Contacts will always be helpful – and Clegg can’t outlaw parents who are trying to help their children to get their careers started by connecting them with people they know. What he can do is ensure that the national minimum wage law is enforced for all internships that involve proper work. If Clegg really wants to help level the playing field for people from all backgrounds, that’s what he should be doing.

Is it pointless unless those who sign it promise to pay their interns? Is Clegg all mouth and no trousers? Do you believe he will ever help get the minimum wage law enforced for interns?

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