Ahead of next week’s election for a new Speaker for the House of Commons, our CEO, James Turner, has written to all candidates standing for the role, asking them to give their personal commitment to tackling unpaid and unadvertised internships in parliament. There are currently no rules set out within Parliament to stop MPs from taking on unpaid interns, or to check if they are complying with National Minimum Wage law. In contrast, both the US Congress and the European Parliament have recently taken steps to ensure all their interns are paid. There are also no requirements for MPs in Westminster to openly advertise roles in their offices.
This issue is an important one for social mobility, because staff working for MPs in Westminster often go on to work in prominent roles throughout politics, policy and public affairs. The experience of working in parliament can be a big boost to someone’s career, giving them both important knowledge, and contacts to take through to future jobs. A fair few even go on to become MPs, with 25% of members in the House of Commons having previously worked in politics and 8% in public affairs before running for office. And indeed, previous Sutton Trust research has found that MPs themselves look very different from the population they seek to represent, with 29% having attended an independent school, compared to just 7% of the population overall. These jobs should all be openly accessible to everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background.
And while all eyes are currently on politics in Westminster, this isn’t only an issue in the UK’s parliament in London. Earlier this year, we sent FOIs to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to ask whether either had any rules to prevent Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) or Assembly Members (AMs) from taking on unpaid interns. The Scottish Parliament told us that MSPs are able to offer unpaid internships, and that no guidance is given to those MSPs on whether interns should be paid. Similarly, there are no rules in the Welsh Assembly preventing AMs from taking on unpaid interns, although they are given guidance that if an intern undertakes ‘work’ for the Member, rather than merely work shadowing, that they are entitled to the National Minimum Wage (with an exception for students undertaking work experience as part of their course) – as is specified under UK law.
Across the UK, changes are needed to end unpaid internships in politics. We hope that the candidates for Speaker will commit to supporting us in the call to end unpaid and unadvertised internships in Westminster, and that in future we can see real change on this in democratic institutions across the UK.
Here’s the full text of the letter:
Dear Speaker candidates,
With the election for a new Speaker fast approaching, I am writing to each candidate to ask them to make a personal commitment to ensure that opportunities in the House of Commons can be accessed by people from a wide range of social backgrounds.
Research by the Sutton Trust has shown that almost a third of parliamentary staffers have worked unpaid at some point. With an unpaid intern needing at least £1,100 a month to live in London, those without financial means are being locked out of these important opportunities to enter the world of politics.
Both the US Congress and the European Parliament have acted on this issue. In Washington, funding for interns is now ring-fenced. In the European Parliament, all interns are now paid directly by the parliament itself. We would like to see similar measures here, and have called for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to either increase funding to Westminster offices to ensure all interns are paid, or to ring-fence central funds for this purpose. We would like to see candidates for Speaker commit their support for an end to unpaid internships in Westminster, including calling on IPSA to take tougher action on this issue.
Additionally, too many internships in parliament are unadvertised, excluding young people who do not already have connections in politics. Our research has found that just over a quarter of parliamentary staffers gained their current role through a personal connection. We are asking candidates for Speaker to call for internships in Westminster to be openly advertised, so they are equally accessible to young people from all backgrounds.
I was pleased to see that the issue of socio-economic diversity in parliament was addressed during the recent Speaker hustings, and that several candidates gave their support to the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme. We have previously highlighted this programme as an example of good practice, and we hope all candidates for Speaker will commit to supporting both the continuation of the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme, and also to its expansion.
We do hope that you will consider these proposals. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this further, please do get in touch.
Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust