UK Politics

Intern scheme 'to open Westminster corridors of power'

Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg turned the spotlight on the secret army of unpaid interns staffing the offices of Westminster.

Now a new scheme, set up by a former Labour minister and launched on Wednesday, is hoping to spell the beginning of the end for what many see as an unfair and exploitative practice.

For anyone wanting a job in politics, unpaid work experience has become an essential - but often very hard to come by - prerequisite.

Opportunities are often not advertised and those that are are hugely oversubscribed. As a result, the only way in is often a leg-up from a friend or relative.

Even those who do get in will almost certainly not get paid - despite doing jobs for months on end that go way beyond traditional tea-making - so they'll need more help to cover food, travel and accommodation costs.

This is the state of affairs that Nick Clegg says he is unhappy about and has vowed to outlaw - although he has had to back-track a bit on whether or when that ban will apply to Lib Dem HQ.

Prime Minister David Cameron, however, has said he's "relaxed" about the idea giving friends a foot on the ladder.

Now Hazel Blears, former communities minister, is setting up a scheme - small in nature but big in ambition, she says - to try to change things.

'If the cap fits'

The Speaker's Parliamentary Placements initiative will open for applicants this summer and the first intake of 12 recruits will take up their posts from October.

Each one will work for an MP for the whole parliamentary session - and they'll be paid the London living wage - £8.30 an hour - for their efforts.

"I'm worried that all our politicians are coming from the same background," Ms Blears says, explaining her motivation. "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.

"I remember when I first raised this in the Commons, I walked into cabinet afterwards and [former culture secretary] James Purnell said to me, 'Are you talking about me?' Then Ed Miliband said, 'Are you talking about me?' And I just said, 'Well, gentlemen, if the cap fits.'"

'Rhodes Scholar'

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".

"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," he said.

The speak will be formally launched on Wednesday at the Speaker's apartment in the Palace of Westminster.

By getting the Speaker's backing, Ms Blears has attempted to give her idea some clout. She also hopes to elevate it above party-politics, and to that end, has gained the support of Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw and Lib Dem Jo Swinson - and says plenty more MPs are keen to get involved.

"The idea is it'll be a bit like a Rhodes scholar, something really prestigious," she says.

"I'll choose the MPs very carefully because I don't want them just doing photocopying. I want the MPs to really buy into the big political message and to help the interns really get to know how Westminster works."

The scheme will be run by the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), a charity that works with sixth-form pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to enter professions like law or journalism.

The estimated cost for the first year is £175,000. The House of Commons is contributing £25,000 to get the scheme off the ground, but Ms Blears is looking to raise the rest from private sponsorship. Insurers AXA and Aviva are two of the firms most recently signed up and she hopes more City companies will see it as an opportunity to restore their post-banking crisis reputations.

The SMF will draw up the selection criteria for the placements, but Ms Blears is clear about who she wants.

"I want it to be people from working class backgrounds. I could have said low income backgrounds, but I want to be a bit more specific.

"The image I have is of the woman behind the till in Tesco who is passionate about changing things. She's interested in helping her community, she might be interested in politics as a whole as well, but she has absolutely no idea where to start.

"It could be somebody for whom education didn't work. It could be their second chance - and there's no age limit."

'New norm'

Gus Baker, co-founder of campaign group Intern Aware, endorses the scheme wholeheartedly, describing the current situation in Westminster as "a flagrant breach of employment law".

"We're hugely positive about it," he says. "Anyone who's offering paid opportunities for young people, especially from non-traditional backgrounds, has our support.

"We hope it sets a new norm. If Hazel Blears can find money to pay interns then so can Lib Dem HQ and so can all other MPs."

Ms Blears says she has her own very personal motivation for setting up the scheme. She tells a story about being an eager 21-year-old, fresh out of university and hunting for a job, but turned down by a top Manchester law firm because her father wasn't anyone "special" - in fact, he was a maintenance fitter.

She describes it as "one of the seminal moments in my life".

The Salford MP admits the scheme is a small step - and she'll have to turn a lot of people down - but she has grand ambitions in the longer term.

"I hope it'll do two things. For the people involved it will be life-changing. They'll get amazing contacts, and whether they stay in politics or not, it'll make a huge difference to their future.

"The second thing I hope it'll do is catalyse the mainstream so that it's no longer acceptable to have people work for you for nothing. Work experience is fine - four weeks or six weeks - but beyond that it's not on - it's not fair.

"It means people who have money can do it and people who don't, can't. In fact, it's outrageous, it's like going back to Victorian times."

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