The Government should act decisively on unpaid internships

By Tom Wood

Last week Alan Milburn’s report Fair Access to Professional Careers was published, with some particularly interesting points about internships. But what’s important on this issue isn’t that he reached the inevitable conclusion that a system – based on who you know, not what you know, and requires people to work essentially full time jobs without being paid – is a bad thing shouldn’t surprise anyone, and the campaign group Intern Aware has been making these points for over a year. What’s important is how the Government responds: with tepid agreement, or decisive action.

The Government has shouted from the rooftops about creating more opportunities for young people, while only muttering quietly about more fairly distributing the opportunities we already have. This attitude has to change, and only the place that change in Government can come from is the Liberal Democrats.

It’s been said that the ‘Big Society’ and Liberalism are much the same thing. Well, I think this issue more than any other shows why they aren’t always the same.

Let’s look at the current situation in the context of the ‘Big Society’.  If a successful professional uses their position to get their neighbour’s son an internship at their company for a six months, and in turn their parents (who are also professionals so have a fairly good income) agree to financially support them for that time while they not making money, that to me feels like the ‘Big Society’. Nobody involved is really acting selfishly, they’re all giving up time or money to help someone else, and it’s all people doing things for each other – not having the government do things for them. Just look at all the individual elements and they’re all good things. But put it all together and the result is a deeply regressive system where securing work in many top professions as Alan Milburn describes:

Is possible only for those who can afford to work for free. It means  that others –perhaps with equal or better claims . . . are excluded from  consideration.

Whereas, if the Government introduces a major communications and enforcement drive from HMRC on existing employment law to ensure that interns who do real work get paid at least the minimum wage, they must also make sure that recruitment is based on talent, not personal contacts. Then the Government can create a society where access to professions is fair, free and open, and that sounds like Liberalism to me.

We talk a lot about making distinctions between us and the Conservatives; this is an issue that highlights the fundamentally different ways we view how our country should be run. But to show the distinction, it’s vital that Liberal Democrats in Government ensure that Alan Milburn’s report is met, not just with agreement but real Government action.

Tom Wood is Chair of Liberal Youth.

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One thought on “The Government should act decisively on unpaid internships

  1. Good point, Tom. A similar point could be made for a person who stands for public office. Without financial backing, who can afford/choose to dedicate time and life to campaigning to be or to being an elected representative in a role that is largely misunderstood and despised? Until people generally have reason to appreciate the need to invest in good broad education – including the nature of power with and over, and power dynamics and behaviour in personal social and institutional settings, aspiring politicians and interns will not get a fair chance to shine. Do you have a solution in mind – for interns? Should they be “apprentices” and recruited, promoted and assisted accordingly – with a contract and code of contact to clarify role, expectations and responsibilities?

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