Lord Holmes: Back my bill to end the scandal of unpaid internships

Posted On: 
23rd November 2018

The Government must demonstrate that it is serious about ending the illegal and exploitative practice of unpaid internships, writes Lord Holmes

Theresa May speaking before entering Number 10 for the first time
Credit: 
PA Images

Today, in an open letter to the government, I call for urgent action – support my Private Members’ Bill and end the scandal of unpaid internships. If the government is truly serious about social mobility and making this a country that works for everyone then deeds must match words.

The fictional Home Secretary in the BBC’s recent blockbuster The Bodyguard, speaking just before a fatal explosion, drew attention to the injustice of unpaid internships. As she said:

“Law, medicine, journalism, politics, more appears to be closing off these opportunities rather than opening them up. Unpaid work experience, unpaid internships. They are open to everyone, of course, provided you’ve inherited enough money to feed, clothe and house yourself. I see how an impressionable young person might form the view that elite society is intent on keeping them out.”

A real-life ex-Home Sec, when she became PM, stood on the steps of number 10 and said: “When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few.”

However, one of the most pernicious ways in which the advantages of the fortunate few are entrenched is through the illegal yet widespread practice of unpaid internships. Inevitably and obviously only those who can afford to for work free are able to access these opportunities which in turn lead to paid jobs and ultimately careers in areas such as journalism, fashion and, most shockingly, politics.

A Sutton Trust report out next week finds almost a third (31%) of staffers working in an MP or peer’s office in Westminster are either currently working or have previously worked for an MP without being paid. The cost of independent living while interning is between £800-£1,000 per month. Each year, there are up to 70,000 interns in the UK, with up to half unpaid. An IPPR report last year found evidence that numbers have increased since 2010, and by as much as a half in total.

The Government has said they are taking the problem seriously, yet in the past nine years, HMRC has recorded no prosecutions in relation to interns and the national minimum wage. This is unsurprising given that the onus is on the interns themselves to report companies or employers. If you believe this practice to be an unpleasant but necessary way of getting a foot in door you are unlikely to do anything that would slam the door shut completely. For countless others, it is yet another way of ensuring so many doors remain closed.

The Government has committed to campaigns around raising awareness and enforcement. In 2016, ministers spent £1.75m on a communications campaign and most recently wrote to over 2,000 employers found to be advertising on the internet for unpaid internships. While we welcome any action on this issue, we are frustrated that these initiatives, despite laudable aims, are delivering negligible results.

I am offering the government a way to demonstrate that they are serious about ending this illegal and exploitative practice. My Private Members’ Bill to end unpaid internships will have its second reading in the house of commons, today, led by Alec Shelbrooke.

I urge the govt to support the bill and make sure that in the words of the PM, “we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”.

Anyone wishing to support the campaign on Twitter can use the hashtag #payinterns @LordCHolmes

Lord Holmes is a Conservative peer