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Calling time on the scandal of unpaid internships

4 min read

It’s painfully clear the law on unpaid work experience is not fit for purpose. Now it's time to act, writes Lord Holmes 

We have high employment and low unemployment in 2017 in Great Britain: good. Less good is the continuing boom in unpaid internships, the preserve of the privileged, careers enabled, opportunities opened, not by talent but by wealth or the family black book.

Wilberforce whooped the slave trade and new Labour introduced the National Minimum Wage Act, so how you may well ask is it possible to still have people working, often for months on end, for no pay? How, and perhaps much more importantly, what can we do about it?

Under current law, someone should be classified as a worker and therefore entitled to the national minimum wage if it’s clear that both the firm and the individual have obligations to each other. However, it is painfully clear that the law is neither being enforced nor fit for purpose. HMRC don’t have the resource or the method to break this and the burden is put on the exploited to make their case. The Matthew Taylor Review, published earlier this year, acknowledged that HMRC complaints procedure for reporting from unpaid internships needed to be strengthened – but this doesn’t go far enough. Relying on individuals hoping to benefit from an experience to turn whistleblower is not fair and will not work.

Certainly something must be done because we are going in the wrong direction; a report by the IPPR in April this year found that internships have increased 50% since 2010. ‘’Access to Britain’s most competitive professions is now governed by the ability to source and fund unpaid internships.’’ In the same report the IPPR linked a sharp decline in job opportunities because of the recession to an oversupply of graduates so firms can get high skilled workers for free internships.

Whilst work experience is recognised as incredibly valuable in the transition from education to employment, if it is available only for those who can afford to work for free then it entrenches privilege and limits social mobility. So, my Private Member’s Bill, receiving its 2nd reading on October 27, aims to end that injustice: to prohibit all unpaid work experience exceeding 4 weeks. Thus, work experience, of a whole variety of types, is still very much permissible. Work experience of over 4 weeks, as a result of this Bill, if passed, must be paid.

Yes it’s a question of fairness, dignity and the measure of a civilized society, but even if none of that floats your moral boat just consider it on this and this alone. On cool headed business sense it’s about enabling and unleashing talent, and the majority of businesses recognise this. In 2014 a Yougov survey found that two thirds of businesses support a four-week limit. We need to address an awful but fundamental truth: talent is everywhere but opportunity is not.

If we are to have the best businesses we can, the best public sector and the best third sector, if we are to face the future with confidence, collaborating and connecting in our cities and communities in a country which works for everyone, then we need to send a very clear, unequivocal message: this country, our country, this government, your government is calling time on anything which calls on anyone to give their time in the labour market for no return. Unpaid internships are a scandal in any modern society.

That is the purpose of my Bill and I urge the government, Parliamentarians on all sides and everyone who believes in a fairer future for all to support it and press for it to be brought into law. 


Lord Holmes of Richmond is a Conservative peer. The Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) Bill will have its second reading on Friday 27th October. This article first appeared in The House magazine. 


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