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We need to ban unpaid internships, otherwise we fail a generation

3 min read

Writing ahead of his Private Member’s Bill, Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke explains why the Government needs to ban the unpaid internships that prevent those without wealthy parents from pursuing certain careers.

Unpaid internships are a scourge on social mobility, a worrying form of workplace exploitation that has been ignored by politicians on the left and right of politics for too long.

As a blue-collar Conservative my core beliefs do not always fit into the cosy world of left or right politics but I do buy wholeheartedly into Theresa May’s meritocracy agenda, and that is why I believe banning unpaid internships is the right thing to do.

Interning has become the norm for graduates who, after leaving university, apply for internships in London for periods of up to a year and with the expectation that they won’t receive any pay. It’s a sort of year-long work experience programme in which they’re expected to perform all the day-to-day activities most of us would call work.

This rise in unpaid internships is therefore creating a two-tier system in which those with wealthy parents are able to take on unpaid internships for a year and those from everyday backgrounds can’t afford to apply. With an increasing number of companies looking for new employees who have experience as interns, we’re heading into a situation where the best jobs are becoming the preserve of those wealthy enough to intern for free.

On Friday 4 November my bill to ban unpaid internships – the National Minimum Wage (Workplace Internships) Bill - will be read in the House of Commons for a second time and will provide an opportunity for the government to show that it is serious about building a Britain that works for everyone and not just the privileged few.

When I made my first attempt to bring forward this motion as a Ten Minute Rule Motion in 2014, I referenced a YouGov poll highlighting that 39% of young people had turned down an unpaid internship for financial reasons and only 4% believed they could definitely afford to do one. This doesn’t sound to me like a practice that works for everyone.

I fear that a lack of action now will mean the opportunities available for young people today will fall into decline, they’re certainly much harder to acquire than they were for my generation. Like most young people, at our local comprehensive school both my sister and I were taught that hard work and determination would help us make something of ourselves in the world of work. Our supportive parents made us work part-time jobs around our education, something that taught us the real value of money, something we had to do to run our first cars and something that taught us how to budget; a valuable lesson for later life. Unpaid work was simply not an option for me or my sister. Had an unpaid internship been a pre-requisite for access to our chosen professions then it would have been a barrier for us to get into the workplace.

We must ensure that opportunity is equal for all regardless of wealth. If we chose to stand by and do nothing then we will fail a generation of young people who have the academic ability to achieve great things but are locked out of the opportunity.

Alec Shelbrooke is the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell

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