Forcing payment for internships could actually reduce opportunities

My article on internships from Lib Dem Voice this week

There has been plenty of talk recently about the unfairness of Westminster internships and calls for all internships in Parliament and in political parties to be paid. I understand the good intentions behind this argument but am concerned about the effects this could actually have on opportunities.

There are two issues being discussed around internships and it’s important not to get them confused. The first is the issue of informal internships – Daddy getting you an exclusive internship because he plays golf with somebody influential.

This is what Nick Clegg is talking about when he says that “it should be what you know, not who you know”. This is quite right and I agree fully with him. The ambitious youngster who wishes to take on formative work such as this should be able to be accepted on the basis of their own merit.

The second issue is over whether all interns should be paid. I applaud the recent Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme, which aims to provide a certain amount of paid internships in Parliament to help those from underprivileged backgrounds.

But on the whole internships are an investment by an individual in their own future, much like a degree. To force all people to pay interns a wage will only result in reducing the amount of internships available, and actually reducing opportunities for those who seek them.

I have recently completed an unpaid Parliamentary internship with a Liberal Democrat MP at the age of 31, having chosen to change career. Like most interns I only received money for lunch and travel.

Coming from an underprivileged background myself, I received no financial support, and earned the internship on my own merits through previous attainment and demonstrating my abilities volunteering during the General Election campaign. I quit my job in Bristol and moved to London, interning part time and working part time to pay my way. Despite this, I still racked up around £2,000 in debt. But I would do the whole thing again tomorrow at the drop of a hat.

Since then I have been employed (for proper money) both by the Liberal Democrats and soon in a Parliamentary capacity by a Lib Dem MP. I am certain I would not have got either post without previously interning and gaining that invaluable experience.

So if money can be found to provide extra internships for people coming from poorer backgrounds, by all means create more opportunities. But please don’t force payment on organisations and restrict opportunities. It will not help the ambitious amongst us, and I doubt satisfies our liberal ideal that individuals should be free to work to better themselves, regardless of their circumstance or background.

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