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To Pay Interns in Parliament, We Must Change Attitudes on Expenses

14/02/2014 11:59 GMT | Updated 14/04/2014 10:59 BST

Unpaid internships, especially those in Westminster, have been the focus of much attention over recent years. The image of MPs enjoying huge expenses allowances while their office interns sweat it out for their lunch is one banded around by some areas of the media and campaign groups alike.

So, what's the truth about unpaid internships in Westminster?

In December 2012 I was halfway through my first year of university and was lucky enough to be selected by a senior backbench Labour MP to intern in his office for the upcoming summer. I couldn't wait to get started, despite the contract offering only 'lunch and a travelcard'.

What is important to note here is that I did not apply for the internship for payment, nor do I live in London. For many politics students, working in the heart of UK policy making is a dream come true. That's why I applied; I saw this opportunity as an investment. It may be unpaid now, but hopefully it will pay for itself down the line after I graduate.

Now, there are two important things I discovered about unpaid internships and the people who take them.

The first is who pays for paid interns. Everybody knows that expenses are one of the most contentious issues surrounding politics and MPs will usually go to great lengths to keep them down and firmly out of the media's view.

There is a great myth surrounding MPs expenses and what they are used for. An example of this can be found in an article published by the Liverpool Echo in September 2013. It claimed that Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson had claimed £190,000 in expenses for the year ending April 2013. The figure £190,000 was bold, large and in the centre of the title. But what is this money spent on? The body of the article reveals that almost £145,000 of this was spent on employing five full time members of staff. These salaries have to be competitive and without their staff, MPs cannot carry out their representation function properly. This is due to the sheer workload they are confronted with by their constituents.

What is the rest spent on? It is worth remembering that MPs, especially those in distant constituencies, will represent their constituents better by having a second home and a constituency office. Parliament sits Monday to Thursday so members get the opportunity to go back to their constituency for the weekend to attend to casework. Like in private sector jobs, MPs cannot be expected to travel for business using their own salary so they are entitled to claim expenses for journeys to and from the constituency.

In this case, the £190,000 figure is scaremongering. It is designed to create hostility towards MPs, their salaries and their expenses. This is something that any prospective Westminster intern should be aware of. Paying them will only add to the expenses bill, the intern needs to compromise.

There is a delicate balance that Parliamentarians have to address. On the one hand, MPs such as Hazel Blears are calling for other MPs to pay their interns. On the other, MPs cannot afford to have their reputations bulldozed by ever increasing expenses claims. Often, there is a paradox in that people who criticise MPs for claiming seemingly high levels of expenses are the same people who criticise MPs for not paying their interns. One side has to give.

The second thing I learnt about interns in Parliament and, more specifically the type of person who works there, is the background of parliamentary staff. It is perfectly reasonable to expect MPs to be representative of the general makeup of the population. However, the machine that sits behind an MP is a very specific, very complex one. It is not a job that just anyone can walk into. Researchers in Parliament are exceptionally talented individuals. They've worked hard to get to where they are, they are capable of writing the speeches that end up in the history books while also being patient enough to deal with the streetlight that has gone out in one of the constituency streets while being expected to work long hours. Many of the researchers in Parliament got given their opportunities by impressing during unpaid internships.

Because of this, MPs are looking for graduates/undergraduates from top universities who are achieving the best results. If you meet these criteria, the likelihood is that there are substantial funding opportunities available to you. I was lucky enough to receive £590 from my university which meant I could carry on living outside of London and commute daily.

This is probably a good time to mention that of course I know there is horrendous inequality deeper in the education system. There are many areas where kids aren't given the same opportunities as others to progress to university and, ultimately, the same opportunity as I was given. But this is not an article about that. If it was, we'd be here all day. It is also worth pointing out that I was comprehensively

educated, something I am very proud of.

Various universities offer different types of bursaries for students completing internships. Warwick, for example, offer up to £200 per year for students, Nottingham offer up to £500 while Birmingham offers up to £1000 for students on internships they have arranged themselves.

I knew that this opportunity would cost me more than my £590 grant. So six months before I started, it was time to get a job with a zero hours contract! This meant I could work whenever there was work for me and I wanted it, meaning it wouldn't get in the way of my studies.

Of course, in the private sector interns should be paid. A company that makes a profit should not be allowed to take advantage of an unpaid intern. Parliament does not make a profit.

Most importantly, what I found was that if you want it, if you're pro-active in finding it, if you're enthusiastic and if you're capable then there is an unpaid internship waiting for you somewhere in Parliament. Opportunities like mine should be seen as an investment, not a job. You should want to be there, nobody is forcing you to be there and I found it to be an enjoyable experience - exhausting but enjoyable and rewarding. We need to acknowledge that if we do want our Politicians to pay their interns, we need to shift public opinion on their expenses and, in part, remove the negative stigma attached to reasonable claims.