THE BLOG

Let's Get Our House in Order

18/06/2013 08:21 BST | Updated 17/08/2013 10:12 BST

Internships can be a valuable way for young people to get their foot on the career ladder, be it in the world of politics, journalism, PR or fashion. And that is more important than ever in the current economic climate, in which nearly one million young people are now unemployed.

Internships offer a chance for a young person to demonstrate their ability and suitability to an employer over a set period of time, usually at least three months. They apply hoping that if they do well there could be a permanent job for them at the end of that period.

But many of these internships are unpaid. It is estimated that 92% of arts internships and 76% of PR internships are unpaid. You might say that is perfectly reasonable given that there are no guarantees the intern will be suitable for the role.

However, many of these roles are in London, the most expensive city in the country. The Evening Standard recently reported that the average rent in the city was poised to reach more than £1,000 per month - and that's without other living costs. A European Youth Forum survey showed that just 25% of the interns were able to make ends meet, with nearly two-thirds relying on financial support from their parents.

Increasingly, only young people whose family home is in London, or who are able to call on the 'bank of mum and dad' can take up unpaid internships. Access to these opportunities should be based upon attitude and aptitude - but because they are unpaid it is often based upon geography and wealth.

That is really damaging for people from less well off backgrounds when internships have become a pre-requisite for graduates looking to access some professions.

Many jobs are offered on the basis of who someone knows rather than what they know, and this already puts young people from families which do not have a background in, or friends or family within that profession, at a disadvantage. But there are also compelling practical reasons to end unpaid internships.

For a start, they are against the law. Anyone doing a job which involves set hours and responsibilities is entitled to receive at least the National Minimum Wage. Many of these unpaid internships not only fall into this category, they also involve long-hours and important, if not glamorous tasks. HMRC this month revealed that during 2012/13 it ordered nine firms to pay £200,000 to people who had worked for them as unpaid interns.

I'm glad to say it is now fasttracking complaints about the use of unpaid interns and I would like to highlight the fantastic work being done by the Intern Aware campaign group. But much more needs to be done. A ban on advertising these roles would help, but it would not stop unpaid roles being offered by word of mouth.

That is why we need to make it clear to employers that unpaid internships are both unlawful and morally wrong. I was really pleased to hear about how Universal Music UK is now paying all its interns above the minimum wage and in line with the London living wage.

Companies from all sectors should be following their lead rather than that of the until-recently Premier League football clubs like Wigan Athletic and Reading which earlier this year advertised unpaid performance analyst roles, despite their multi-million pound budgets.

However, it is difficult for MPs to tell the private sector what to do when some of us are still advertising unpaid internships. In 2011 I set up the cross-party Speakers Parliamentary Placement Scheme, which is administered by the Social Mobility Foundation.

This scheme allows around 10 people per year to work with an MP in their London office for a full parliamentary session. They are paid the London Living Wage and receive support with living costs, and this means the roles are opened up to people from across the social spectrum.

The scheme has given people from all backgrounds, who have a passion for politics, a taste of that world, and some will go on to forge careers working for MPs. Many current politicians began their career with a long-term unpaid internship with an MP before going on to get a permanent job in their office.

And because people from better off backgrounds are those most likely to be able to afford to work for free, they become our future MPs.

I believe passionately that it is important to have politicians from all walks of life in Parliament - but unpaid internships make that more difficult to achieve.

Today, Tuesday, 18 June, I am launching a campaign called Let's Get Our House In Order. I have written to every MP, urging them to come along to room W3 of Westminster Hall to sign a pledge promising that they will pay their interns. They will be able to meet some of the people on this year's Speakers' Parliamentary Placement Scheme, as well as young people who have struggled owing to the prevalence of unpaid internships in the private sector.

I hope that will help to convince them to join me in campaigning to end unpaid internships - and ensure young people will be at the heart of a fairer, more decent Britain.