Labour’s Chuka Umunna has ended unpaid student placements in his Commons office as it emerged that scores of ministers, MPs and peers took part in similar schemes.
Umunna announced he was halting his participation in the programme until either Labour or Parliament’s independent watchdog set up funds to pay the undergraduates.
The former Shadow Business Secretary had come under fire after he advertised an unpaid student placement for his Commons office last week.
HuffPost has learned that Shadow Cabinet ministers Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry did pay their own student interns.
And the London School of Economics has decided to end from this year its own unpaid placements. Its own scheme now insists that MPs and peers pay London Living Wage as a minimum, the LSE said.
Umunna has written to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to urge it to create a new fund to support students working with MPs.
He told HuffPost he will raise the issue at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday, and urge Labour itself to create its own pot of cash to fund placements.
And in a blog for the Independent, he suggests that he was singled out by his political enemies because of his reputation as a centrist MP.
Several universities with highly regarded politics departments - including Leeds, Queen Mary in London, the LSE, Salford, Nottingham and Hull - offer placements with Parliamentarians as an intrinsic part of their degree courses.
The placements earn ‘credits’ towards the students’ eventual degree, while giving them an insight into how politics works on the front line.
The row erupted last week when some students criticised Umunna for advertising for a Leeds University placement, listing duties such as “administrative support”, organising “a wide variety of policy issues and constituent enquiries” and “EU campaign work”.
The ad said the placement – part of a ‘sandwich’ course in politics - was unpaid but the £1,000 cost of a student travel card would be covered.
Kane Emerson, a Labour-supporting student who tweeted the job ad after it was sent to him by the university, told Umunna he was “extremely disappointed” by it.
Some MPs do pay a living wage to students on placements, but they are in the minority.
The ‘Young Labour UK’ Twitter account joined in the criticism with a #PayUpChuka hashtag online.
And after a report in the Sun, the Labour leader’s office sent an email to all MPs reminding them that the party’s official policy was not to hire any unpaid interns.
Umunna and several universities taking part in such schemes argue that they are very different from normal internships and placements that are part of a degree course.
They point out that the National Union of Students guidance includes the fact that the current law exempts such courses from payment of the national minimum wage.
In his letter to IPSA, seen by HuffPost, Umunna argues that without funding there is a risk that students, particularly those from less well off backgrounds, are excluded from placements in Parliament.
But he says he accepts the argument from people like Tanya de Grunwald, of the website Graduate Fog, that students shouldn’t be paying tuition fees and also unpaid during placements.
“There is an emerging and growing consensus that placement students undertaking a placement as part of their course, as we all as interns, should be paid as full members of staff,” he writes.
“Therefore, I ask that IPSA review the guidance and budgets available to Members in order to allow us to properly support our young people to gain the experience they need to go into the world of work, and to open up all available doors of opportunity into Parliament.”
One student said that out of that the LSE’s 30 MPs and Lords placements advertised on its intranet in the last year, 22 - including with ministers and Labour frontbenchers - were unpaid.
But in a statement to HuffPost it announced it had changed policy.
“We are always looking for opportunities to support our students in their career aspirations, and as such, we run a parliamentary interns scheme.
“The majority of the internships offered through the scheme are undertaken on a voluntary basis, in compliance with national minimum wage legislation, with a small number paid by the MP or Peer’s office. In April this year, we decided to stop unpaid Parliamentary internships.
“The scheme will continue if the hosts pay London Living Wage as a minimum.”
Annie-Rose Peterman, a Leeds student, has revealed on the university’s website that she was placed with a ‘high profile member of the Shadow Cabinet’ during her own sandwich year.
The frontbencher in question was Thornberry, who insisted on paying her a staff salary. Peterman has since been given a full-time job in the Shadow Foreign Secretary’s office.
Some undergraduates on the Leeds scheme were not paid more than travel and food expenses and as a result they generally did a shorter placement than those who were fully paid.
But some academics stressed that they worried that their schemes could close if they attempted to insist that MPs paid for placements.
Professor Tim Bale, who is convenor of Queen Mary’s final year Parliamentary placement module, told HuffPost that his university had 29 people on such placements this year.
The majority (18/29) work with Labour MPs. Of the 29, 16 are from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
“They all get a great deal out of their time at Westminster and/or constituency offices and are happy to do this for no more than travel and other out-of-pocket expenses since the placement is part of an assessed, credit-bearing module,” he said.
“I must admit to despairing at some of the comments and quotes from students on this issue that feature in the media: by calling for an end to such schemes, they are basically denying fellow students, often from diverse and non-traditional backgrounds, a chance to break into the system; is that what they really want?”
“There will be many current second years (finalists next academic year) desperately disappointed if Labour MPs were to stop participating in the scheme.”
Professor Philip Cowley, also of Queen Mary, London, tweeted the impact on many courses would be widespread.
Several students have written to Umunna to explain how much they valued their placements.
“My unpaid internship was an investment which helped establish my future career, not exploitation,” one wrote. “I would hate for other students to be deprived of the fantastic opportunity I had.
“It is absolutely ridiculous of Jeremy Corbyn to suggest a blanket ban on Labour MPs hiring unpaid interns.
“Yes, not being paid for work may seem unfair, but as a student who was supported through student finance, the internship provided a perfect stepping stone into the political world without financial hardship.”
Another student wrote at a leading London university wrote: “I understand the argument but I see no harm in internships/placements with an MP if it’s part of a student’s degree course.
“For myself, doing this internship was the best thing as I have tried and failed numerous amounts of times to get placements with MPs for the very reason – MPs have said to me they’re unwilling to take me on as they don’t want me working for free despite me wanting to.”
HuffPost has asked the Labour party to clarify if it views student placements as ‘unpaid internships’ or whether party policy treats such schemes differently.