23/05/2013 11:22 BST | Updated 22/07/2013 06:12 BST

Why 'Cash for Internships' Should Embarrass Nick Clegg

In 2012 Nick Clegg asked businesses to sign a compact promising to offer internships openly to all rather than rationing them through an old boys network. So no wonder he is embarrassed by news that Westminster School, his alma mater, not only sources internships through its chumocracy of old boys and girls, but has started selling them to the highest bidder. When Westminster's online auction closes on 23 May, bids for the internships on offer will amount to over £7,000.

It's almost as if Clegg's old school is out to cause him misery. Although the Bar Council is a signatory to Clegg's social mobility compact, Westminster have persuaded an unnamed barrister to offer two week's work experience currently going for £825. RBS is a signatory to the compact, but is letting Westminster sell a week's internship at its prestigious bank Coutts. 3 of the placements offered are at architectural firms; the Royal Institute of British Architects signed the social mobility compact in 2011.

Like the Tory fundraisers who were caught selling internships to each other's children, we are told of course, that proceeds of this auction go to a worthy cause.

Barbara Weiss of Barbara Weiss Architects explained to me that she offered an internship because she was "very keen to offer a service to Westminster School that might raise as much money as possible for bursaries."

To her credit Weiss also agreed to take a state school pupil on in addition to the most aggressive bidder from Westminster. Westminster were at pains to make clear they requested that all firms consider doing the same and said 'some' agreed. However, they declined to say how many refused to offer an internship to a deserving state school child.

To those who believe that Westminster's bursary scheme does little more than drain talent from struggling state schools, Weiss's argument won't make this auction seem any less obnoxious. But even those who believe in Westminster's philanthropic aims may find it a little odd to raise money for social mobility by stamping on its face. Why? It's probably the same reason the RSPCA don't hold a bear baiting competition to raise money for that dog shelter they desperately need.

The problem isn't confined to a few bad taste auctions at private schools either. Louise Tickle, writing for the Guardian as news of the auction broke, argued that state schools raised money without selling access to 'juicy contacts'. Tickle may be interested to know that days before she wrote her piece, a state comprehensive called Highbury Grove School was auctioning a day's work experience at the Guardian, with the donor listed as juicy deputy editor, Ian Katz.

Highbury Grove School's small fundraising effort did not represent an internship bonanza. But the Guardian's involvement is indicative that the problem of equal access to internships is often well off the radar, even for those concerned by inequality. If the internship was worthless, why offer it in the first place? If it was useful, how can it be justifiable to exclude those least able to pay?

At this point, I'd like to declare my own brand of hypocrisy: at the beginning of my own career I undertook an unpaid internship of four months in a legal charity. Working unpaid for four months was by no means easy and meant a number of small sacrifices including moving back in with my parents. All the same, my internship gave me a strong edge on many equally talented people who could not have afforded the luxury.

While the sale of internships by Westminster is an obvious abuse, it is this far more widespread use of standard unpaid internships which is the real obstacle to social mobility, at least in my profession. In fields such as human rights law or politics, it is so easy to point to a noble cause justifying why an intern should work unpaid. But it is often a flawed argument. All too often charities and NGOs justify paying comfortable salaries to their CEOs and senior staff on the basis that they want to attract the best, while refusing to pay the handful of volunteers they hire a living wage.

In whatever field you work in, as long as young people are encouraged to work unpaid, and in the worst cases, asked to pay for the privilege, the result is not that the most passionate candidates break through, but that those from the least privileged backgrounds cannot.