There is often criticism that trying to get your first job in Parliament is like trying to access a ‘closed shop’. Getting a job in politics is often a case of who you know rather than what you know and, increasingly, the ‘foot in the door’ is via an unpaid internship – something that MPs are criticised for providing.
The truth is that MPs are constrained by their IPSA budgets when it comes to staffing and if they decide to offer paid internships, they have less to spend on long-term contracted staff. Hence paid internships are few and far between.
Consequently, it is only those whose families can support them financially who can afford an unpaid internship. Moreover, simply because of distance, it is only those who live in or near London, or have relatives or friends they can stay with in London or the Home Counties, who can physically commute into Parliament at all if they don’t have an income to pay for housing.
Currently, American interns abound in Parliament, recruited through organised US schemes. Operation Black Vote provides opportunities for a couple of dozen people from BME backgrounds to ‘shadow’ an MP, although that is only for about half a dozen days each year. And a few universities – such as Hull through the excellent Lord Norton – offer longer-term internships of either a semester or a full year as part of their politics courses, again unpaid, although some MPs will pay expenses. And individual MPs will often advertise for interns on www.w4mp.org to recruit directly.
I have long felt that the status quo was not good enough in providing opportunities for people outside the usual Westminster bubble. So, when I got elected last May I resolved to try and do something about it. Co-incidentally, I heard Hazel Blears and Estelle Morris on Radio 4 talking about the situation from a very similar perspective and I contacted them both to discuss what could be done. Hazel and I got our heads together, in conjunction with Jo Swinson from the Lib Dems, and came up with an idea to create a small number of paid internships in Parliament, aimed at those who would probably not otherwise get a chance.
The plan was to raise the money through private donations. We approached the Speaker and the House of Commons Commission, which led to not just support but a contribution of £25,000 towards the first year start-up costs. From the private sector, Andrew Neil kindly hosted a fundraising event at the Spectator offices a few weeks ago which led to some large donations and other companies, including Axa, Aviva and Hanover public affairs, have very generously donated as well.
Yesterday saw the formal launch of what has now become the ‘Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme’ at an event in the Speaker’s State Rooms. The Scheme will operate on a cross-party basis to provide a small number of paid internships in Parliament each year, probably ten in the first full year. The programme will be aimed at those who wouldn’t normally be able to undertake an unpaid internship, perhaps because they live a long way from London, perhaps because they don’t have the contacts, or maybe because they simply cannot afford to spend so long working for free to boost their CV.
Participants will receive a salary to enable them to live in London for the duration of their internship. They will spend around six months working in an MP’s office and two months working for Parliament itself, perhaps on a Select Committee’s staff. The Social Mobility Foundation will administer the scheme and we hope to be able to publish full details, including how to apply, in due course, with a view to accepting the first group of interns in September.
I know the numbers involved are small and I am sure applications will exceed places many times over. However, I believe this is a start in terms of trying to widen access to and participation in Westminster politics and if we continue to receive donations – hopefully including more from those who effectively make money out of the political process such as public affairs companies and lobbyists – the size of the Scheme can expand accordingly in the years ahead.