Clegg and the government inconsistent on unpaid internships

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced last week (5 April) a push towards more paid internships as part of a strategy to increase social mobility in the United Kingdom.

The launch of a new scheme that asks companies to pay their interns was met with optimism by journalists and campaign groups.

Science writer Michael Kenward, formerly a writer and editor at New Scientist, who has long been an outspoken critic of unpaid internships for journalists, told ABSW: “Unpaid internships discriminate against poor youngsters who do not have wealthy parents who can bankroll them.” And, he added, some organisations act as “exploitative outfits who churn through one unpaid intern after another, rather than hiring paid staff”.

The large majority of internships available in the private and public sectors are currently unpaid, offering, at most, to cover travel expenses. We recently reported on whether it is legally or morally sound to offer such unpaid internships to science writers who are just starting their careers.

As part of the larger Social Mobility Scheme, Clegg’s new initiative aims to open up internships for people from a range of backgrounds, allowing all young people access to work experience which had previously been the domain of the financially independent and well-connected.

Clegg has proclaimed an end to the time when your career path was determined by the doors that could be opened for you by your father’s friends. “For too long, internships have been the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected,” he wrote in The Telegraph.

But after announcing that all firms should aim to pay their interns “national minimum wage, or reasonable travel expenses”, it transpired that the offices of the Liberal Democrats intended to pay their own interns up to only £5 a day. Internship payment was not to be introduced until 2012, and Westminster are still advertising almost exclusively unpaid internships on their website. The amount firms pay their interns will also remain firmly their own choice.

The announcement by the Lib Dem leader came just a week after the Graduate Internship Scheme— which created over 8,000 paid internships for graduates annually — was quietly scrapped by the coalition government.

Gus Baker, co-director of Intern Aware, a campaign group promoting open access to the internship system, told ASBW that they were “very disappointed by this PR stunt of Clegg’s” and that there was “not enough meat on the bones” of the announcement.

Meanwhile, the Interns Anonymous blog questions the detail of Clegg’s white paper, which they call “hazy at best”: the danger is that companies could use vague phrasing such as “reasonable out of pocket expenses” as a loophole to avoid paying even minimum wage.

Many journalists doubt whether this white paper will be remembered past this week, although it is clear that there is a growing public demand for more equal access to internships and highly desirable jobs such as science writing and journalism. Time alone will tell whether the move was just a PR stunt, or whether it will spell real change for British internships.

Meanwhile the Low Pay Commission’s annual report found that there has been increase in the number of internships since the recession began and has critcised Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for failing to enforce minimum wage laws on interns, according to Intern Aware. The report said “We are concerned [..] at the continued evidence of apparent breaches of the National Minimum Wage Regulations where opportunities, which on any reasonable test appear to be work, are unpaid. […] We believe that stronger action needs to be taken on enforcement.

We recommend that the Government takes steps to raise awareness of the rules applying to payment of the National Minimum Wage for those undertaking internships […], we recommend that these rules are effectively enforced by HMRC using its investigative powers.”

This news report was written by me for the website of the Association of British Science Writers, and can be found here

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