Prohibition of Unpaid Internships

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:36 pm on 13th May 2014.

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Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 1:36 pm, 13th May 2014

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit unpaid internships;
and for connected purposes.

The principle of this Bill is to encourage responsible practice which does not inhibit social mobility and limit experience of competitive working environments to the few who can afford to work without pay. It cannot be disputed that unpaid internships are an impediment to social mobility when, according to a YouGov poll, 43% of 18 to 24-year-olds believe unpaid internships act, or have acted, as a major barrier to getting a job. It is alarming that they have been allowed to continue for so long, especially as Governments of all colours spend huge amounts of time and money to ensure that the school and university system gives a fair opportunity to all. By turning a blind eye to this unfair internship practice, many school leavers and graduates never get the chance to use their education to its full potential.

Indeed, in Alan Milburn’s report into social mobility in 2012, he found that more than 30% of newly hired graduates had previously interned for their employer, rising to 50% in some sectors, underlining the fact that interning is becoming a pre-requisite for graduates looking to access professions. That leaves thousands of young people in a Catch-22 situation, unable to get a job because they do not have the experience, and unable to get experience because they cannot afford to work for free.

There needs to be continuity through the entire journey of education, college or university and into the world of work. I am sure that many Members from all parts of the House would baulk at the idea of children getting access to a decent education only if they have a wealthy background, but that is the situation we are allowing to continue in the early employment market today. Indeed, many Members across this House are complicit in encouraging it, but they are not the only ones. Despite the coalition agreement to tackle internships, and the strong guidance from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, many employers still routinely advertise for unlawful internships on a widespread scale—from fashion to journalism. Just last year, the National Council for the Training of Journalists found in its 2013 report that 82% of new entrants to journalism had done an internship, of which 92% were unpaid.

It is not just those who do not have the money who are being deprived of life skills. Internships are also not beneficial for those who are lucky enough to have other means of support, who cruise into positions where there is no competition owing to the costs involved.

By widening the opportunity for all, the job market becomes genuine and everyone is forced to up their game to secure the best internship or, failing that, to settle for a position most suited to their skill level in preparation for a step up. In other words, it makes everyone experience the real world, where people are appointed to jobs on merit, rather on the basis of the circumstances into which they were born. I draw a huge amount of experience from my own early employment doing manual work in engineering factories and, later, as a kitchen and bathroom fitter, which gave me something that an unpaid internship simply does not provide—a self-sufficient existence brought about by merit and hard work.

At my local comprehensive school, my sister and I were taught that hard work and determination would help us make something of ourselves in the world of work. Our supportive parents made us work part-time jobs around our education—something that taught us the real value of money, that we had to do to run our first cars and that taught us how to budget, a valuable lesson for later life. I left home for university with a sense of aspiration to achieve my dreams, knowing that it would be my own hard work and determination that delivered those dreams.

Unpaid work was simply not an option for me or my sister, and it should no longer be a barrier to ordinary kids, as we were, to get into the workplace. In the 21st century, it is time to ban the practice of unpaid labour. Of course, that is no small task, as the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that there are more than 100,000 unpaid internships. It is exactly the scale of the problem that makes it time to act. There is a need to act to protect young people as they get into work, as well as to support the businesses that are doing the right thing.

A step change can be achieved through better enforcement of the national minimum wage, as has been introduced by the Government, alongside constructive dialogue with employers. Those who defend unpaid internships as a way of helping squeezed businesses are guilty of taking a short-sighted and ill-informed approach, as fair internship schemes are better for employers, because they allow them to access a wider and more diverse pool of talent. Furthermore, not only are jobseekers’ opportunities being limited by unpaid internships, but businesses offering free positions are undercutting their rivals who abide by the moral and legal code and pay the minimum wage.

The Low Pay Commission, for its report in 2013,

“received a substantial volume of evidence suggesting a growth in the terms ‘internship’, ‘work experience’ or ‘volunteer’ to denote unpaid activities that look like work and to which the NMW should apply”.

The minimum wage has got to be the way forward to make unpaid internships a thing of the past and to create fair intern positions, in which interns are treated in a manner that fits the role that they are carrying out. After all, most interns have set hours and responsibilities, and they are therefore workers, who should be entitled to the national minimum wage.

To those who say that extra legislation is not needed, because of the existing legal framework of the minimum wage, I point out that there has not been a single prosecution for non-payment of the national minimum wage in the past two years. There have been only eight prosecutions since the law was passed in 1998. We need to ensure that the law protects social mobility, while acting as a credible deterrent to businesses that would not want to be caught jeopardising someone’s future for a bit of cheap labour.

Since the first report by Alan Milburn in 2009, much of the debate surrounding the issue has recognised the link between unpaid internships and declining social mobility. The report described that internship model as

“a back-door for better-off, better-connected youngsters”.

It is therefore heartening that a naming-and-shaming approach towards the back door is now being heeded and implemented by a range of employers, such as Ernst & Young and KPMG, and employer bodies, including the Public Relations Consultants Association, the Arts Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects, which actually expels members that use unpaid interns.

When international organisations, including the European Commission, OECD and the UN are all concerned about the effects of unpaid internships on social mobility, it shows that we have already been too slow, as a global leader, in responding to the practice. Let us move forward with common sense and tackle the weak spot in employment law whereby workers are not clearly defined, allowing employers to exploit the loophole. At no point in national minimum wage legislation is a “worker” defined sufficiently. It has also been noted that advisers at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are not consistent in their advice about when the national minimum wage is warranted, and when it is not.

A common-sense approach would be to ensure that no work experience is to last longer than four weeks without being paid; at that point, an individual should become an intern and be paid the national minimum wage as a minimum. The change would safeguard opportunity and only requires using powers under section 41 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. With the help of Intern Aware, a leading charity that supports the ending of unpaid positions, it has been identified that the Government could give clarity to interns, those on short-term work experience and employers. The change would require secondary legislation and therefore not interfere with existing national minimum wage rules, but it has the potential to designate all individuals who have undertaken a period of work experience for more than four weeks to be a “worker” under the National Minimum Wage Act, thereby ensuring that they are properly treated and recompensed.

I urge the Government to act at the earliest opportunity. I ask for support from both sides of the House. Until amended to make the rules suitable for the modern-day working environment, we are compromising all the progress made by this Government to enable a fair education system for all, regardless of background. It is time that we not only practised, but legislated, what we preach. In a nation such as ours, no one should be expected to work for free. Work should be rewarded. Those who oppose the Bill need to be able to explain to young people why only their wealthy peers should have access to sought-after careers. The Bill moves us into the 21st century, leaving the remnant of the “who you know, not what you know” culture firmly in the history books.