Prohibition of Unpaid Internships

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 13th May 2014.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield 1:45 pm, 13th May 2014

I oppose the Bill and I want to give my reasons briefly. Most people who know me might think that I would support the Bill, but the unintended consequence would be to damage some important opportunities for young people in our country. I absolutely agree with the overall purpose of the Bill, but it will not hit the target. I am against exploitation and I am for fairness and social mobility, but I am also in favour of young people getting the experience that they need to enter the workplace. We need a balance.

I chair the schools to work commission and listened with great interest to Jim Hillage from the Institute of Employment Studies, who pointed out that, according to the latest high-flyers research programme, a survey of 18,000 students found that students—any student—who had any work experience at all were three times more likely to get a job. Not only were they more likely to get a job, but they were more likely to stay in a job. They got confidence and a feeling of comfort from joining the work force.

Many of us have offered short-term work experience in our offices to young people whom we want to encourage to get to know the world of work and to understand how Parliament works. The emphasis on only having a paid intern in this place, however, has put MPs off taking on more people in their office. Last year, I paid a full London living wage to an intern, and that was good. I wanted to do that and I want to do it more often, but it squeezed out a lot of young people to whom I used to offer short-term work experience while paying their expenses and even the expenses of staying in London.

There are some problems in going down this route, because in some ways it sends the wrong message to many enlightened employers who go out of their way and know that a young person needs a start—a start that often involves a couple of weeks in a business environment. I do not want a heavy-handed approach that says we should have nothing but paid interns because of where that will put those great employers in the public and private sectors, including those in small and medium-sized companies. Most people in this country will end up working not at the large companies, the big accountancy firms or the big engineering and chemical companies but for small and medium-sized enterprises. I want us to have a more positive approach through a charter on the fair treatment of young people doing work experience that everyone understands and that they sign up to.

I am positively against people who cynically exploit young people and take them on unpaid for long periods of time. We all know, and I agree with the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell on this point, that that is the downside. Where we disagree is on whether we should ban any internship that is not paid. I must say, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I welcome Mr Speaker’s initiative in this House but that very good initiative of taking on young interns, rewarding them and so on is for only 10 people. Is it not about time that even in this House of Commons we said that we should open up such opportunities to lots of young people who otherwise would not have the opportunity? Let us have a proper scheme. Let us talk to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and say that we all need the money to take on three young people every year in our offices and to have a fair way of choosing them.

I could take on a local doctor or accountant’s son or daughter every week. We all know how the system works and, I think, most of us are against it, so I go out of my way to find young people with no other chance at all of pitching up from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire to work in this environment. I work very hard to go out and find them, recruit them, bring them in and give them that chance. Obviously, I can often only offer a week or two, but I do not want us to do anything heavy-handed today that suggests to us or anybody else that the easy approach is to ban all unpaid experience. I know that part of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill addresses that point, but not enough of it does. I do not want such a message to go out to the outside world.

We should be very careful. I have noticed that in some areas the campaign for a ban on unpaid internships is shrinking the number of employers who are willing to give a child their very first chance. I hope that colleagues will not support this approach, which is too heavy-handed, and will join me in saying that we should take positive action that encourages more people to offer work experience and that is designed so that it does not simply bring someone in and make them do a bit of computer work, shredding or filing. Internships, if they are good, should be well organised, well scheduled and a positive and life-enhancing experience. If young people get that experience, they get the opportunity to start their career in a positive way. I oppose the Bill.