Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of David Linden David Linden SNP Whip 6:39 pm, 12th June 2019

When we debate inequality and social mobility, it is important that we recognise the role of housing. Thankfully, it seems that not a week goes by these days when there is not a sod-cutting in my diary, which is a result of the record investment in housing in Glasgow. I am proud to see that, not least because it is the biggest issue in my mailbag. Arguably one of the reasons why we have such a significant housing crisis is the disastrous right-to-buy policy pursued by the Conservative party in the 1980s without replacing any of the stock.

I realise that time is tight, so I will focus on a matter relating to social mobility and, in particular, on practices that are endemic in this House. Since as far back as 2008, when I arrived here as a researcher, I have been uneasy about the concept of unpaid internships in the House of Commons and the fact that, more often than not, they simply perpetuate inequality and widen the gap between rich and poor.

I realise that what I am about to say will not sit easy with colleagues who have benefited from Hansard Society or London School of Economics interns, who all work for Members in Westminster free of charge. However, if we are genuine about looking at social mobility, we need to confront the inescapable reality that unpaid internships, by and large, do not advance social mobility. If this place is to be truly representative of the society we seek to serve, we need to do more to diversify the swathes of youngsters coming into Parliament to intern for MPs.

I realise that it is not just in politics that the practice of using unpaid interns is rife. In journalism, for example, 83% of new entrants do internships for, on average, seven weeks. Some 92% of those internships are unpaid, which will almost certainly be a factor in squeezing out people from less-advantaged backgrounds.

The costs of living and working in London are well documented, but it is only when we look more closely at the figures that we realise just how much an unpaid internship freezes out those from less well-off communities. For example, recent data shows that the cost of an unpaid internship in London has gone up to more than £1,000 a month. In reality, very few of my young constituents in Glasgow’s east end would be able to afford to come to live in London and work in Parliament as an unpaid intern.

We are therefore left with a pool of largely middle class, often privately educated individuals who can essentially afford to work for free, and I understand that, for them, this is a phenomenal experience. But the inescapable truth is that, however convenient it is for MPs to have beefed up staffing teams in Westminster, we should be doing more to ensure that people are adequately paid for the work they do. If we do not, we will continue to have a Parliament in which the majority of interns are from well-off backgrounds.

We know these internships often provide a route into paid employment. Research from the Social Mobility Commission finds that around 40% of graduates working in a profession had previously worked as an intern to get on the first rung of the ladder.

Then there is the wider issue of how internships are advertised, and whether they are transparent or, in fact, just part of an old boy network. Let us say that a person is in the unusual position of having the spending power or capital to be able to work for free. The next thing they have to do is go on the spurious Work4MP website, of which I suspect few folk in Easterhouse shopping centre will have heard, to search for these wonderful unpaid internships.

Out of courtesy, I will not name the hon. Member, but a quick search on the Work4MP website this morning found an advert for not one but two interns to come and work, free of charge, for that Member of Parliament during the summer recess. It is for the conscience of that hon. Member to decide whether that is fair or advances social mobility, but we need to do more as MPs to ensure that the interns we take on are representative of our communities and help to diversify Parliament.

It is all good and well for us to debate how we tackle inequality and promote social mobility, but I am reminded of a verse in the book of Matthew:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Put simply, if we are serious about showing leadership on social mobility and inequalities, perhaps we ought to put our own House in order first.