Public anger over MPs’ expenses has sparked a debate that, for many, has been a long time in the offing. Parliamentary reform, once seen as a marginal issue, is now in the political mainstream. That reform is already beginning. Today the candidates hoping to make House of Commons Speaker face their hustings, and set out how they want to change the way that Parliament is run.
Parliamentary reform requires more than a change of guard at the top though. To fundamentally reshape the institutions that govern us, real change must come from the bottom up.
For twenty five years the Parliamentary Branch of Unite has campaigned on behalf of the thousands of staff from all parties who work for Members of Parliament. We have led the way from the inside in calling for a more open and fair Parliament. Despite important steps forward in recent years, far more still needs to be done to widen access to politics. For many, the first experience of Parliament is through an internship. Last year the Unite Parliamentary Staff Branch conducted a survey of MPs’ offices in Parliament. Of the 161 MPs’ staff members surveyed nearly 45% told us that they worked alongside interns, of which nearly half had two or more in their office, with some MPs using over five.
These figures suggest there are roughly 450 interns currently working for the 646 MPs in Parliament and in their constituency offices. Yet despite their numbers, Parliamentary internships remain undervalued and undercompensated (if paid at all).
At their best internships could offer young people a transformative insight into political life. But currently, too often, they are simply a way to get people to work for free, in an environment in which resources are limited.
Internships provide an important gateway into politics. However they should only be welcomed where there are definite learning outcomes and where fairness and equality of opportunity are accepted as an objective.
Some political employers, such as the EU, offer well structured, resourced and transparently advertised internship programmes. It is time for the House of Commons to do the same. That is why, to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of the Unite Parliamentary Staff branch, we are launching an ‘interns contract’. It aims to establish a fairer system for internships in Parliament through a clear set of guidelines. From providing clarity on pay to ensuring interns have a diverse workload, from guaranteeing access to trade union representation to making sure interns receive the support they need, the contract will make a real difference to the hundreds of interns who come through Parliament each year.
The staff union ‘interns contract’ will not only be circulated to MPs but also submitted to the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, chaired by the Rt. Hon Alan Milburn MP. The panel has already found that Credit Suisse and 3i are among the employers who provide ‘repeat internships’ to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This recognises the fact that gifted students from poor backgrounds are known to develop later, but faster, than their more advantaged peers. The ‘interns contract’ will also be submitted to the Speaker’s Conference – a committee of MPs who are investigating how Parliament can be made more representative.
From the Speaker of the House of Commons to the Unite Parliamentary Staff branch, everyone in Parliament has an important role to play in ensuring that today’s crisis heralds lasting reform of the democratic institutions. We hope that through the interns contract we can start a change of culture that could eventually see people from all around the UK and from different financial backgrounds able to have an equal opportunity to take part.
If you are a member or previous member of the Unite Parliamentary Staff Branch you can attend the launch of the interns agreement on Thursday 6-10pm. Details can be found here.
More details about the contract will be posted here on Thursday.