By Dan Whittle
This evening, I am speaking at a Parliamentary ‘Interns Summit’ between 6pm and 8pm in the Macmillan Room of Portcullis House. Other speakers are John Bercow, Charles Clarke, David Willets and Wes Streeting, President of NUS.
This is my opening statement:
It makes me proud that our struggle has brought together many others from outside Parliament today.
We’ve become part of something much bigger; supporting us are not just Unite, but the National Union of Students, interns’ NGOs like Interns Aware, Interns Anonymous, Internocracy and even the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development are with us.
It wasn’t our initial plan, but tonight is nothing less than the birth of a new interns movement in this country.
In Europe too. I’ve been in contact with Fairwork in Germany, Génération précaire in France, Plattform Generation Praktikum in Austria and Generazione 1000 Euros in Italy.
They all see the flaws in Generation Intern – where young people can be exploited, where they can work without reward, where employment rights can be ignored, where social mobility is being reversed.
Here in Parliament, that leaves us with a choice of what side of the argument we will be on.
So this meeting comes at the perfect time, and I thank Phil Willis MP for organising it.
The eyes of the nation are on Parliament; they want to see reform and transparency in all expenses.
We don’t need another scandal. We need to show that we can not only make changes when the press highlight an issue, but before an issue becomes an embarrassment.
The House of Commons Commission, the body that runs this place and can actually act on this, meets in exactly one week.
Today we ask the Speaker to use that meeting to improve things for interns in parliament.
Truthfully, we have tried every single official channel to raise this. I told the Commission of some of the unfair working practices in Parliament last year. I am still waiting for someone to take them seriously.
As lawmakers, MPs can no longer simply ignore employment law:
259 regular staff without contracts of employment. It’s against the law.
59 members of regular staff paid below payscales. Against Senior Salary Review Body agreements.
No proper appeal process for grievance/disciplinary procedures in the standard contract. That’s unfair.
And that’s just the regular staff.
I would be far happier if we had a situation where the Department of Resources could work in partnership with the union so that I and the other union officers would not have to get justice by cheque book in the tribunal.
There’s no escaping that the law is – under the National Minimum Wage Act – that interns who work, rather than observe – have to be paid.
Our survey found 44% of interns here are given nothing.
Interns here are working – helping constituents who are in desperate need, whether it’s on housing, immigration, anti-social behaviour. They are working on the front line in rebuilding the trust between politicians and constituents.
Yes interns will work for nothing. Yes they’ll give up their employment rights. Yes they will do 5 internships in a row without getting a paid job. But is it right?
That’s why I take quite a tough line as a shopsteward – in the same way as you would, Mr Speaker, defending a constituent who was not being treated lawfully.
The further point is on social mobility.
Internships create a divide, since not all can afford to undertake them. That is not the Parliament people want.
Unite believes that all interns should be paid a proper rate for their work, have access to a working environment which is safe and be treated with the same dignity and respect as all employees.
So what do we do now?
This campaign is about to achieve the national attention it deserves.
You are new to your role, but the buck stops with you now, Mr Speaker – and with the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, and other members of the Commission.
We want to work in partnership with you on this. We are offering solutions; we need you to take the action.
Individual MPs do not have the time or the expertise to make these changes. They need the House Authorities to help them to meet their legal obligations and to spread best practice.
First we have an interns contract, designed by one of our members, James Green, which sets out both what the MP and intern can expect from an internship. It will only work if you will recognise it and instruct the Department of Resources to distribute it.
Second, make us a recognised union – so we have a formal role to play in House of Commons administration and so we can ensure the action is being taken and that staff are happy with the arrangements, avoiding the need go to a court or tribunal.
The election of you, Mr Speaker, gave members of the staff union who’d suffered injustice a great deal of hope. I believe that when you say you are a reforming Speaker who believes in fairness and openess, you mean it.
But tonight presents you with a big test. I hope that you can make some additional remarks to address the points we’re making:
Action has to start at the next meeting of the House of Commons Commission, next Monday.
For the 18,000 free hours of work interns will do for MPs just next week, we ask only for a few minutes of the Speaker’s Committee’s time on Monday to address their concerns.
We want to have a commitment to ending illegal working in Parliament and paying interns at the minimum wage.
When people look back and see that this was the start of a new interns movement in this country, what will our story have been?
Did we take a lead in Parliament – and show other employers how things should be done?
Or did we fail the test of reform, fail the test of modernisation, fail the test of fairness?