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Laurie Penny: Internship auctions and a lost generation

To criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, the response is, “That’s life.”

On the bus this morning, a young father was distributing pocket money to his three small children. The eldest was kicking the back of my chair in bone-jarringly rhythmic anticipation of being taken to town for a day's shopping, but when he received his small handout, the kicking stopped.

"I'm not going to spend my £3, Dad," announced the boy, "I'm going to save it, and then I’m going to save all my pocket money, and then I can go to university and get a good job." This may, of course, have been the sort of cunning ploy to wheedle extra cash out of a parent that anyone who was ever a smart-arse seven-year-old will recognise.

It speaks volumes about the state of social equality, though, that while this primary school pupil from inner London was contemplating forfeiting an entire childhood's worth of treats to afford a chance at higher education and fulfilling work, wealthy Oxford graduates were taking up prestigious internships that they had purchased at a lavish charity auction held at the university last month.

Students who attended the opulent Oxford Red Dress Couture Ball, tickets for which were priced at up to £300 (though most cost £40), were able to bid thousands of pounds for coveted professional placements with law firms and fashion designers.

A mini-pupillage with the barrister Neil Kitchener QC was under the hammer, as were designer gowns, hotel breaks and other goodies available only to the extremely well-off. Sam Frieman, co-organiser of the auction, told the Cherwell that "you can only come to the auction if you have paid for a ticket. In response to the criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, I would say, 'That's life.' "

Internships like these are now prerequisites for many jobs, and most interns work extremely hard to obtain and finance work placements. "As someone from a low-income, East Midlands background, this auction is another reminder that I'm at a disadvantage because I can't afford an internship,” said a recent Oxford graduate, Kate Gresswell, 21.

Relative inequality within the Oxbridge system is hardly the pressing issue of our times, but if even the cleverest Oxford graduates are finding that money matters more than merit something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with our employment equations.

The internship system is already expensive enough to exclude all but the richest and most fortunate young people from popular jobs.

I could pretend, for example, that it's my winning smile and genius that have enabled me to find work as a journalist -- but a year's unpaid interning, during which I survived on a small inheritance from a dead relative, had just as much to do with it.

Today, any graduate or school-leaver without the means to support themselves in London while working for free can forget about a career in journalism, politics, the arts, finance, the legal profession or any of a number of other sectors whose business models are now based around a lower tier of unpaid labour.

After the relative levelling of university, class reasserts itself with whiplash force as graduates from low-income backgrounds find the doors of opportunity slammed in their face.

Last week, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development called for employers to be obliged legally to pay interns a minimum wage of £2.50 an hour, but such a step is unlikely to be taken by the coalition, which has already made it breathtakingly clear that preventing young people from falling through the cracks in our society is not likely to be a priority any time soon.

With 70 applicants for every new vacancy, with almost a million young people unemployed and with millions more languishing in insecure, temporary and poorly paid work, the job market is now open only to those who can afford to buy their way in.

The Telegraph reports that across the country hundreds of placements are being sold or brokered, often at similar auctions for the wealthy, where the fact that proceeds go to charity gives the new nobility yet another reason to be smug about giving themselves the life chances that previous generations enjoyed for free.

For the few of us who are wealthy enough to finance ourselves through work placements, only a firm push is needed to force open the doors of opportunity. Without a co-ordinated effort to reverse this regressive trend, the years to come will be littered with wasted potential and filled with disappointment for young people with nothing to bring to the table but talent, creativity and ambition.

(*Disclosure: the New Statesman employs unpaid interns.)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.