Charlie Sonnex works the night shift at Sainsbury's. Last year, he worked next to Andy Coulson, the Conservatives' director of communications, as an intern at the party's headquarters in Westminster. He wanted to stay on, but after nine months of working unpaid, he couldn't afford it. "All the interns there had rich parents and savings, so I guess the office just had enough applications to keep it going."
Sonnex was one of the estimated 450 revolving interns working in parliament. Together, they prop up our democracy by providing as many as 18,000 hours of free labour a week, saving MPs an estimated £5m a year in labour costs. Of a cross-party selection of interns interviewed, nearly two-thirds said they had worked for three months or more and most of them were doing the same tasks and hours as salaried staff. For many, it was their second or third placement. But, according to the general workers' union Unite, under 1 per cent of parliamentary interns receive the minimum wage, and almost half of them don't even get expenses.
“If we want a representative parliament, we need people from diverse backgrounds," says Dan Whittle, a representative from the parliamentary branch of Unite. "Parliament should be setting an example in social mobility, not hindering it."
According to Sonnex, most interns are middle-class or upper-middle-class, with private means. "My family are middle-class - we do all right. But the interns at HQ have got horses and Aston Martins," he says. "They'd all go out for food and drinks after work . . . Lots of the shadow cabinet were drinking with them - but I had no money whatsoever."
The practice isn't confined to a particular party (nor to parliament: organisations across the private sector, including the New Statesman, use unpaid interns). The minister for higher education, David Lammy, has interns working unpaid for months at a time in his office. One of his interns said that they worked all weekend to finance their positions, and another - ironic, given Lammy's rhetoric about social mobility - said he lived on "pocket money from parents". An intern for a Liberal Democrat MP supported an unpaid internship by working at a call centre. Interns from all parties report that they have had to call in sick because they couldn't afford the travel expenses to get to work.
It's not surprising there are so few names attached to these stories. Interns are disposable, and those who question the conditions are rebuked. When an intern for one of the main parties agreed to do a media interview about her time in parliament with the consent of her manager, it backfired. She never revealed the name of her MP, but when asked about pay, she said she had received only a month's expenses out of four because her receipts had been lost. When the interview was published, she got calls from party officials. "People were phoning up and threatening me," she says.
All the leading parties are committed to minimum-wage legislation, which recognises that there should be basic pay for work. More recently, Alan Milburn's July 2009 report on social mobility pointed out that a two-week placement in London can cost up to £500 in rent, food and transport. "Current employers are missing out on talented people," the report said. "There are negative consequences for social mobility and fair access to the professions. A radical change is needed."
In October, the Speaker, John Bercow, acknowledged that if interns were doing regular work and regular hours, then minimum-wage legislation should apply. In its investigation into MPs' expenses, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority supported the Speaker's statement, reiterating that interns should be paid the minimum wage.
Unions are warning that if MPs aren't careful, they could be vulnerable. An employment tribunal in Reading last November ruled that a company hiring an intern on expenses only was in breach of minimum-wage laws. "MPs could get into serious legal trouble," says Whittle. "MPs think that they can pay expenses and say they're voluntary and they'll be protected, but the Reading judgment opened the way for minimum-wage claims. All it would take is one former intern to take them to a tribunal. A case like that could destroy an MP's career."
The reaction of some MPs to paying the minimum wage has been rather incredulous. The campaign group Interns Anonymous recently published a letter from the Conservative MP Philip Hammond that read: "I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other members are obtaining for nothing. I therefore have no intention of changing my present arrangements."
When other politicians were asked for a response, Lammy said that, unfortunately, his ability to pay interns is "constrained by the amount of money provided by the House of Commons", but that parliament should "look seriously at the issues of internships". When Sonnex's story was presented to Conservative campaign headquarters, it said that interns were "volunteers not workers", and that interning is a "great way to get a new generation involved in politics and our democratic process". Hammond declined to make any further comment.
Five a day
Of the interns interviewed for this article, almost all felt that their MPs would like to pay the minimum wage but were unable to do so, as the £100,000 staffing allowance failed to cover basic requirements.
“The staffing allowance allowed only two full-time workers," says 20-year-old Emily Baxter, who worked for a Lib Dem MP in London for two and a half months. "It was nowhere near enough . . . They wanted to pay the interns, but they didn't have the budget. The £5 a day I got for rent, food and transport was not enough, but they had made clear that if that was a problem, they couldn't employ me."
Over the past year, a series of campaigns has been launched to change the system. Interns Anonymous, Carrotworkers' Collective, Internocracy and Intern Aware are all campaigning on the issue and trying to reach out to the wider public. "We're working with university groups across the country, including Bristol and Oxford, to pressure parliament to implement its own minimum-wage legislation," says Intern Aware's co-founder Ben Lyons.
But it would be wrong to dismiss all MPs. Across the parties, 1 per cent of members are paying the minimum wage to interns and campaigning for a better deal. The Lib Dems have been particularly active, with Phil Willis making the case in public, and Evan Harris implementing a policy of paying all his non-student interns the minimum wage. There is, however, a long way to go. If we want parliament to change, and MPs to be more representative of the people they serve, we have to make the doors to our houses of power more accessible.
A Rolls-Royce standard
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, is among the 1 per cent of MPs who pay their interns the minimum wage
“There are three reasons to introduce a formal system that offers interns compensation," he says. "First, being an intern is one of the best ways into employment. Second, unless you have private means or somewhere to crash in London, you can't intern at the House of Commons.
“This seems wrong. Internships at the House should be a Rolls-Royce standard that can set an example - not a privilege.
“Third, paying the minimum wage would enable parliament to have a formal contract about what the internship will deliver to young people. Parliament has always relied on unpaid interns for basic duties, but that doesn't mean it's right.
“If an MP is expecting set responsibilities and set tasks to be completed, then they're contravening minimum-wage legislation by not paying. I pay my interns out of staffing costs and private funds. It's tight, but I think it's worth it to invest in engaging the next generation of young people in politics.
“I hope that, after I leave, the Speaker will put this high on his agenda for the new parliament. I've always cared deeply about young people, and justice for interns is the legacy I'd like to leave the House."