Cambridge MP under fire over unpaid internships

Judith Welikala - Deputy News Editor 17 February 2011

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert’s decision to offer unpaid internships for periods of up to six months has been met with trepidation by students, fuelling growing concerns over access into elite professions.

While Huppert believes that “there should be a fund to allow MPs to pay interns working in their offices”, and called for the introduction of an official Parliamentary Internship scheme, he said, “in the meantime, if giving interns the opportunity to gain the skills and experience in a political office will give them a better chance of taking the first step on the career ladder, internships have to be extremely worthwhile”.

Although interns working for Huppert earn nothing, the MP claims to offer “reasonable” lunch and travel expenses.

Nonetheless, Gus Baker of pressure group Interns Aware, which lobbies for all interns to be paid at least minimum wage, asserted: “If Julian Huppert MP believes that politics should be open to young people from all backgrounds, he must pay his interns a fair wage.”

A spokesperson for Cambridge Defend Education argued that unpaid internships “not only violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the National Minimum Wage Act but contribute towards the normalisation of unpaid labour. This has created the ludicrous situation where paid work is beginning to be seen as a sort of ‘luxury’ instead of society’s minimum standard.”

Most students expressed concern that unpaid internships would unduly favour those from more fortunate backgrounds. Pembroke Classicist Rosalie Hayes claimed “very few students (graduates in particular) are in the position where several months’ work for no pay bears no implication on their finances.” Fellow Pembroke student Simon Norman argued, “Unpaid internships will only ever be feasible to those with the means to afford them. The rest of us will have to continue to stack shelves until we get lucky.”

Huppert has faced criticism over recent months, with accusations of hypocrisy and political opportunism. Despite voting against the government’s plans to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000, he sided with its scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

According to second year Linguist Ben Pugh, “He’s already made it harder for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a good education; now this will make it harder for them to get into politics.”

Huppert defended his position, promising a new system for 16 to 18 that will “offer more targeted support for those who come from deprived backgrounds or face genuine barriers.”

Cambridge Universities Labour Club chair, Ashley Walsh, claimed: “Julian Huppert is completely out of touch with reality. How could he possibly claim to support ‘fairness’ if he supports this government’s damaging economic cuts, supports the VAT rise, supports abolishing EMA, and provides unpaid internships. He knows as well as the rest of us that only the wealthy can afford these internships.”

“He is becoming just like his coalition partners: concerned only for the privileged at the expense of everyone else.”

Current UK legislation says that internships may be unpaid if the internship is doing voluntary work for a registered charity, if it is simply “work-shadowing” or it is part of a course of study.

Trade union Unite estimated that there are approximately 450 interns currently working in Westminster.

Huppert was the one of the first MPs to openly advertise unpaid internships after last year’s general election.

It has recently come to light that the Liberal Democrats are now the highest recruiters of unpaid interns, despite having promised in a policy briefing document published before the last general election to “support young people while they get valuable work experience by paying anyone undertaking an internship a ‘training allowance’ of £55 a week.”

Judith Welikala – Deputy News Editor