What I learnt from the internship controversy at my office

  • The suggestion made was that I have been offering unpaid internships in my office – this is not the case.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Last Thursday an advert for a student placement in my office for politics students at Leeds University caused somewhat of an uproar, so I put out a short statement in response to it explaining the arrangement and was going to leave it at that. The suggestion made was that I have been offering unpaid internships in my office – this is not the case.

Among the first to report the story were Guido Fawkes and Squawkbox, neither of which are particularly well disposed to me or my politics. There was also a pointed reference to the story in a widely circulated email put out to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and briefed by Labour leadership sources last week insinuating I was guilty of offering unpaid internships. But, whatever the politics involved in this, that should not stand in the way of having a proper debate about student placements and how they are funded.

First, I have never made any secret about the arrangements in my office on students and it helps to get the facts straight because there has been a lot of misreporting of my situation. This was a student placement and not an unpaid internship. The advert in question was offered by the Leeds University Politics department as part of a sandwich course in which students choose to undertake an additional work placement year, usually within an MP’s office – it is then a requirement of attaining the degree. Many MPs of all parties have been involved with schemes like these over the years.

Since I was elected, I have accepted student placements from a number of universities (mostly in London where my constituency is) to widen opportunities for young people, help with their studies and – above all – give them valuable experience that others often only enjoy as a result of family and social connections. I derive no financial or political benefit from doing this, and those doing student and work experience placements need a lot of supervision – they do not work in the way my staff do. They are with us for between six weeks and seven months. They generally come into the office for up to two days a week, and when they do come in they work flexibly.

These student placement arrangements are very different to internships. Internships overwhelmingly do not form part of any requirement for an academic qualification and so the individual is not entitled to any student financing or academic support. The intern will generally be required to work at least the usual working hours and more. For the avoidance of doubt, in line with Labour’s manifesto, I strongly believe that interns should be paid and, for that reason, I do not have any interns working in my office despite the many requests we receive from young people to do so.

My views on all of this are shaped by my own experience and my values. As it happens, I worked unpaid in the Houses of Parliament as a university student myself between summer jobs (I worked in non-political jobs throughout my time as a student to help support myself). I went on to become a solicitor specialising in employment law for several years before my election in part to help stop workers being exploited – not to do the opposite.

But since this story erupted last week Tanya de Grunwald, who runs the excellent campaigning Graduate Fog website, has raised an important point that I have considered before but which has given me pause for thought again. She asks: “Why are students paying university tuition fees in order to be sent out to work for free?”

Those who argue for student placements to be paid say that “years in industry” student placements are no different to any other work, and so should be paid by the employer. More so, that their student loan debt increases during their placement and this makes it all the more necessary to ensure it is paid.

Those who argue against treating student placements in this way say students apply to such courses with a full understanding that these opportunities will be provided and formalising the placement as a component part of their degree guarantees a certain quality of placement that is more valuable to them. An academic who runs a parliamentary placement scheme at a leading London university put it his way: “By calling for an end to such schemes, they are basically denying fellow students, often from diverse and non-traditional backgrounds, a chance to break into the system; is that what they really want?”

My own view has been that these placements are an imperfect solution to a wider problem. We do not currently have any students working in my office. The financing arrangements have never sat entirely comfortably with me but I have sought to do the right thing given my desire to extend the opportunity to others that I was lucky to have myself when I was a student. Having listened to the debate the Leeds advert has generated, I have decided not to take on any further university student placements in my office. The argument on finance in particular, cited by Tanya, is a compelling one. If that means in the short term young people will be denied the opportunities I have sought to provide, then the system needs to change.

With this in mind, I have written to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority asking them to introduce a specific allowance that allows MPs to claim funding above our annual staff budget to pay interns and placement students. We should not have to choose between recruiting staff that are essential to our duties and paying students and interns who do work experience in our offices. The Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme could also be expanded.

Most students want to do placements with Labour MPs. The Labour Party could negotiate with universities offering these kinds of schemes to come to an arrangement that allows students to take up placements with MPs while ensuring they are better financially supported. If the leadership wish to extend the ban on unpaid interns to unpaid student placements that form part of an academic degree, fine, but it needs to be discussed and, if agreed, adopted as policy. I will be raising this at the next meeting of the PLP.

We could also show our commitment to ending unpaid work by providing a central fund to allow not only MPs, but councillors and other elected officials to take on paid placement students. Labour is at its most financially secure place in years, and this would be a good way we could give back to our young supporters that contribute so much to our party. This way, instead of unnecessary uproar, we would actually be doing something tangible now to spread opportunities.