In parliament itself, hundreds of young graduates aspiring to a political career work for free just to get their foot in the door. Chris Grey is one of 450 Westminster interns who put in 18,000 hours of unpaid work every week. He is effectively paying to work for an MP because he wants a job in a political think tank or as a parliamentary aide, but both demand experience. He can only do his internship because his parents are helping him pay his rent in London.
“I’m lucky enough that my parents can help me out financing this thing, but someone from poorer background who doesn’t live in London – they just simply couldn’t afford to do this,” he said.
“If you’ve got to do this to then get in to become a researcher or move up the party structure, then it’s going to bias the party structure in favour of middle class people who live in London.
“Obviously I would rather get paid. I don’t feel exploited but I suppose I kind of am being exploited really.”
The majority of MPs interns are unpaid and can only take advantage of the experience at Westminster, because their parents help them pay for accommodation in London.
Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility contained a whole chapter on internships, and it said “a radical change is needed”. He said informal arrangements based on family connections should be replaced with open competition and internships should be financed through loans or by getting workplaces to stump up the money people need to survive.
But a study by Martine Martin from the University of Hull, herself an unpaid parliamentary intern for six months, found that one in four interns working for MPs has been privately educated and two thirds rely on family financial support to take up internships.
The study found that 39 per cent of the 77 interns questioned had exhausted their savings to fund their work placements, 33 per cent relied on student loans and grants and 27 per cent had to use overdrafts and credit cards.
Daniella Oliveros-Elvidge moved from Venezuela as a student. She had to give up her degree because she ran out of money. But she got herself one week’s work experience in Downing Street after she collared Gordon Brown at a question and answer session in London.
“That should not be the route for you to get into politics,” she said. “More young people should get involved.
“For somebody from a not very privileged background to go and do an internship, or somebody who cannot really afford to like myself, It is just really difficult.
“I can’t really afford to do an internship with an MP for three months without being paid. I need to eat and pay bills.”
The trade union Unite, which represents parliamentary workers, says the way parliament finds interns is unfair and needs to change.
Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis has tabled an early day motion backing Unite’s call for an “intern agreement” similar to an employment contract. He has the support of the Speaker of the House, John Bercow.