Interns’ struggle won’t go away

A RECENT attempt to make unpaid internships illegal came from an unusual source - Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke. His Private Members' Bill proposed a ban on such internships, which "ask" students and "recent graduates" to work unpaid "for up to a year".

Shelbrooke's estimate puts the cost of such work placements at £926 to the intern, with 40 per cent having to turn them down "because they just can't afford them," according to the Evening Standard. Calling for a mandatory minimum wage for interns, Shelbrooke added that the widespread practice discriminates against young people from outside London, where most of the sought-after internships are. (They're rife in the capital's media industry: see LFB's Cashback for Interns campaign.)

In the event, the Bill was talked out, mostly by other Tory MPs asking spurious questions about whether it would mean people couldn't legally choose to do genuine voluntary work for charities - until it ran out of time. Many of Alec's fellow party members in the House of Commons made a point of staying away to ensure his Bill didn't get the minimum 100 MPs in attendance needed to ensure it would be allotted more debating time.

The tactic of simply not turning up spared many MPs (of all parties) the embarrassment of the inevitable backlash if they actually voted against the Bill to ban unpaid internships. The outcome may have had something to do with the 22 MPs' offices within the Palace of Westminster that currently have unpaid interns working in them, according to a figure quoted by BBC Radio 4's Today in Parliament. (That's across parties: it was noticeable the only significant speech in support of the Private Members' Bill was from a Scottsh National Party MP.)

Parliament, the political parties and some constituency offices have long had a reputation for being among the worst exploiters of unpaid interns. Shelbrooke reportedly pays interns working for him in his House of Commons office a wage equivalent to a Parliamentary junior secretary.

That the latest threat to the internships archipelago comes from within the Government's own party is of interest, especially given Shelbrooke's speech last year strongly in support of the nasty Trade Union Bill. Also of note was the article and leader comment on the evil of internships in the London Evening Standard of 3 November. The Freelance suspects the issue won't go away.

Unwaged work is illegal anyway, under the National Minimum Wage Act, as former business secretary Vince Cable reminded broadcast employers back in 2013. Cable took the trouble to read out to his audience the number for the Pay and Work Rights Helpline "on 0800 917 2368 who will actively investigate every complaint."

HMRC take a particularly dim view of unwaged labour, because of the money that's not coming to them in income tax. They routinely raid employers, fine them and make them pay the PAYE income tax and NI contributions they should have deducted at source.

Almost as an afterthought, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs also make employers pay to the intern the minimum wage they should have paid them, on which the PAYE deductions were due.

In recent years the tax people have been targeting various sectors notorious for unpaid internships - the music industry, fashion and in the summer of 2013, PR and marketing departments of major retail chains. Some of the latter who were either forced to cough up four figure sums in fines and back pay to interns, or suddenly realised they should have paid them and made four-figure "voluntary" payments themselves.

There are some exemptions to the Minimum Wage Act for full-time students returning to education - if their course tutor can demonstrate a clear educational benefit to the work placement, preferably in writing - and for other circumstances such as the national apprenticeships scheme, certain types of Job Centre Plus workfare scheme, Erasmus+ and European Social Fund programmes.