Please note that w4mp is a small, distributed organisation with neither an office or even a coffee machine or photocopier, and we’re not able to offer work experience, internships or other placements.
Your rights as an unpaid intern
Work experience is generally seen as a short-term arrangement (approximately one to two weeks), often for younger students at university or school, with the focus generally on shadowing and observing. The British Parliament receives thousands of applications from university students and graduates every year.
Some apply for short-term work experience with MPs from their local constituency, while others are in search of longer paid internships, in the hope of gaining a foothold into this much mythologised throbbing heart and power-centre of British politics. If you are a school student looking for work experience then the Parliament website has some information on the House of Commons Work Experience Scheme.
Some MPs enjoy having work experience students in their office, some don’t. To a certain extent, a lot depends on the attitude and the workload of the MP’s staff. After all, it is the regular staff who will spend most time with them.
Work experience with MPs is not often advertised, but many or most are happy to accommodate local students if possible. Try calling your local MP’s office, or any other MP that takes your fancy, and see if an informal arrangement can be made. MPs mainly take these type of interns if the applicant is living in the MP’s own constituency, but some will be glad to help you, even if this is not the case. Keep emailing as many MPs as possible.
Some won’t reply, some will reply months later and some will reply within five minutes. Not one single office is alike.
If you want some work experience with an MP, these are the things you should begin by thinking about:
- Would you prefer to work for an MP from a particular political party? Be aware that, in general, unless you have a clear reason such as a geographical link to a particular MP’s constituency area or a strong link to a campaign they have been involved with, an MP will expect you to have a preference for their party (although not necessarily party membership) before taking you on.
- How much time can you give? How many days per week and over what period of time? Be prepared to state your requirements clearly at the start of your placement, and stick to them – remember that if you aren’t being paid, you are free to go whenever you want. However, being reliable within the hours you originally offered will be appreciated.
- What hours are convenient for you? You might have regular classes or other engagements or you might want to travel after 9.30am to avoid paying peak fares.
- What money do you need? You might be able to support yourself or you might require an allowance for travel or even lunch.
- What particular skills do you have? Can you type? Do you have casework orresearch experience? Are you able to update websites? Do you have document production or design skills? etc.
- Do you have any disabilities, either physical or mental, which the MP should be aware of in order to make reasonable adjustments to enable you to take the placement?
Be aware that there may be many people applying for work experience sessions, and that the MP is most likely to select those people for whom it will be of most benefit. Therefore, if you don’t plan on a career or further study in politics, it is probably not worth your while applying for work experience in an MP’s office.If you are a teacher seeking information on work experience placements, do talk to the MP or his/her staff. Tell them what you would expect of them, and find out what the MP and staff are prepared to do for your students. If you are a college or university student looking for a longer-term work experience placement, read on to the Internship section of this guide.
The Guardian article “The Politician’s Apprentice” 22 July 2004, on why you should be a Westminster Intern and how to go about it, is a little out of date, but still worth a read. The recruitment site JobHero has a useful guide it calls ‘The Ultimate Internship Guide‘.
Typical Parliamentary Internships may include:
- Research projects and policy guidance
- Scrutiny and monitoring of bills and legislation
- Drafting of press releases, speeches and briefings
- Constituency casework support, including managing communications
- General office support
The roles are an excellent opportunity for students to gain invaluable experience witnessing the Parliamentary process and applying your studies first hand.
Apart from small internships, there are longer and paid ones as well. They normally last three to four months and are more often unpaid than paid, however expenses and lunch will normally be covered. It is almost imperative to start as an intern, since the average Research/Parliament job description easily gets a lot of attending and there are more than 100 applications for one position. When you are already in Parliament, it is a lot easier getting a job, mainly via networking but also because a lot of jobs are not advertised online.
As an intern, you would deal with constituency policies and emails. It is not always a glamorous job, it is normally an admin job and what you are given to work with all depends on the office, but it is a very good start if you want to continue in Parliament as a researcher or in another Ministry. It’s a desk job, and you start from scratch, dealing with less interesting admin work, but then, gradually, you will be given more policy tasks, as such writing to Ministers and conducting research on certain political topics.
Working in Parliament itself is, however, very glamorous. You get access to walk around (almost) the entire Palace of Westminster, and you can attend any debate or committee meeting that you wish (however you will have to be interested in the topic being discussed, otherwise they can be very tiresome and very long). It is a huge place and you can easily get lost in the many corridors in the Palace, but since almost all MP’s offices are located in Portcullis House or in North Shaw North, you don’t run around the whole Palace itself on a regular basis, but really if there is a tour given to a constituent, or if you take a friend around after work.
Remember that this is a place that thousands would like to work at, or at least try to. The job itself is not that hard, but you have to love paying attention to detail.
Your rights as an unpaid intern
The question of just what an internship is, is a vexed one, but it will often be of a slightly longer duration than a work experience placement, and may involve more active participation, with an emphasis on skills development rather than pure observation. However, that participation (unless, of course, properly paid) should be in addition to the core requirements of the office rather than part of it. The problem has arisen where some employers have, instead, seen Interns as unpaid junior employees taken on instead of paid workers.
This situation has led to a lively debate about the merits and demerits of internships, which is getting steadily more pronounced and more visible.
The fact that long-term, full-time, unpaid internships can be unaffordable to many people has been highlighted increasingly vocally in recent years – pressure groups such as Intern Aware have sprung up to highlight the issue, MPs have tabled Private Members’ Bills aimed at preventing exploitation, and studies such as Alan Milburn’s 2009 report, ‘Fair Access to the Professions’ have also looked in detail at the issue.
Milburn concluded, as others have before him that, in many industries, internships have changed from informal opportunities for learning practical skills to a pre-requisite to be considered for an entry level position – but that the cost of undertaking them is making them inaccessible to many.
On the other hand, some employers argue that internships are essentially a training period, providing people with skills they need to step up to paid employment. Some also argue that if unpaid internships were prohibited, these training opportunities would disappear altogether rather than be replaced by a better system.
At the moment, the reality is that in politics (as with many other professional sectors), practical experience will greatly enhance your chances of employment. That doesn’t have to be a Westminster-based internship. MPs have offices all over the country, so to some extent it may be possible to get experience wherever you live in the UK. It’s also a good substitute to get experience with your local party branch, which is often crying out for more people to come along and get involved.
Within Westminster, not all internships are created equally, and there are many examples of excellent quality, short-term placements with clear learning objectives and training, which participants find accessible as well as satisfying and productive. Some MPs pay the minimum wage or more, and some are offered on a part-time or flexible basis. However, others continue to be unpaid, or expenses only.
If you do decide to take on an unpaid internship in Westminster, know your rights and make sure you get the maximum possible from the experience.
The House of Commons Library has produced a very helpful Standard Note on the issue of the Minimum Wage for volunteer workers which can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN00697
It stresses that if you are a true volunteer, you are free to come and go as you please, and should not be obliged to take on any fixed hours or set tasks. This does not mean that you can’t be asked to give a rough idea of the hours you expect to be able to make yourself available, but you are well within your rights to cancel your attendance if you need to.
All unpaid opportunities advertised on w4mp come with a note about minimum wage rules, which you should make sure you are familiar (and comfortable) with, before you go forward.
The Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme aims to tackle the culture of unpaid internships by providing a nine-month paid work experience placement designed to open up Parliament to people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are interested in politics but who would not be able to work without a wage. More information can be found here: https://www.parliament.uk/about/working/work-placements-and-apprenticeships/speakers-parliamentary-placement-scheme/
- Infiltrating Westminster – How to get a foot in the door
- Getting the Best Out of Your Internship
- Organising Work Experience in an MP’s Office