From education to employment

Government urged to act now to end scandal of unpaid internships #PayInterns

Lord (Chris) Holmes, Conservative Peer


Over a quarter of graduates surveyed (27%) have taken on an unpaid internship, with many having to rely on parents, friends and second jobs to get by, according to new research from the Sutton Trust, released on Friday (23 Nov).

Pay As You Go, based on YouGov surveys of graduates and employers commissioned by the Sutton Trust, gives a detailed view, for the first time, of the types of internships that graduates are completing in their first few years in the job market.

The research finds that graduate internships appear to be on the rise, with 46% of 21-23 year olds having done one, compared to 37% of 27-29 year olds. Younger graduates are also more likely to have taken on more than one internship. According to the report, there are around 100,000 interns working in Britain every year, with around 58,000 unpaid.

In many top professions, internships are seen as a requirement before a first job. But previous research by the Sutton Trustfound that an unpaid internship now costs a single person living in London a minimum of £1,100 per month. The significant costs associated with unpaid internships are shutting many less advantaged young people out of careers. In prestigious industries such as media and the arts (including fashion, theatre and tv), up to 86% of internships on offer are unpaid.

The report takes an in-depth look at internships in politics and finds that 31% of staff working in the offices of MPs and Peers in Westminster had completed unpaid work, including 36% of Labour staffers and 28% of Conservatives. Just half of staffers (51%) had found their current job through an advertisement, with over a quarter (26%) gaining it through personal connections.

According to the research, a large proportion (43%) of unpaid interns rely on living for free with family and friends to get by. Just over a quarter (26%) relied on money from their parents while a similar number (27%) had to work another paid job in order to fund their internship.

The report also finds that both graduates and employers are confused about the current law on unpaid internships. Under national minimum wage legislation, interns must be paid if they are expected to work set hours or on set tasks. Up to 50% of employers and 37% of graduates surveyed were not aware most such unpaid internships are likely to be illegal.

While doing an internship is associated with higher salaries, there is some evidence that doing multiple unpaid internships may actually have a negative impact on employment and wages. This suggests that many young people in certain industries are being trapped in cycles of unpaid placements without significant benefits to their career. Many internships offer little in the way of training, and are instead focused on completing necessary work for their employer. 70% of employers say that interns do useful work for their business.

Pay As You Go is published on the same day as a bill to ban unpaid internships over four weeks in length is brought to the House of Commons. The bill was originated in the House of Lords by Conservative peer Lord Holmes of Richmond and is sponsored in the Commons by Alec Shelbrooke MP.

The Trust is backing Lord Holmes’ bill and would like to see all internships longer than one month to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage of £7.05 for 21-24 year olds, and ideally the Living Wage of £9 per hour (£10.55 in London).

In addition, the report recommends that internship positions should be advertised publicly, rather than filled informally and recruitment processes should be fair, transparent and based on merit.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“Unpaid internships prevent young people from low and moderate-income backgrounds from accessing careers in some of the most desirable sectors such as journalism, fashion, the arts and law. This is a huge social mobility issue.  It prevents these young people from getting a foot on the ladder.

“In order to help tackle this situation internships should be advertised, not offered through informal networks.  This locks out the many young people who don’t have connections.

“The legal grey area around internships allows employers to offer unpaid internships with impunity. That is why the law should be changed.  We are advocating that all internships over four weeks should be required to pay at least the National Minimum Wage and preferably the Living Wage.”

Lord Holmes of Richmond has called on the government to end the scandal of unpaid internships:

The fictional Home Secretary in the BBCs recent blockbuster The Bodyguard, speaking just before a fatal explosion, drew attention to the injustice of unpaid internships. As she said:

Law, medicine, journalism, politics, more appears to be closing off these opportunities rather than opening them up. Unpaid work experience, unpaid internships. They are open to everyone, of course provided you’ve inherited enough money to feed, clothe and house yourself. I see how an impressionable young person might form the view that elite society is intent on keeping them out.

A real-life ex-Home Sec, when she became PM, stood on the steps of number 10 and said:

When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few.

However, one of the most pernicious ways in which the advantages of the fortunate few are entrenched is through the illegal yet widespread practice of unpaid internships. Inevitably and obviously only those who can afford to work free are able to access these opportunities which in turn lead to paid jobs and ultimately careers in areas such as journalism, fashion and, most shockingly, politics.


Latest research, published on Friday, has found that almost a third of interns working in parliament are unpaid.

The survey, by The Sutton Trust, a charity that campaigns to improve social mobility, also found that more than a quarter of the interns gained their position through a personal connection, either with an MP or a peer or another member of staff.

These positions are clearly dominated by the well-connected and independently wealthy; the cost of living while interning in London costs a minimum of £1,100 per month. Each year, there are up to 70,000 interns in the UK, with up to half unpaid. An IPPR report last year found evidence that numbers have increased since 2010, and by as much as a half in total.

The government have said they are taking the problem seriously, yet in the past nine years HMRC has recorded no prosecutions in relation to interns and the national minimum wage. It is unsurprising that individuals are reluctant to report companies or employers. If you believe this practice to be an unpleasant but necessary way of getting a foot in door you are unlikely to do anything that would slam the door shut completely. For countless others it is yet another way of ensuring so many doors remain closed.

The Government have committed to campaigns around raising awareness and enforcement; in 2016 spending £1.75m on a communications campaign and most recently writing to over 2000 employers found to be advertising on the internet for unpaid internships. Whilst I welcome any action on this issue it is unacceptable that these initiatives, despite laudable aims, are delivering negligible results.

I am offering the government a way to demonstrate that they are serious about ending this illegal and exploitative practice. On Nov 23rd my private members bill to end unpaid internships will have its second reading in the house of commons, led by Alec Shelbrooke MP.

I urge the govt to support the bill and make sure that in the words of the PM: 

We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.

Lord (Chris) Holmes, Conservative Peer

About Lord (Chris) Holmes: A former swimmer, winning a total of nine gold, five silver and one bronze medal at the Paralympic Games, Chris entered the House of Lords in 2013 with a special interest in diversity and inclusion, social mobility and the digital opportunity. 

‘Unpaid internships’ are defined here as internships that are completely unpaid, those that offer expenses only, and those paying below National Minimum Wage. As in most common circumstances interns are likely to be classed as ‘workers’, these situations are all likely to be illegal under the current law.

The bill would not impact the T Level 45 day minimum industry placements, nor would it not impact current exemptions on unpaid placements for university students.

Alec Shelbrooke MP introduced a similar Bill to apply the provisions of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 to workplace internships in the House of Commons in 2016 and is sponsoring the bill in the Commons

The Sutton Trust research found over a quarter of graduates (27%) have taken on unpaid internships and almost a thirst of interns in parliament are unpaid and found their positions through personal contacts.

Massive public support for the bill, 73% of the public support a 4 week limit for unpaid work experience. (SMC Yougov Poll)

40% of people who thought about applying for an internship have reconsidered because they could not afford to work for free (Yougov 2012)

One intern said: “you can’t buy food with exposure and you can’t pay the rent with a glowing CV” another called them “cruel and useless”.

There is cross party support for the bill.

The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.

Employers were surveyed via the YouGov Business Decision Makers Omnibus; a panel of senior business leaders from across Great Britain. 1,003 business leaders were surveyed online between the 24th of September and the 2nd of October 2018; 420 of whom offered internships. The figures are weighted and representative of British business size.

Graduates (those with a degree or higher) aged between 21 and 29 were surveyed online by YouGov between the 1st and the 8th of October 2018. 2,614 adults were surveyed, of whom 1,023 had previously completed an internship.

ComRes interviewed 234 Palace of Westminster staffers online between 24th September and 9th October 2018. Data were weighted to be representative by party and region. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full data tables are available here.

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