Why the Scottish Parliament needs a plan for interns

KEZIA DUGDALE says the Scottish Parliament needs to take a new approach to interns – and pay them the living wage


My first experience of the Scottish Parliament was back in 2004 when I secured an unpaid internship working for a Labour MSP. I had graduated the previous summer and had been desperately trying to find graduate employment with no success.

There’s no doubt that the three month spell I had working for that MSP helped me get my first job as a Campaigns Adviser for Edinburgh University Student’s Association. They were looking for someone with a working knowledge of the Scottish Parliament and how to influence it. Suddenly I was in a position to demonstrate first-hand experience of it and so I got the job.

I remain extremely grateful for that opportunity – but I’m also acutely aware of how many young people may never get that chance, simply because they can’t afford to work for free.

It was therefore apt that the first motion I put down as an MSP was on Parliamentary interns. It called for MSPs to pledge that they would not employ interns without paying them the living wage, with the aim of breaking down systematic barriers to politics that I believe unpaid interns represent.

Since putting down that motion, I’ve been humbled by the support of many MSPs, including Labour’s Neil Bibby, John Park, Drew Smith, Jenny Marra, and the SNP’s Humza Yousaf. It has also been endorsed by Intern Aware and supported by an autonomous campaign on facebook, primarily targeting students to write to their MSPs.

But in all honesty, I know that the motion is little but a mouthpiece, and it is action that is wanting. There are MSPs who I have spoken to who believe in the spirit of the motion and, if not for the appearance of hypocrisy, due to their previous or current employment practices, would have supported it. There were others who were concerned that if they paid their interns a living wage, that would come at the cost of reducing wages for their full-time members of staff, and I accept this as a very valid concern. I am sure that there are may be a few members who feel that unpaid internships are acceptable – and I do not seek to change their minds (at least in this post!).

This has led me to stew over the issue and think about possible solutions. I had the kernel of an idea, which I hoped to develop over the summer, but it has been somewhat pre-empted by developments in Westminster.

Yesterday, I wrote to the Presiding Officer and the Chief Executive of the Parliament asking them to consider a scheme that would balance the ambitions of my motion, with the concerns of my colleagues, by creating a dedicated Internship scheme for Parliament. I believe that this would provide the leadership that our Parliament should show: that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s wages.

How would this scheme work? Well in my mind there is a clear way in which paid internships could be facilitated through the Parliament. The idea would be that the Parliament could use the power of the structures and systems already in place to service an internship programme, with set standards, term and wages. Its own HR functions could be used for the purposes of open and accessible recruitment, as well as dealing with the important payroll functions.

Such a scheme could offer three month, part-time internships within the Parliament building, yes, within the offices of MSPs but also in other Parliamentary departments, such as SPICe, in the committee clerk system, legal, IT, facilities management, catering etc.

This scheme would offer a number of benefits:

  • – the internships would accessible to people of all backgrounds due to the payments being offered
  • – the recruitment process would be more open, and as far as possible would assess both potential and academic merit
  • – the scheme would be likely to be viewed with great prestige and formalise the process
  • – the wages would not come out of MSP’s strict budgets, but a dedicated budget set by the Parliament’s Corporate Body, removing some of the opposition to the original motion.

Furthermore, I believe that this is something that fits not just with Labour’s principles of equality, but also with the Parliament’s founding principles of openness and accessibility and to serve as the people’s Parliament. I hope that this idea will leave us in a better position to lead on equality and social justice, both inside and outside of the Parliament.

Much of the principle, and indeed the detail, is ripe for debate. But that debate around social mobility, political elitism and the accessibility of our great Parliament deserves further attention.

Kezia Dugdale is a Labour MSP for Lothians.

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5 thoughts on “Why the Scottish Parliament needs a plan for interns

  1. I absolutely agree that this is the right thing to do, for too long the system of appointing interns across the UK has been blighted by inequality – only those who have the disposable income or parental backup, or indeed live within the immediate geographical region of Parliaments have the opportunity to access this vital experience. I also think this feeds into the culture of ‘us and them’ that permeates much of the attitude in the public sphere towards politicians and political systems. How can we expect to have an empowered and positive relationship between government and broader society when those who should have access to these systems are discouraged in such a blatant manner from participating; accepting money for interns from America through bureaucratic institutions may bring in some extra income but how on earth can we encourage belief in the integral role of our Parliament in Scottish life if the school children who walk through its corridors on tours every day cannot look forward to the day when they may walk to chamber as representatives of this country? It must be open, it must be democratic, and it must be representative of the vastly diverse population of Scotland. Well done for flagging an issue that, personally, I have been whinging about for quite some time Kez! Good luck, and on my part if I ever have the opportunity I will willingly take a pay cut for three months to allow another young person the opportunity that should be allowed to all. April x

  2. No. The correct thing is to do away with interns and SpAds. Thes habits have become linked with patronage, influence from big business and a political class That goes pretty much from Student Poltics into a tout to being an MSP or MP without benefit of actually interacting with the real world in any meaningful sense.

    If you need staff then have staff. No folk working for nowt. No employees of firms ‘lent’ to Parliamentarians. And also no political appointees to roles that should be filled by impartial Civil Servants

  3. This seems to be a call to give privileged young people even more advantages in life, but folks with a PPE or Law degree are not in need of any more help getting to the top of the greasy pole. For the same reasons that Tom Harris gave when questioning the wisdom and justice of maintaining free tertiary education for the relatively advantaged at the expense of services for the disadvantaged, I can’t see this being a vote-winner out on the doorstep.

  4. My experience of Interns comes from the perspective of being an MSP engaging Interns. I have participated in the special Intern programme established by Edinburgh University for a number of years and have usually taken two Interns a year from that programme in the October intake and again in the Spring intake. More recently I have accepted Interns through the Erasus programme and more recently direct contact from young graduates seeking work experience. In the last year alone I have had one each of Swedish, French, German, two Scottish, two Bulgarians, a Romanian and two Americans. I have never advertised for Interns and I have never actively sought Interns. In every case I have responded to a request either from the Institution or direct from the individual concerned. In most cases that I have been approached I have responded positively. It should be borne in mind that I don’t do this lightly since I am conscious of the responsibility that I have for that young person to ensure his or her safety in the Parliament or in the course of being in my constituency office. With this goes the fact that my permanent staff invest a considerable amount of time helping to train and demonstrate how we undertake our work. Without the goodwill of my team engaging interns would simply not be possible. The Interns are fine people who do not deserve to be unemployed or doing work which is not using their knowledge and skills to the best advantage. This is surely a symptom of a Scottish Government which has not yet really made a substantial difference to the jobs market. Those Interns who are with me who are not part of the Edinburgh University scheme come to me direct and their time with me is open ended. They are welcome to be with me for as little a time or as long a time as they wish. For my part I am aware from speaking to some people who are friends of these young Interns that being part of my team has given them a huge lift in their morale as in some instances they have worked since graduating only as shop managers or in the hospitality industry. I ask them to undertake as wide a range of work as possible trying to ensure that their experience is a quality experience. They have said that they are amazed at the range and volume of work that we do in my office. We have close on 180 live cases running in our casework as a general rule and so our work is constant and extremely varied. As Tom Hanks said and nothing is truer “life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get next”! My Interns like feeling that they are part of a team. I monitor their progress and where I see exceptional performance by any one of them I pass the word to my colleagues and associates who may be looking for staff. In the past I have myself recruited directly from this pool since this an excellent way to assess and evaluate a person’s ability. One young Intern ended up working in the USA Congress. Others have gone on to exciting development or work opportunities and some keep in touch by Face Book. Some specifically ask to be included in the more intensive campaign work in which they revel. They are really chuffed when they know that they have made a difference to the constituents who sought my help and that is worth so much to all of us. We have on occasion offered to assist the Labour Support Unit in Parliament and these same interns have loved being part of that bigger team. I accept most of what Kez Dugdale says but I simply ask how would her proposals accommodate my approach to helping young people gain work experience fit into the proposals she has outlined keeping in mind that I had 8 young Interns all at once in the past year. Some stayed for only a couple of months whilst one of them stayed 9 months. Others continue to be with me on a purely voluntary basis. The last thing I would want to do would be to pull up the drawbridge to what is to them an experience that they have saidthat they have valued.

    Helen Eadie MSP for Cowdenbeath

  5. I can only agree and support the comments relating to fairness. However I do not think that someone who has made the effort to ontain a good degree should be excluded as they already have some advantage. Inclusive selection should take in a varied background. It is not difficult to set up selection programmes which focus on “talent” which covers many attributes.

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