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.
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.
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 surplus to the core requirements of the office rather than part of it. The problem has arisen where 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, who are often crying out for more people to come along and get involved.
Within Westminster, not all internships are created equal, 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 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.