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Unpaid Internships

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to eradicate unpaid internships in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are working to stop illegal unpaid internships. The law is clear that anyone performing work for an employer must be paid. HM Revenue & Customs has written to almost 13,000 employers in industries which often offer internships to draw their attention to the national minimum wage rules and help them avoid being non-compliant.

My Lords, last year the Government spent £1.48 million on raising awareness of NMW legislation, and £25.3 million on enforcement. Can my noble friend therefore say what reduction there has been in unpaid internships, and how many prosecutions?

My Lords, I am not aware of any prosecutions, but I can confirm that we have spent considerable sums on enforcement in this area, as well as on other areas relating to the national minimum wage. As I made clear in my original Answer, it is important that we continue to try to enforce these matters but also to offer advice to employers to make sure that they are aware that it is illegal to offer internships that amount to work and not to pay for them.

My Lords, it is extremely important that legal careers be open to all talents and to students from all social backgrounds. Knowing that pupillages at the Bar are the gateway to the profession of barrister, are the Government satisfied with progress in ensuring that pupillages are now paid?

My Lords, pupillages at the Bar have changed considerably since the noble Lord’s day and even since my day—which is also a very long time ago. In those days they were unpaid. I will take advice from my noble and learned friend sitting beside me, but I think the noble Lord will find that most pupils are paid now.

My Lords, in 2016 the Social Mobility Commission said that any work placements lasting more than four weeks should be classified as internships and that those doing them should receive at least the minimum wage. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has progressed through the Lords unamended, so it is clearly the will of this House that it should pass. Will the Minister have a word with the usual channels in the Commons to get the Bill tabled there as soon as possible?

My Lords, we will leave the last point to the authorities in another place. I appreciate that my noble friend’s Bill went through this House unamended. The Government set out their views on it. As they explained at that time, the problem with the four-week rule was that it might risk giving employers the impression that all shorter unpaid internships are legal. We want to make it clear that this is not the case. The length of the internship is not an indication as to whether it is or is not work. It is the nature of the internship that matters.

My Lords, unpaid internships are one of the factors contributing to the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the creative industries, many of which are clustered in London. The Sutton Trust estimates that it costs £1,019 a month to carry out an internship in London. This limits unpaid opportunities to people who can draw on the bank of mum and dad. Does the Minister agree that ending unpaid internships would level the playing field in the creative industries for people without the cushion of parental resource?

The noble Baroness is right to draw attention to the creative industries as an area where unpaid internships are particularly prevalent. My honourable friend Kelly Tolhurst and colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will hold a round-table meeting shortly with representatives of employers in the creative sectors. This meeting will be used to underline our policy on eliminating unpaid internships to sector leaders and to encourage them to take practical measures to stop their use in this sector.

My Lords, on this side of the House our preference would be a ban on the use of illegal unpaid internships. The 2017 Taylor review said:

“The Government should ensure that exploitative unpaid internships, which damage social mobility in the UK, are stamped out”.

I will try a different tack. If the Government are not going to ban them completely, will they undertake an analysis of the social class and background of those who get internships? I am sure it will further highlight the inequality which leads to those who have both the opportunity, as well as the means, being able to work for nothing.

I note that the noble Lord says that his policy is to legislate in this area. He quoted Matthew Taylor, who made it quite clear that:

“There have been calls for a separate ‘intern’ status in employment law but we believe this is unnecessary. We believe that the law is clear as it currently stands. If a person is obtaining something of value from an internship, they are most likely to be a worker and entitled to the National Minimum or Living Wage”.

We do not believe it is necessary to legislate. I will certainly look at whatever research we are doing in this area and let the noble Lord know.

My Lords, in any action my noble friend takes, will he bear in mind the impact on the charity and voluntary sector? A lot of charity and voluntary groups like to take on interns, and do so to the mutual benefit of both sides, but not all charities—especially smaller ones—can afford to pay.

I note what my noble friend says and that he feels that charities might not be able to afford to pay, but if people are offering something that amounts to work, the simple fact is that the law says that they should be paid. That is where I stand.