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.