FE Week visits parliament to meet the apprentices working in MP’s offices
The number of apprentices working in MP’s offices are on the rise, just as young people undertaking an unpaid internship in Parliament has become a hotly contested issue.
Voluntary help is a tradition in politics that goes back several decades and at a time when job prospects are increasingly bleak, political graduates both from further education (FE) and higher education (HE) are looking for any advantage which might land them a job.
The desperate need both for experience and contacts pressurises many young people into paying for an internship in Parliament out of their own pocket.
Marcus Mason, Programme Manager at New Deal of the Mind, says the tradition is stopping young people who simply can’t afford to work in London.
“Unpaid internships, rife in the political and creative sectors, are a barrier to social moblity – people from lower incomes simply cannot afford to work for free,” Mr Mason said.
“We have to ask ourselves whether we want a system which systematically enforces a bias towards the recruitment of people from higher income backgrounds.”
The alternative, and perhaps the solution, is for MPs to take on an apprentice, as the employee receives both a wage and training.
Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, is thought to be the first politician In England to ever hire an apprentice.
“I must admit that when I first got in, in the first two or three weeks I put an advert in for interns,” Mr Halfon said.
“I suddenly came downstairs in the morning and said, what am I doing?! Take it off, take the adverts off! If I go on about apprenticeships all the time then forget about that, I’ve got to have an apprentice.”
Harlow College interviewed a number of candidates for the new apprenticeship, shortlisting four for Mr Halfon’s final decision. The minister chose Andy Huckley shortly afterwards, now studying International Affairs at University, as the first political apprentice in 2010.
The huge success has inspired a movement known as the Parliamentary Academy. Developed in partnership by New Deal of the Mind, Mr Halfon and North Hertfordshire College, the ‘school’ hopes to encourage as many MPs as possible to take on an apprentice.
The first four apprentices, which started in October last year, are Alice Hannam, Matthew Redmore, Rachel Shackleton and Breon Finch.
Almost all of the apprentices in the Parliamentary Academy say they would have struggled to take up the opportunity without some kind of wage.
Alice Hannam, who works under Mike Crockart MP, said: “I wouldn’t have been able to take it if it hadn’t been paid.
“I don’t know how a lot of interns do do it – how do you afford your rent, travel, and food if you’re living alone? It’s impossible.”
Louis Luck, the second apprentice to be taken on by Robert Halfon MP, added: “I applied for this thinking it was unpaid.
“So I’m quite lucky, I have quite a large family, and they were all ready to support me.
“My parents and grand parents were preparing to raid my savings to help me get through, and I was very lucky I had that.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking an MP’s apprentice is just an intern with a wage.
“It’s completely different to what i expected,” Alice Hannam said.
“I thought I would be just doing photocopying, faxing and general office work, but they just throw you straight in the deep end.
She added: “I was writing press releases, speeches, replying to constituents, and I also update the diary.”
Mr Halfon says an apprenticeship is hard work when compared to his own experiences at University.
“You can’t just not turn up to your lecture or whatever, it’s totally different.
“When you do an apprenticeship, it’s bloody hard.”
The apprentices are not guaranteed a job once they complete their qualification however.
This is due mainly to their age, according to Mr Halfon.
“Some of them are very young, so I expect they will go off and do other things,” Mr Halfon said.
“It’s very hard because there has to be an opening. But having said that, if you’ve done the apprenticeship you’ve got a very good chance because someone might leave – and you’ve got the experience which the MP needs.”
The apprenticeships run by the Parliamentary Academy and individual MPs such as Robert Halfon might not guarantee a political career, but they’re a step in the right direction from unpaid internships.
“It should be one of the stigmas that come with MPs – they have what they claim on their expenses, and then it should be do they have an apprentice,” Louis Luck said.
“I think there’s no reason for them not to have an apprentice.”