For politically-minded graduates struggling to find their first job, a stint working for an MP has often served as a popular, if unprofitable, way to top up their CVs.
The fact that they have been asked to do anything from picking up laundry to writing briefing papers for no pay was accepted as a necessary sacrifice to earn a crucial foot in the door at Westminster.
But, tired of having to fund themselves while they lick envelopes and deal with angry constituents, a group of interns has decided to speak out against a practice they argue has turned from a crucial first step to a political career into straightforward exploitation.
Twenty two MPs and one Lord have advertised the unpaid positions in the last two months alone, according to Intern Aware, which says some could actually be breaking the law by failing to pay their eager helpers. Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, David Davis, a senior Tory, and David Lammy, the former Labour minister, are among those who have advertised unpaid positions in their offices.
Intern Aware argues that the temporary positions have become full-blown jobs, meaning interns should be paid at least the minimum wage, currently £5.80 per hour for anyone aged 22 and older. Currently, most MPs only award a small bursary for food and travel expenses.
Intern Aware has written to the list of 22 MPs arguing their pay policy is unethical. It has also asked supporters to target politicians via Twitter and Facebook. More than 3,000 students immediately joined the campaign to ensure interns are paid for their work. The group has also won backing from major trade unions, including the National Union of Students.
"The impression we have got is that many interns are being asked to do things that would have been carried out by entry-level employees 10 to 15 years ago," said Ben Lyons, one of the founders of Intern Aware.
One current intern, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had been forced to take on a second job as a waiter in London to fund himself during the position. "I come from a very low-income family, so I only have £300 to live on," he said. "Every day, straight after Parliament, I work as a waiter – so I work 9 to 5 in Parliament and then 5.30 to 11.30 at night there."
The Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes recently advertised for an intern to work in his constituency office on an expenses-only basis for between three and six months. The advert reads: "You will be helping people who are homeless, destitute, in debt, have health problems or are having trouble accessing services. It's interesting, hands-on and pressured."
Last night he said: "It is an opportunity for people to gather vital work experience before they go on into paid work," he said. "We have a rule that no one is employed for more than four months. I would love to pay them more, but the budgets we work within are tightly controlled and do not currently allow that."
An advert for David Lammy MP said: "This position is part-time (3 days a week), for 3 months, 10am to 6pm."
Last night Mr Lammy said: "I believe the Commons should fund all internships and people should never be taken on for more than three months. But I take on young people from a range of backgrounds at the moment. My fear is that, if these became a restricted number of paid positions, those getting them would be the usual suspects of Oxbridge graduates."
Some of the MPs advertising unpaid jobs sympathised with the intern backlash, but said there was simply no money to fund the positions. They said places were in high demand, receiving as many as 200 applications.
"I normally have three a year, each for three months," said Nick Harvey, the Armed Forces minister. "If I had the money to pay them I would, but I don't. Some say that means that the internships are only available for rich kids, and I recognise that argument. But you're not going to widen access by stopping it – you're going to narrow it."
Employment lawyers confirmed politicians could be breaking the rules if they failed to pay interns who were carrying out skilled work.
"It is highly likely that MPs are acting in breach of the National Minimum Wage Act," said Alison Clements, from law firm Lewis Silkin. "You're not shadowing, you're doing."
Real adverts for unpaid internships
'You will be working closely with constituents who are often in very difficult and emotional situations. You will be helping people who are destitute, in debt, have health problems or having trouble accessing services. It's hands on and pressured. You should have excellent interpersonal skills and have an outstanding standard of written work. We are hoping to find someone who would be able to start as soon as possible and commit for a period of between 3 and 6 months'
The position, which is based in the constituency office in Stroud, can be for several months, and would suit a recent graduate. The successful candidate will be involved in: Helping with general administration of the office; parliamentary and media-related research; monitoring the local, regional and national press; drafting responses to correspondence
- Liaising with various agencies and organisations to resolve constituents' problems - these are typically immigration, housing, social security and debt-related. - Dealing with correspondence, telephone enquiries and emails. - Attending surgeries and other meetings and taking notes. - Help to develop and support relationships with community groups, statutory services and voluntary organisations.