Westminster embarks on a new approach to Parliamentary interns
One is a 25-year-old who escaped to Britain as a refugee from Liberia at 17 after being caught up in his country’s civil war.
Another left school after GCSEs to work as joiner in Lanarkshire before being made redundant nine months ago. Two others are in their 50s and saw the advert in their local job centres.
This week they all embarked on new careers as Parliamentary interns - part of the first serious attempt by the Westminster establishment to increase the diversity of people entering public life.
For the next nine months each of the ten new interns will work for MPs ranging from Ed Miliband to Hazel Blears on the Labour side to Conservative MPs, Ester McVey and Amber Rudd.
They will help with MPs postbags, carry out research, write speeches and even help with constituent’s problems
But unlike the hundreds of other interns who populate Westminster each year this group will be different.
For a start they will be paid (£15,000 a year) and have been chosen not for their qualifications but their interest in politics and the fact that without the scheme they would never get onto even first base of the slippery pole.
They have been put up in social housing – so they can afford to live in London and at the end of the scheme will be given help and advise on how to capitalise on the experience either in politics or elsewhere.
So far it has all been a slightly unreal experience. Last Wednesday they sat in the House of Commons chamber to listen to the former Ms Blears name check them at Prime Ministers Questions. They even got of promise from David Cameron to try and meet them in Downing Street.
Then they went off to have to tea with the Speaker John Bercow in his official apartment.
Two of them took great delight in spotting the veteran Labour firebrand Dennis Skinner doing a Sodoku puzzle on the Commons terrace.
During their time in Westminster they will meet ministers, work in Government departments and get to see the innermost working of the Parliamentary system. They will all have photo passes which allow them freedom to roam where most members of the public would never normally go.
Not all may end up going into politics – but the plan is to give them the chance if they want to.
The Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme was launched last year by Ms Blears – who carried out research that found that while in 1970 only three per cent of MPs had had previous experience working in Parliament by the last election that had risen by 24 per cent.
She raised over £400,000 from private companies to fund the scheme and then helped interview not just the applicants – but also the MPs who wanted to take part in the scheme.
Abdul Turay, who fled Liberia when he was 16, with no formal education having been caught up in the country’s war said he was particularly struck while have lunch to see Mr Cameron walk past just a few yards away.
“In my country the Prime Minister would go no-where without a truck of military people with gun,” he said.
“I have seen what politics is like when things get bad. That was part of the reason why I applied to take part.”
Most were amazed by the reaction of family and friends when they told them they had been accepted into the scheme.
“It’s just not something that people where I come from would think about doing. It’s not sort of ‘that’s not for people like us’,” said James Wallace who spent nine months on the dole after being made redundant at the age of 22 having worked since school as a joiner.
“When I went to the job centre they tried to put me into jobs that paid the minimum wage and weren’t ever going to go anywhere. There weren’t any opportunities – and then I saw this.
“I thought it’s no good complaining about the Government and politics…why not try and take the opportunity and make a difference.”
Alan Kean, 54, was brought up in a mining village and left school at 15 with no qualifications.
He said that after 39 years of doing jobs rather than having a career – he jumped at the chance.
“Normally someone like me would never be considered to work in Parliament. I’d be too old, without connections, and the resources to work for nothing. That’s why this is so remarkable – I never thought I’d get the chance.
Ms Blears, the daughter of a maintenance fitter, was the first member of her family to go to university before entering Parliament in 1997, she was not sure the path was as open today.
“When I got here I became increasingly aware that many of the people around me had gone to the same universities, worked in Parliament for an MP or as a Special Adviser or had been fast tracked through the system.
“They may have been good at their jobs – but it’s not really representative democracy – and that’s what we’re trying to change.”
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