Managing internships

A Working for an MP Guide
Managing Internships
First Published 7 May 2010 w4mp
Last Updated 30 January 2012 w4mp
Last Reviewed 1 January 2014 w4mp
Unamended version copied from old Guide

Although this guide is written principally with Westminster-based researchers in mind,
most of it is relevant if you are in other roles or working in the constituency office.


  1. Introduction
  2. Advertising and recruiting an intern
  3. Before they start
  4. Their first day
  5. Making the most of an intern
  6. Making sure they get the most of their experience
  7. The end is nigh
  8. Useful resources

1.  Introduction

Congratulations, you got a job – you are now a parliamentary researcher (or some other equally misleading job title), probably responsible for everything from making tea and opening post to writing speeches and shaping policy. Brilliant. I hope you’re feeling suitably pleased with yourself. And, what’s more, you now appear to be diligently reading the guides on w4mp to make sure you’re as good as you can be at your job. What a star. (Either that or you were reading the funny cartoon strips and stumbled across this by accident…)

So you arrive on your first day, open the post, change the voicemail recording (after a few attempts) to you enthusiastically suggesting people call the constituency office, and your MP has been packed off to the first of a series of meetings. You’re about to tackle your inbox, starting to feel like you might actually know what you’re doing, when there’s a coughing noise in the corner of the room.

There in the corner, nervously trying to check Facebook with their screen turned so that they think you can’t see it, is an intern.

Argh! As if managing yourself and your MP isn’t quite enough, there’s someone else. Someone that relies entirely upon you to tell them what to do, and how to do it.

However, judging by the amount of applications that come in for parliamentary internships, chances are this person is pretty good.

Internships should be, and can easily be, mutually beneficial. They want to learn about the job, get some experience and enjoy being in Westminster. You’d like some help around the office, and someone to rant with when your boss is running two hours late or you spill your paper cup of porridge from the Debate caff all over your keyboard. (Believe me, that stuff is like glue.)

So here are our thoughts on how both you and your intern can get the most from your experience…

2.  Advertising and recruiting an intern

Firstly, take a minute to consider whether you’re actually able to take an intern on. Do you have enough desk space? Enough interesting work for them to do? Can you commit to being able to have them in the office for a reasonable length of time? And do you have the funds to pay them?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then you’ll need to talk to your MP about how it’s going to work. Once they’ve agreed that your idea was brilliant, and you should definitely get an intern, then it’s time to talk about all the technical stuff like pay.

As you know, IPSA have taken over responsibility for payment of expenses to MPs and their staff.  Look at their website (www.parliamentarystandards.org.uk/) for full information.

It is important that you read their guidance note. They make a distinction between ‘Interns’ and ‘Volunteer Interns’ and, if you are paying your intern less than NMW, you should read their Model Volunteer Intern Agreement. You might also find it helpful to put ‘intern’ into the search facility on the IPSA website; there are a number of other useful references.

Now you need to advertise, and as chance might have it, you’re in the right place. Take a look at some of the existing adverts on W4MP, and it shouldn’t be too hard to write something along similar lines. Just make sure you are really clear about the technical things like where the internship is based, and what expenses are covered.

It’s important to advertise nationally, and as widely as possible; as well as w4mp you might want to look at third sector jobs boards or advertise locally in your constituency.

You also need to make sure you remember what you’re advertising for! An intern is not a member of staff, not a skivvy, not a diary manager or professional tea-maker. An unpaid internship must, by law, not have set hours or roles. So if you’re not going to pay them, your intern needs to know that they can come and go at different hours to you should they need to, and you can’t rely on them to run the office.

It is essential at this point to do the serious bit, and consult National Minimum Wage legislation. This legislation exists to protect people from working for insufficient wages or for free. It’s really important, not only from a moral point of view, but also because if you break it you, or your MP, could end up in court. However, don’t worry; it’s pretty easy to understand. If the opportunity you’re advertising fits the criteria, you must pay at least minimum wage. If not, you don’t. Simple.  Have a look at these:

Assuming all that’s ok and you’ve got your morally, ethically and legally sound advert up, the applications should come flooding in and you can enjoy the power-trip of picking over peoples’ CVs and pretending to be Alan Sugar.

One word of caution though – to save your applicants sweating over the refresh button of their inbox, try to acknowledge receipt of all applications and let them know roughly when they’ll hear back from you. There’s really no excuse for just never getting back to applicants; if they didn’t get it, they’d rather just know.

3.  Before they start

Make sure your shiny new intern is clear about the kinds of things they might be doing, the hours you’d like them to work (although, again, this must be flexible if you aren’t paying) and the expenses/pay they’ll get.

It might be useful to have a short guide to post out to them before they start explaining a bit about how the office runs, what they might be doing, and a quick introduction to life in parliament and your constituency. It sounds like a lot of work, but it will save you time in the long run when you realise on week three that they’ve been telling everyone on the phone that your constituency is Barnsley, not Burnley, or when they run out of the building screaming the first time the division bell rings.

If you have a current intern, this can be an interesting task for them to do; to write a guide of everything they wished they knew before starting!

And, most importantly, get their pass application in ASAP! The sooner it’s in, the less likely it is that you will have to pick them up every morning and chaperone them to the loo.

If you’re paying your intern, you’ll need to provide them with a proper contract of employment. See the information about IPSA above. If you’re not able to pay your intern it’s still important to make sure they know what to expect from the internship, and what you can get in return. Again, see the info above about IPSA and their Model Volunteer Intern Agreement. 

4.  Their first day

If you can arrange their first day to be one when your MP isn’t in, that makes things a lot easier. Then you can show them around when your workload is a little lighter, and they can feel a little bit more like they know what they’re doing before the big boss is watching.

Things to do on the first day:

  1. Tour. Try to book them on an official tour. Your ‘fact’ about Michael Jackson trying to buy the throne in the House of Lords might be funny, but probably not that much use when they suddenly have to show your MP’s nephew around the palace and all the tours are fully booked.
  2. Show them around the building. It sounds silly, but if you don’t tell them where the loo is, you might find you have a very shy intern in inexplicable agony. Make sure they know where they can get food, where the kitchen is, the post office, vote office, cash points, travel office, whips office, members’ centre, and anywhere else you go on a regular basis. Including the Sports and Social.
  3. Introduce them to people. Make sure your intern gets to meet lots of other new interns. Perhaps you can arrange to go for lunch with a few other researchers and their interns, or go to the Sports and Social for their first taste of parliamentary gin.
    It’s also a good idea to introduce someone outside of the office that your intern can talk to if they have a problem. There should always be someone other than you and your MP that they can talk to should they be unhappy with any aspect of their internship.
    This would also seem a logical point to let your intern know about their right to union representation. There are more details about the union, Unite, here: www.w4mp.org/html/personnel/tgwu/default.asp.
  4. Give them some work to do. The best way to learn is generally by doing, so there’s no reason why they can’t get to work fairly quickly. Just make sure that you’re always there to answer lots of questions for them, and be patient.
  5. Members Staff Register. Remind them that if they receive a bursary or any other financial or material benefit, they may need to record it in the Members’ Staff Register (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmsecret/memi01.htm),  subject to the relevant thresholds. The Member would also need to record any bursary in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. [This paragraph added February 2012. Ed]

So you made it through the first day without them thinking that you’re entirely incompetent and trying to perform a coup in the office. Congratulations.

From herein it’s really not that hard. Just talk to your intern a LOT. Make sure you always know what work they’re doing, how it’s going and if it’s too hard or too easy. The worst thing would be to get to the end of the first week and find that they misunderstood something right at the start and all their work needs re-doing.

 

5.  Making the most of an intern

Having an intern can be brilliant. To make sure you get the most out of it, talk to them before they arrive about what they’re particularly good at and what they enjoy. Maybe they love web-design and would be great at tarting up your website. Or perhaps they love working with kids and would be brilliant at giving some school tours. Whatever it is, find that talent, and make the most of it. That way you’ll get something valuable, and they will enjoy their experience a whole lot more.

6.  Making sure they get the most of their experience

As well as the obvious pleasure your intern will have in working with you, Parliament itself is a pretty great place to work, and you should make sure your intern has time to enjoy it. Here’s my quick checklist for things they should be able to do while they’re here:

  1. Go on a parliamentary tour.
  2. Sit in PMQs.
  3. Sit in the gallery for other interesting debates.
  4. Sit in the House of Lords gallery.
  5. Write and table an EDM.
  6. Write and table a Parliamentary Question.
  7. Sit in a Select Committee meeting.
  8. Accompany your MP over to Milbank studios.
  9. Sit on the terrace and feel a bit smug as the tour boats go past.
  10. Go along to a few receptions with free wine/canapés.

These are only a few suggestions, some might not be possible in your office, but you get the picture. It helps to have a physical checklist of things your intern wants to do before they leave, to make sure that you don’t reach the last week and have to try to cram everything in all at once.

7.  The end is nigh

So your intern is leaving. By now you’re probably inseparable, and you’re sure you saw the shine of a tear in your MP’s eye as they set off for the constituency after saying that last goodbye.

Or perhaps it’s all been a bit more professional and stiff-upper-lip than that. But however it went, it’s important to end an internship with as much thought as it began. Your intern needs a proper evaluation of how the internship went, either through a meeting with you or with your MP, so that they can come away with some positive feedback and areas for development. You might also be able to help them if they’re job-hunting in parliament, or by providing references.

So by now you are an expert manager, your CV is gold-plated, and you just made an intern pretty happy. You probably have just enough time to give yourself a quick pat on the back before starting to sift through that next pile of CVs…

8.  Useful Resources


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