The interns in Westminster

May 25, 2001

Halls of residence to the corridors of power: John Davies reports on the interns who are cutting their teeth in Westminster.

There was a time when American interns easily outnumbered their British counterparts in the House of Commons. But that has changed in the past few years, thanks to a handful of universities that are emphasising hands-on experience - and what better time than during the lead-up to an election?

Interns are so popular with MPs that universities are finding it hard to keep up with demand. Hull University began its full-time undergraduate internship scheme 12 years ago. This year 18 students have been spending the third year of a four-year politics and legislative studies degree in Parliament. In their final year, students write a 15,000-word dissertation relating to their internship.

Hull has a pool of MPs who regularly use its programme, including culture secretary Chris Smith and Tory frontbencher Anne Widdecombe. Philip Norton, professor of government, says: "The only problem is that demand is increasing." Some MPs, such as David Davies, Tory MP for Haltemprice, take more than one intern.

For the past 15 years, Leeds has run a parliamentary programme for students taking politics and parliamentary studies degrees. Like Hull, it is a four-year course, but at Leeds, the third year is, for most, divided between Westminster and either the United States Congress in Washington or the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. There are 18 students on the course. Not all find placements in the US, so they might work in constituency or party press offices in the United Kingdom before going on to Westminster.

During their internships, they compile a portfolio of work done and keep a log-book, reflecting on the issues that have come up and how the MP's office works.

They should not just do the mundane things, course tutor Ed Gouge says. This is a major concern of course tutors and students. Eberhard Bort, coordinator of Edinburgh University's new Governance of Scotland Forum, which has established internship programmes at the Scottish Parliament, says: "We know that, internationally speaking, interns are mostly additional clerical staff - but what we emphasise with the MSPs is that we don't want to waste clever undergraduates. They can make a real contribution.

"The Scottish Parliament is a young institution that is very keen on data and analysis. It is an open door for the interns and most of them make the most of it and really make a contribution to what is going on."

The London School of Economics is taking the internship programme a step farther by getting students from non-politics backgrounds to spend time in Parliament.

Encouraged by MP Barry Sheerman, a governor of the LSE and chair of the Commons select committee on education, the LSE's public policy group set up a programme through which a number of masters students are attached to MPs' office or related parliamentary organisations.

Professor of government Patrick Dunleavy says: "We wanted to do this for graduate students across the LSE." This year's intake of about 60 students comes from a range of departments, from business studies to philosophy. Sheerman's office gives CVs to MPs, who pick students who best fit their interests.

The plus points for MPs are obvious - able students who can turn their hands to everything from research to setting up a website. For students, advantages include getting the kind of insight into the world of politics that textbooks cannot hope to match. Dunleavy says: "There is a huge store of organisational and political wisdom in Parliament that is very hard to communicate except by personal experience."

Case study: Sinead Tuite, LSE

"I work one day a week for culture secretary Chris Smith in his Islington constituency office. He gets 40 to 90 letters a day, mainly about social problems such as immigration, so I have tasks such as liaising with the Home Office.

"Although I am not in Parliament, the work relates to my course, an MA in social policy and social planning. I get to see the effects of social policy at grassroots level. I think MPs can do a lot, if they choose, to influence policy. I am helping Chris with his election campaign and have had some exciting perks such as a tour of Big Ben.

"I believe this experience will translate to Canada, where I hope to work for a government or policy organisation."

Helen Davies

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