“The government believes no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential because of where they’re born, the school they go to, or the jobs their parents do.”
Nick Clegg, Social Mobility Business Compact, 12 January 2012
“The Lib Dem Headquarters I’m very pleased to see has actually signed up to the Business Compact we’ve launched today.”
Nick Clegg, Channel 4 News, 12 January 2012
When Nick Clegg unveiled the government’s social mobility strategy a year ago, Harriet Harman was incredulous. “I thought it was April Fool’s Day,” she told the House of Commons, arguing that the government’s scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and trebling of tuition fees amounted to an “assault on opportunities for young people, especially the poorest”.
But Mr Clegg, whose father “had a word” with a friend to secure him work at a Finnish bank, insisted that the scheme would give everyone a “fair chance”, opening up career opportunities for young people of all backgrounds.
Part of the strategy was the launch of the Business Compact in January, which the Lib Dem HQ signed up to, Mr Clegg told Channel 4 News at the time.
That may be so, but how closely has the party stuck to it? Earlier this month the Lib Dem HQ advertised its internship scheme for 2012 – FactCheck investigates how far it promotes “socially mobility”.
The aim of the Business Compact is to ask “businesses to open their doors to people from all walks of life”. It advises companies to “pay interns the minimum wage where they are legally entitled to it” – i.e. if they’re working 9-5 and doing a job someone would otherwise be paid for.
And if they’re not, companies should offer “financial support to ensure fair access (ensuring individuals from less well-off backgrounds are not excluded from opportunities, for example, providing lunch or travel expenses or accommodation as appropriate)”.
Mr Clegg produced a list of more than 100 companies that had signed up to the scheme – with our very own Channel 4 topping the list. FactCheck spoke to the C4 HR team, which said that it openly advertises a year’s internship for a salary of £20,000; and has just launched a graduate internship scheme that pays £25,000 a year.
The internship offered by the Lib Dem HQ is not such a permanent offer, but is a three-to-four month voluntary placement. The advert states: “All our internships are voluntary. This means that you will not be under any form of contract to work set hours or undertake set tasks, you will also not be paid a wage.”
They will however, offer interns travel expenses up to the cost of a zone 1-6 London travelcard and up to £5 a day for lunch.
And the party says it is willing to be flexible with regards to part-time arrangements for those wishing to have a part-time job as well.
A zone 1-6 travelcard costs £15.80 a day; but what about if you live outside London?
Even if you hail from the South East, say from the Berkshire town of Reading – a mere hour and ten minutes away by train – a return to Waterloo (the closest station to the Lib Dem HQ) would cost you £30.10, or £19.85 with a young person’s railcard.
Or if you were a young Lib Dem from the party’s South West heartland, a return ticket from Taunton would cost you £73.10 – or £48.25 with a young person’s railcard.
The party does plan to launch a bursary scheme, but at the moment party funding doesn’t stretch to this.
Where you come from could actually prove to be the biggest stumbling block in bagging a Lib Dem internship.
The scheme is geared towards Londoners – the party doesn’t pay a wage or offer accommodation (both of which are recommended in the Business Compact).
But it does offer to pay travel costs of up to £15.80 and up to £5 for lunch.
There are no fixed hours – which means that the party doesn’t legally have to pay the minimum wage – and it says it is “flexible” in allowing people to do part-time work to pay the bills.
This is all very well if you live in London with your parents covering your rent, bills and food, and you have a part-time job to fund your social life and so on.
But if you’re from outside London, FactCheck doesn’t like your chances of “social mobility”.
With no money for accommodation, if you’re from the Lib Dem constituency of Taunton, a return train ticket would cost you more than three times the travel allowance. And you’d be spending at least four and a half hours sitting on the train every day, leaving no time for a part-time job to bump up your income.
A spokesman for the Lib Dems HQ however told FactCheck that they would strive to come to an arrangement with those living outside London, adding that there have been examples of staff putting volunteers up in the past.
But don’t bother applying if you’re currently at school, college or university. The Lib Dem’s scheme is aimed at recent university graduates – though a spokesman told us they would consider people without degrees.
The party has done well to meet some of the criteria – it worth noting that the Tories and Labour don’t publicly advertise their internships for scrutiny – but it’s clear the scheme doesn’t open the Lib Dem’s front door to “people from all walks of life”.
By Emma Thelwell