Photo copyright: West Midlands Police (under the Creative Commons License).
Has the Government broken fundamental international rules on forced labour?
Not for the first time, the UK Government may have fallen foul of its own desperation to look tough and radical. Last year it earned a slap on the wrist after it was ruled that regulations compelling unemployed people to take unpaid work broke the law, leading to a hurried and slightly shamefaced revision to those regulations to save the Government’s blushes. This time UNISON, Napo and the GMB have rumbled the inaptly named Justice Department for breaking a convention the UK signed up to a mere 83 years ago, and today launched a legal challenge that might be a lot harder for the Government to unpick.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions on Forced Labour are two of the ILO’s fundamental conventions, the core principles to which all ILO member nations must agree. These two conventions seek to stop work that is undertaken to avoid the threat of punishment. The first, ratified by the UK in 1931, does have special provision to allow prison labour, but this provision is balanced by a sensible qualifier to stop exploitation: prisoners can work, just so long as they aren’t “put at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations”, and to stop this any work must be “carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority”.
As the three unions rightly point out, the new “Community Payback” scheme (a sort of rebranded community service with the added gimmick of the public using a website to nominate projects for the participants to work on) may well break the convention on very simple grounds. The contract for the London operation for Community Payback was contracted out to Serco in 2012, and the Government plans for similar arrangements to be made across the country.
Quite clearly, this means people will be – indeed are already being – compelled to work for a private company, and the complete removal of the public sector Probation Trusts from their role in managing the scheme wrecks the aspect of supervision and control of a public authority. The Government may well be forced to choose between looking tough on prisoners, and selling off more of the public sector.
If the ILO agrees with the unions – and the ILO are already concerned about the UK’s plans for prisoners – it could lead to some fairly critical judgements that would be extremely embarrassing for the Government and lay the groundwork for further legal challenges.