|UK Border Agency arresting migrant workers. Photo: UK Home Office. Used under Creative Commons license.|
“Message from the UKBA [UK Border Agency]. You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have the right to remain.” Thousands of people in the UK received this text message, sometimes several times a day, over the Christmas holiday from a company called the Capita Group.
Hundreds of people who were in the UK legally, including at least one citizen, as well as by people who had already left the UK, were alarmed when they received the messages. Many called their lawyers in “distress and confusion” according to the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA).
Migration activists initially assumed that the messages were a money making scam. But the lawyers quickly discovered that the text messages were part of a private scheme paid for by the government. The plan was designed by Capita, a UK outsourcing company with revenues of some £2.9 billion, which won a four year £30 million ($48 million) contract from the UKBA in October 2012 to track down 174,000 people in the “Migration Refusal Pool” – a government list of individuals whose UK visas have expired and were not renewed.
Capita is paid a fee for each person who leaves the UK, a practice which the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) has dubbed “bounty hunting.”
“The scam seems to be the UK Border Agency offloading years of ineptness onto a private company in the belief that it would provide a quick fix for its embarrassing failure to manage the system,” wrote Don Flynn, the director of Migrants’ Rights Network at Huffington Post.
The erroneous text messages that Capita and UKBA sent out this past Christmas season potentially violated both the Data Protection Act and the Protection from Harassment Act, say immigration lawyers.
Under the Data Protection Act, the government is required to keep personal data up to date in their records. Not only was the data that the UKBA sent to Capita out of date, but according to Allison Harvey of ILPA, the company failed to amend the records even after people contacted them to explain that they had permission to remain in the UK, by continuing to text them in subsequent days.
Under the Protection from Harassment Act actions that cause alarm or distress and could be construed as bullying are illegal. Latitude Law, an immigration law firm in the UK, says that since Capita has contacted people directly rather than go through their legal representatives, their behavior could be legally deemed as harassment.
The UKBA has defended Capita’s actions by saying that “while the vast majority [of people who have been contacted] have been identified correctly, in a small number of cases this might include people who are now legally in the UK. Their circumstances may have changed or updates on their case may not have fed through [the database] in time to prevent Capita's contact. We believe that it is right to enforce immigration rules.”
The lawyers complaints has promoted the Information Commissioner's office to launch an inquiry into the steps that the UKBA “has taken to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act.”
"It is nonsense to suggest that ordinary law-abiding people should be put in a position where they have to explain the legality of their residence status in the UK to a government agency which is not only incapable of administering the immigration system, but is equally not capable of contracting companies that can do it properly," says Zrinka Bralo, the director of the Migrant Forum.
Migration activists note Capita has a history of incompetence with government contracts. “If Keith Vaz's Home Affairs Committee were asked to name its most dysfunctional arm of the executive, and Margarets Hodge's Public Accounts Committee asked for its worst-performing private contractor to government, there's a fair chance this particular pair (UKBA and Capita) would have come up,” Latitude Law mused on its web blog. “We are left wondering who thought this arrangement would be a good idea in the first place, especially in these straitened times when public money is in short supply.”
For example, Capita bungled a 1997 contract to run its housing benefits and council tax operations for the municipal borough of Lambeth in London. In 2001, the £48 million contract was terminated three years early after quality of service provision deteriorated dramatically creating a backlog of 100,000 claims.
Capita also caused hundreds of students to be turned away from their first day of school at three sites in the UK in 2002 because the company had not finished the 12,000 background checks on new teachers that it was contracted to complete.
The "bounty hunting" scheme is just one of several privately managed projects to detain and deport migrants to the UK. Serco has a contract to provide housing for asylum seekers in the UK while G4S has a contract to conduct forcible deportations.