Outsourcing of enforcement role causes confusion and distress as many are wrongly targeted.
In the second and third weeks of December 2012, as businesses wound down for Christmas and MPs went home, thousands of migrants, including students, workers and investors, received text messages or emails telling them they had no lawful leave to be in the country and should make arrangements to leave immediately ‘and provide proof that you have done so’. The texts and emails, headed ‘Message from the UK Border Agency’, were signed ‘Capita Business Services’. Some people were also contacted by phone, in some cases several times. Where solicitors were on record as acting for individuals, they were bypassed. In a number of cases the information Capita based their messages on was out of date or plain wrong; many recipients had valid leave to be in the country, while many others were awaiting a response from UK Border Agency (UKBA) to an application to stay or an MP’s representations. Some recipients thought the messages were spam or a sick joke; others were terrified.
The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) complained to the UKBA before the Christmas break that the messages were highly unprofessional as well as distressing and often inaccurate, and in some cases breached data protection requirements. But at the beginning of January many more migrants reported receiving similar messages.
Capita won a contract with UKBA in September 2012 to find and remove up to 174,000 migrants illegally in the UK, after the independent inspector of UKBA, John Vine, found an apparent backlog of around 150,000 people who had overstayed visas but not been removed (dubbed the ‘migration refusal pool’). The backlog includes thousands of refused asylum seekers who cannot return to their countries because of war, natural disaster or other strong reasons, as well as many more who seek to remain on compassionate or family grounds.
The contract is worth up to £40 million over four years, with payment based on results (the numbers who leave after being contacted). But as Vine, the Home Affairs Committee and immigration lawyers are aware, UKBA record-keeping is notoriously inaccurate, and when the contract was announced, migrant and advisory organisations warned of the danger that people with the right to remain, or with outstanding applications to stay, would be forced or intimidated into leaving the country by a ‘bounty hunting’ approach. Their concerns have been borne out, as accuracy, legality and the impact on vulnerable people of peremptory demands to leave appear to have been subordinated to the profit motive.