The executives of Capita plc must have thought they'd won the lottery last September when the UK Border Agency awarded them a contract potentially worth £40m over four years to track down the estimated 174,000 people who were thought to have escaped the purview of immigration enforcement officials over the course of several years.
How hard could it be? With access to the Border Agency's database giving details of all those who appeared to still be in the country long after their permission to remain had expired, Capita seemed to have a sure-fire guarantee that money was there to be made out of this deal. All they had to do was contact the individuals concerned, either by old-fashioned letter or text message, telling them it was time to go, and they'd be paid a commission for everyone who duly packed their bags and left.
But the news that has been filtering through during the course of the past week has shown that, as whenever immigration issues are involved, life had a way of becoming a lot more complicated than had ever been anticipated.
The evidence that something was amiss was first picked up by legal advice organisations supporting migrants whose legal status in the UK was beyond reproach, but who were nevertheless receiving a terse message, stating it was from the UK Border Agency, saying "You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have the right to remain." The recipient was instructed to phone a 0844 number to discuss the matter with "us".
The BBC News website and mainstream press have been reporting incidents where British citizens as well as legal residing immigrants received these messages. In response to criticism the UK Border Agency has admitted that problems can be expected to arise from the fact that its records on the immigration status of some individuals are likely to be inaccurately recorded. They have published the advice that "anyone contacted in error should contact us so records can be updated."
Groups working to support the rights of immigrants have been sharply critical of the approach taken by the UK Borders Agency and its contract with Capita. Zrinka Bralo, the director of The Forum said some of the anxiety which is now being created by these letters and texts could have been avoided if the communications had been directed towards the legal representatives of the people concerned in the first instance. "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, " she said.
As the ripples of this piece of mismanagement extend even further, some of the effects can be seen on discussion websites were people ask for advice about 'dodgy' texts they have received from unlikely sources. One such forum called the Bike Chat Forms has a thread entitled "Weird text from someone claiming to be the UK border agency." On the thread the person posting reports that his mother, "born and bred in the uk, as were my grandparents, great grandparents etc," had received this message and asked what he should do about it. "What's the scam here?" he asks.
Well, 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. This is yet more evidence that we are well beyond the stage of quick fixes and that we desperately need a comprehensive reform of the entire immigration system.