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U.K. Immigration System Blasted For Data Errors

Private company hired to clean up U.K.'s immigration control system has mishandled cases and sent deportation notices in error via text messages, lawyers say.
Capita, the company the U.K. government is paying to help clean up its muddled immigration control system, has been accused of mishandling cases and getting just as mixed up as the bureaucrats it was supposed to be replacing.

What's making some people even more upset: It has been sending deportation notices by, well, nothing more forceful than SMS. (Though at least the text messages are not that friendly.)

Capita -- due to release its fourth quarter figures on Monday, but which recorded sales of $4.7 billion (£2.9 billion) for 2011 -- has been lambasted by lawyers who say they have been approached by citizens or valid applicants who have received communications from the company that are clearly cases of mistaken identity or bad data.

In one case, a woman with a totally valid British passport was told to leave the country. Another case involves a foreigner with a completely correct visa who had invested $1.6 million (£1 million) in a U.K.-based business.

This would be funny were it not for the case that many of the erroneous messages were sent over the Christmas holiday period, which meant many recipients either didn't see them in time or were unable to access legal or civil service help to clear up the mistakes, leading to what the lawyers say is "a lot of distress and upset."

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In October, the company won a $64 million (£40 million) contract to trace 174,000 migrants living illegally in the country. To meet the quota, it has been sending text messages and emails to identified persons informing then they are required to leave Britain. Its standard message reads: "Message from the U.K. Border Agency: You are required to leave the U.K. as you no longer have the right to remain."

But over the couple of months the system's been up and running, it seems not all has been going well. Now home secretary Theresa May, the senior politician in control of immigration in the U.K., says she will investigate.

But the real story here is the almost shocking state the U.K. has left itself in terms of dealing with people entering it. Capita says it is working with data supplied by its customer, the U.K. Border Agency, an unhappy government body set up seemingly to, well, mess up. In November, for example, the entity had to admit it had about a backlog of 150,000 notifications to foreign students -- most legitimate, at least a proportion not -- it hadn't been able to process and therefore determine if they should or shouldn't still be in the country.

In IT terms, it's been at the center of a billion dollar (so far), botched "e-borders" system, which has been missing deadlines and delivery dates since the middle of the last decade and which (according to a 2009 study) may not even be legal under European Union legislation anyway.

This kind of context makes it pretty credible that the outsourcer faces some quality issues with the so-called "migration refusal" database (174,000 people who have been refused permission to stay in Britain, but whose whereabouts are unknown to the authorities) the Border Agency provided.

To be fair, the client does know this. The Border Agency has issued this statement: "We advise anyone contacted in error to contact us so records can be updated. Where our records show that people are here illegally, it is vital we are able to contact them as we are determined that they should return home. This is the first time a government has taken proactive steps to deal with this pool of cases, some of which date back to December 2008."

Meanwhile, the image of the border cop that asks you to go by text is allowing at least some of the U.K. press to wail on the Border Agency yet again.

Tech spending is looking up, but IT must focus more on customers and less on internal systems. Also in the all-digital Outlook 2013 issue of InformationWeek: Five painless rules for encryption. (Free registration required.)