Capita & UKBA - a Match Made in Heaven
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 would have come up. 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.
The blame game has already begun - Capita alleging it has made mistakes such as inviting British citizens to leave the country because of duff UKBA data. This is clearly plausible, but why did the Border Agency think anything else would happen? Not just plausible, but inevitable in our view. And unlawful. UKBA's failure to maintain up to date records on the individuals it deals with may breach Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998, which requires information to be "... accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date."
Further, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, a corporate entity may be liable where its employees engage in behaviour causing alarm or distress. Capita has created a certain amount of alarm with its methods of contacting individuals - by letter, phone and even text message. We look forward to UKBA being held vicariously liable for its decision to place sensitive personal information in the hands of a private company in this way.
A History of Public Sector Failure
We are more than familiar with UKBA's shortcomings, but a little research reveals that Capita has if anything outperformed the Agency over the years. In 2001 the London Borough of Lambeth severed a £48m contract with Capita, claiming that its benefits service had deteriorated after the company took it over in 1997. Problems peaked in 2000, when it faced 55,000 outstanding queries, and the quality of the service was deemed unacceptable by the council, leading to the cancelling of the contract three years before its expiry date.
Capita proved itself unable to administer the completion of criminal records checks for teachers on time, which caused problems for schools in the autumn of 2002. The contract was once again revised and revenues renegotiated. Capita incurred penalty charges for that one. And most recently, Capita's subsidiary Applied Language Solutions has shown itself totally unable to provide the Ministry of Justice with an interpreting service that is fit for purpose. All excellent reasons for UKBA officials to award yet another slice of public money to the organisation affectionately know as Crapita.
But seriously. Our experience at Latitude Law is that, over the Christmas holidays, a number of clients with outstanding applications or claims with UKBA have been contacted by Capita. There is a clear intention to bypass legal representatives, and thus increase the risk of these contacts being seen as harassment. What the Border Agency thinks a private contractor can achieve though such contacts, where its own efforts have largely failed, is hard to see.
Clients are advised to get in touch with their lawyer if they have one, or seek some form of advice before responding to Capita. It seems to us far preferable that contact between Capita and the individual be managed in this way, so that the points made above can be put to the company directly.