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Private firm enlisted to track down visa outstayers

Rights groups 'appalled' as UK Border Agency reveal Capita awarded contract worth £30m

A private company is in line for a £30m payment from the taxpayer if it tracks down more than 170,000 immigrants who have overstayed their visas, the head of the troubled UK Border Agency (UKBA) disclosed yesterday.

Capita is being brought in to reduce the number of people who have failed to return home after being refused permission to remain in Britain. The move is the latest evidence of the increasing use of the private sector for government work and will be seen as a further vote of no confidence in the UKBA.

The outsourcing company will target an estimated 174,000 "outstayers" by establishing their whereabouts, contacting them, warning them they have to leave the country and giving practical advice on their departure. It will not be involved in removing them from the country but will pass details of people who refuse to comply to immigration officers.

The existence of the "migration refusal pool" was revealed two months ago by John Vine, the chief inspector of immigration, who estimated it at 150,000. It has since grown by 24,000 and includes people who should have left but had not done so, those who had applied for leave in another category of visa and those who had outstanding appeals against an instruction to leave. Rob Whiteman, the UKBA's chief executive, announced the payment-by-results contract during a session of the Commons home affairs select committee. He told MPs: "Capita will be paid for the number of people who they make contact with and leave. If nobody leaves because they make contact with them, nobody will get paid."

He said the UKBA did not know how many of the 174,000 "missing" illegal immigrants were still in the country, admitting: "We have to do the work."

The four-year Capita contract follows a pilot project, by the company Serco, in which 20 per cent of overstayers left the country within six months of being contacted. Further details – such as the targets Capita has to hit to receive payments – were not being revealed last night.

But the initiative came under fire from Ruth Grove-White, the policy director at the Migrants Rights Network. She said: "We are appalled the Government has offered a contract of this size to a private company, seemingly until now behind closed doors, to perform such controversial work."

A Capita spokeswoman last night declined to comment on the contract until the final details had been confirmed. It also has contracts with the Home Office for holding criminal records and is to undertake fitness-for-work assessments for the Department for Work and Pensions.