Andy McSmith's Diary: Bad news - Capita’s visa task bombs. Good news - they’re paid by results

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More than a year has passed since the UK Border Agency awarded a four-year, £30m contract to a private firm, Capita, to track down immigrants who have overstayed their visas in the UK. Hiring a private firm for a task that is normally the responsibility of the state did not escape criticism. “We are appalled the Government has offered a contract of this size to a private company,” Ruth Grove-White, policy director at the Migrants Rights Network, told The Independent.

The Border Agency calculated at the time that there were 174,000 immigrants who had overstayed. If Capita could find them, it would be a solid sign of the Government being tough on illegal immigration. Capita tried hard. It sent 39,100 text messages telling recipients that they had to leave as they no longer have the right to remain. The texts set off an avalanche of complaints, including those from people who had lived in the UK legally for years.

So how successful has Capita been, overall? Yesterday, while minds were focused on the Autumn Statement, the Home Office posted online the reply to a Freedom of Information request, which revealed that, after 14 months, the Capita contract had caused 4,160 people to depart these shores. So only about another 170,000 to go.

The good news is that the contract specified that Capita will be paid by results, which must have saved a pile of money.

Escalating error

“Really glad George Osborne has scrapped Labour’s awful fuel duty escalator that jacked up petrol tax every year,” a tweet from the Conservative Party head office exulted yesterday. The writer is perhaps not old enough to know that the escalator was introduced in March 1993 by a Conservative Chancellor, Norman Lamont, who was assisted by a promising young special adviser, David Cameron.

Norman recycled  

One of George Osborne’s advisers made a slip of the tongue when talking about what will happen when paper tax discs for vehicles are abolished. He said that one means of payment open to motorists will be a “direct Tebbit”. Presumably, it involves getting on your bike to hand in the cash at DVLA headquarters.

The never-ending story

A little anniversary passed almost unnoticed last month. It has been four years since the first witness appeared at the first public hearing of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, and two years and 10 months since the hearings ended. One day, a report will emerge, though nobody knows when. I notice from a written question in the Lords Hansard that the chairman, Sir John Chilcot, is still paid £790 a day, and the committee members £565 per day, whenever the committee sits. Nice work if you can get it.

Crusaders for decency?

Mark Shenton, the long- standing theatre critic of the Sunday Express, has lost his job, not because the industry is contracting, but, he says, because some 22 years ago, before the internet was invented, a friend took a photograph of him in the nude, which has turned up on a gay website. Shenton’s sexuality is not a secret, but the management of the Sunday Express, owned by Richard Desmond, who made millions from pornography, found the image so “embarrassing” that they have dispensed with Shenton’s services. What sensitive little souls they must be.