Hundreds of immigrants who have the legal right to live in the UK were wrongly instructed to leave the country after a private contractor hired by the Home Office sent them deportation orders - by text message.
Capita, which was awarded a £30 million government contract to track down 174,000 illegal immigrants, targeted the wrong people, bombarding foreign workers, business investors, students, and even British passport holders with its SMS messages over the Christmas period. Other recipients had already left the country.
The text message from Capita read: "Message from the UK Border Agency: You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have the right to remain."
The company, which is one of the largest contractors working on outsourced government operations, will now have its contract investigated by the Information Commissioner.
Home Secretary Theresa May has promised to look into the matter if she is given details of specific cases, but said it was up to the victims to contact Capita to resolve the problem.
Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP who raised the issue with May, said the blunder raised serious doubts about the UKBA's competence. "I'm increasingly concerned about the competence of the UKBA," he said. "My own experience as an MP is that they make errors on a regular basis. They are often extremely slow to renew visas.
"Getting a text message saying you have to leave the country when you don't is quite alarming."
However, Capita remained unapologetic, blaming the UKBA for supplying it with false information. "Capita has been instructed to contact individuals regardless of their legal representation as many of the details the UK Border Agency has on file may be inaccurate and out of date given the age of the cases," the company said in a statement.
"A contact telephone number is provided for applicants to discuss their case, and any individual contacted who believes they have valid leave should make use of this number."
Immigration lawyers approached the government over the Christmas period in a bid to stop the texts being sent, but their request was refused.
"We were concerned at reports of people who had valid leave to be in the UK receiving the texts," Alison Harvey, of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, told the BBC. "Over the holiday period it would be difficult for them to get in touch with their lawyer and they would be anxious and distressed with no possibility of reassurance. Our request was declined."
Those contacted by text message included students with valid visas and a businessman who had invested £1 million in a UK company and who was living in the UK legally. Many of those contacted were left "alarmed and distressed", Ms Harvey said.
The UKBA said in a statement: "We advise anyone contacted in error to contact us so records can be updated. We have to make sure we keep control over our immigration system and we will enforce the removal of anyone who refuses to go home voluntarily."