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English Language Schools

Volume 512: debated on Thursday 24 June 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

It is an honour to give my first speech in this Chamber as the new Member of Parliament for Bournemouth West—a new constituency that should more accurately be called Bournemouth West and Poole East, because it includes wards from the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) and the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). I thank the Speaker for giving me this opportunity to deliver a maiden speech in an Adjournment debate, which I understand is a slight breach of the conventions of this House.

I believe that I am standing in the same place as another new Member who breached convention some 50 years ago—Margaret Thatcher, who delivered her maiden speech when introducing a private Member’s Bill. I told her on Saturday that I was going to do my maiden and had waited 50 days to do so, and she told me that it was over time to be getting on with it. In fact, in researching this speech, my team found out that Lady Thatcher waited more than 100 days; I shall point that out to her on the next occasion that I see her.

I will, if I may, say a word about my predecessor, Sir John Butterfill, who served this House for 27 years. During that time, he piloted four private Members’ Bills into law, which, I imagine, must be something of a record: the Registered Homes (Amendment) Act 1991, the Insolvency Act 1994, the Policyholders Protection Act 1997 and the Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Act 2007. I hope that Sir John will have time to reflect, in a good way, in the months and years that lie ahead on the totality of his 27 years of service in this place, and not just on the difficult period in the run-up to the last general election.

I suspect that it must also be unusual for a new Member who represents a constituency that has only ever had four Members of Parliament to be able to pay tribute not only to my predecessor but to my predecessor’s predecessor, Lord Eden of Winton, who joined me, with Bournemouth’s member of the Youth Parliament, Jasminn Osborne, on the campaign trail in Bournemouth during the last general election. Lord Eden has now served for 27 years in the other place.

I bring to the House today the subject of Britain’s English language schools and the enormous contribution that they make to the economy of the United Kingdom. More than 500,000 students a year choose to learn English in Britain. That figure accounts for almost 43% of all students who choose to travel abroad to learn English. It is estimated that they contribute more than £1.5 billion to the UK economy every year. It is appropriate that we talk about this in the context of the Budget that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced earlier this week. We have been talking about diversifying the UK economy, away from sole reliance on the financial services sector, and this is a massive export for our country and a contributor to the bottom line.

Bournemouth has, I suspect, more language schools per head of population than almost anywhere else in the country. However, not only Bournemouth has them. I see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). He wanted to intervene in this debate, but the Chair is of the view that we should not breach that convention. I know that these schools are very important in Cambridge too, as well as in Poole and in Brighton. I also see my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is hoping to make a brief contribution to the debate.

Why am I raising this subject now? It has become a problem because of what the previous Government did in their dying months of office. Immigration became a rising political topic as we got closer to the general election, and the previous Government, in an attempt to be seen to be doing something, did the old civil service Sir Humphrey thing: “We must do something; this is something, so let’s do it.” They changed the criteria on the requirement for competence in the English language that was needed for someone to come to Britain to study English. They also changed the student visa arrangements so that such a person had to return to their country of origin to extend their visa.

I wish to draw attention not just to the question of the English language schools and the employment that they generate in Bournemouth and Poole, but to the welcome additional earnings in the household budgets of the host families who welcome students into their home, and to the boost to the local economy when students’ family and friends come to visit, stay in local hotels and use local restaurants. Professor Fletcher of Bournemouth university has estimated that they contribute more than £200 million to the local economy in the Bournemouth and Poole area.

Then there is the matter that one probably cannot quantify: those who have come to Britain to learn English have a great affection and affinity for Britain which will stand our country in great stead in the years ahead, when they return and enter businesses. The right hon. Lord King visited me during the election campaign and relayed the story of an Egyptian Defence Minister who, on his first night on a visit to Britain, did not want to go out to dinner with the then Secretary of State for Defence because he wanted to go and see his old landlady, for whom he had great affection. We cannot put a price on such things, but they are of enormous benefit.

The previous Government were right to recognise that there was a problem with some bogus schools, and they put in place measures to try to deal with them. Prior to the introduction of the points-based system, it was estimated that up to 50,000 students could be using the student visa system as a way of staying in the United Kingdom illegally. In April 2009 they introduced the new system, which forced schools to gain Government accreditation and led to the closure of several thousand bogus language schools. Great strides were made in tightening up the system.

On 12 November 2009, only months after the system was put in place, the then Prime Minister ordered a review of it due to concerns about those coming in to study at below degree level. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Mr Woolas) said about that on 11 December 2009:

“I would like to make it absolutely clear that no firm decisions as to whether and what changes ought to be made to Tier 4 have yet been taken. The responses we have received from all parts of the education sector have suggested that there is the potential for some of the broader review questions to affect the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for study if they are implemented. Damaging the education sector is not the aim of the review.”

However, the reality is that the outcome of the review has done just that.

I wish to go into some detail about what the change to the English language requirement has done. I shall quote a letter from my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Eden, who posed a simple question to my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration on 20 May. He wrote:

“The simple question that needs to be answered is how are students that are coming to this country to learn English supposed to be able to qualify in English language proficiency in order to receive a student visa?”

It is not just a very basic understanding of English that they require. The definition of B1 competence, which is the equivalent of about an A* GCSE, is that a student can

“understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.”

It seems to me that if someone is able to do all that, they are pretty fluent and would not necessarily need to enrol themselves on an English language course. We are saying to students, “Learn English so you can qualify to come here to study and learn English in Britain.” It is painfully ridiculous.

The other matter on which problems arise for the language schools is their dealings with the UK Border Agency. Institutions and students have found it difficult to communicate with the agency. One student trying to negotiate the application process said they had found that the

“UK staff provide conflicting information or are unable to answer queries regarding classification of guidance which does more than simply repeat the existing regulations.”

Hon. Members might recognise some of that in another organisation with which we have had dealings in recent weeks closer to home, but I shall not derail myself by going into that.

The UK Border Agency failed to carry out any impact assessments before implementing the changes, and that was extremely damaging. Under pressure from its flawed system in April 2009, it was obviously anxious to be seen to be robust and proactive, but that meant increasing frustration on the part of the English language schools, which are now responsible under the licensing arrangements for their students’ whereabouts. One college in Bournemouth, Anglo-Continental, which is led by Guido Schillig and has existed since the 1930s, gave an example of that. Guido Schillig is responsible for his students’ whereabouts, yet the UK Border Agency would not tell him whether a student had arrived in the United Kingdom. The situation is grossly unfair.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration met a delegation of local language schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole can probably enlighten the House about that if he contributes to the debate shortly. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration said that the previous Government had used a sledgehammer not simply to crack a nut but to smash entirely the wrong object.

There is a point to make about the number of students who come to the United Kingdom, learn English in the language schools and progress to higher education. My constituency of Bournemouth West contains the whole of Bournemouth university, which was rated by The Guardian—I give The Guardian credit; I would not normally do that—as Britain’s No. 1 new university. It has a regular flow of new students from Bournemouth’s language schools who move on to degree-level qualifications.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) will acknowledge that we do not operate in a vacuum. There is global competition for language schools. Obviously, people can go to New Zealand or Canada, and if they want to learn to speak English badly, they can go to America. The principal relationship is between the agents who place the students and the schools. Those agents are now considering the difficulties that face students who come to this country and are already exploring relationships with language schools in other parts of the world. If we allow the relationships to be severed, we will inflict a terrible and grievous wound on the UK English language schools sector.

I hope that the Home Office will continue to review the changes that the previous Government implemented. We can learn much from other countries and how they handle matters. I am not standing here simply to complain about the previous Government’s actions because that is futile. The coalition has an opportunity to review much of that and find other solutions. For example, we could move to a bond system—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration examined that before the election—whereby the student pays an up-front sum of money, which would make absconding much less likely. We could have an assessment level, whereby we examined the risks posed by students from particular risk countries, and we could have a classification system, whereby we perhaps relaxed the rules for others.

The changes that the previous Government made are having a profoundly worrying and detrimental effect on businesses in my constituency and throughout the country. I hope that the Under-Secretary will examine all the alternatives because we can be proud of the English language schools sector. The English language is one of our greatest assets. English is the language of world commerce, and if we shut off the ability of those schools to thrive, to welcome people to our shores and to enable them to immerse themselves in our language, our culture and our values, in time we will look back and realise that we made a very fundamental mistake.

Order. Has the Minister been notified that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) or any other Member wishes to speak?

Two other hon. Members apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) have spoken to me. I have indicated that, with your consent, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would be happy for them to speak in the time allowed, if the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) is also content with that.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I should first apologise for my croaky voice: I spent rather too much of yesterday afternoon shouting at the television.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) on what was, frankly, a very classy maiden speech. I hope that it will be the first of many conventions that he will overturn. I also declare an interest, in that I have spent, it seems, quite a lot of the past six months helping a young Israeli friend of mine try to navigate his way through the bureaucratic, Kafkaesque nightmare that is the process of applying for a tier 4 general student visa—and it is just that: a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Like my hon. Friend, I support the Government’s attempts to restrain excessive immigration, which has been such a problem in recent years, and in particular—he described this in more detail—the attempt to crack down on abuses by cowboy colleges and gangs that abuse illegal immigrants’ desire to get into this country. However, I believe that the previous Government’s approach was wholly misconceived. Instead of focusing ruthlessly on closing down the cowboy colleges that are colluding in fraud, they resorted to a process of ever-shifting bureaucratic meddling, in order to make the application process as complicated as possible.

I would like to give a specific example. I believe that I have a reasonable command of my mother tongue. I also have two degrees from moderately okay universities—one in this country and one in the United States—but it took me literally hours to help my friend fill out those forms and understand the supporting documentation that was required.

I will give hon. Members one example. Any student has to demonstrate—quite rightly—that they have enough funds to maintain themselves while they remain in the UK. The current requirement is for them to produce a bank statement showing that they have the funds in their bank account back home for 30 days. That is fair enough—I do not think that any of us would complain about that—but the bank statement has to be stamped by the bank, even though it is a statement from the bank. However, the statement does not have to be just stamped by the bank; it has to be signed by the bank manager. And that is not all: the statement also has to list the equivalent amounts in the account in sterling, and applicants can use only one website for that.

My hon. Friend has made the point that English is our greatest asset and our greatest competitive advantage. We must change the system, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do what he can to help.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) on making a characteristically strong case for his constituents. He will be a powerful advocate for his constituents and I look forward to working with him.

I had a debate at the end of the previous Parliament on the same topic. It is vital that we get a quick resolution to the problem, before students are diverted to other schools and this country loses millions of pounds, loses jobs and loses a great opportunity for what is a world-beating industry, if we remove the bureaucracy. Of course we need a firm immigration system, but it has to be fair, and we have to be fair to the language schools so that they can do their business.

I will be extremely brief. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) for securing this debate and making an excellent speech. I want to add my support, because the problem is serious in Cambridge and elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) has tabled early-day motion 140, which is about English language schools and has attracted a lot of support.

I hope that the Minister will deal with the problem seriously. English UK estimates that there are 3,500 jobs at stake, with £400 million in schools and £1 billion in universities, plus the advantages to the households that look after the people involved. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

Let me say what a pleasure it is to take part in this debate and to have listened to the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). Although his maiden speech might have been unconventional in terms of procedure in this House, it was impressive in style, considered in content and impassioned in delivery. He has shown very clearly by his contribution to the debate what an excellent Member of Parliament he will be for his constituents in Bournemouth West. I wish him all success in the House. I have no doubt at all about the contributions that he will make in the months and years ahead.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) for his contribution. He highlighted a particular case, and although it is difficult to draw conclusions from one case alone, we certainly heard what he had to say and I am sure that, if he provides any further details either to me or to my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, we will look into those matters. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for their contributions. We recognise the importance of language schools and I hope to address some of the points that they raised.

I should also mention that, in a sense, this is my maiden speech as the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. It is rather unconventional to be speaking from the Dispatch Box in that context, but I am proud to represent Old Bexley and Sidcup and I will do my utmost to fulfil the responsibilities that my constituents have placed on me. Although I may not always be able to speak in this Chamber on the full range of topics on their behalf, I will certainly do my utmost to fulfil my duties and to ensure that any matters of concern to them are properly addressed and dealt with.

Let me say at the outset that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West is aware, the English language schools in his constituency—and in the constituencies of my other hon. Friends in their places this evening—are involved in challenging by judicial review some of the changes identified tonight, particularly the minimum level of language study permitted under tier 4. That case is ongoing and is due to be heard next week, so I hope that my hon. Friend and others will appreciate that I may be somewhat limited in my responses on certain points raised this evening.

The Government are committed to attracting the brightest and the best to the UK, which is why we are determined to encourage legitimate students to come here for study. The UK is the second most popular destination for international students—second only to the United States. We must therefore ensure that our immigration system does not inhibit the education sector, which we recognise has to compete in an increasingly competitive global market.

At the same time, we need to ensure that our overall immigration system works to prevent abuse, so the Government are now taking the necessary steps to set a new direction in immigration policy, built on the coalition’s core values of freedom, fairness and responsibility. We face a number of challenges, however, in delivering a safe and strong border, which are made even more pressing by difficult economic times. Immigration must be properly controlled, so that people can have confidence in the system. Our intention to introduce new measures to minimise abuse of the immigration system, including abuse of the student routes, is a priority that was outlined in the coalition’s programme for government.

I do not ignore the fact that the English language industry contributes millions of pounds to the UK’s economy every year. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, English language schools in the UK provide jobs for their staff, while students spend money on fees and books, and generate additional income for their host families. The English language is a global language, and we are, of course, keen to promote the UK as the home of English. We are also acutely aware of the part played by English language schools in preparing overseas students for further and higher education in the UK.

However, in the past there has been significant abuse of the student route, with the previous Government ignoring repeated warnings of the scale of abuse by bogus students and bogus colleges for a number of years. Bogus students were often found applying with forged documentation, not taking up their course of study or dropping out part way through, and working too many hours. The UK Border Agency dealt with bogus colleges that would engage in simple fraud, such as not delivering courses as advertised, if at all, and collaborating with bogus students to facilitate their entry to the UK—in some cases, falsifying education certificates to allow bogus students to prolong their stay in the UK.

Since the launch of the register of education and training providers by the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in January 2005, more than 300 bogus colleges have needed to be removed from that register. The introduction of tier 4, the student route of the points-based system, along with sponsor licensing, has gone some way to addressing the problem of bogus colleges. Under the new system, students are tied to their sponsoring institution and must seek our permission to change institution. We do not think that that is inappropriate, as migrants should keep in contact with us and we need to know if they are no longer studying, as they will be in breach of their student conditions.

Although colleges might find it frustrating that the UK Border Agency does not routinely inform them when a student has entered the UK—this point was raised directly—it is simply not practical when we consider the millions of arrivals at our ports and airports each year. Institutions will know when their sponsorship has been used in a visa application and they will know when their student is expected to arrive. If a student does not do so, it is this exception that must be reported to the UK Border Agency and we will then check whether the student is in the UK and in breach of his or her conditions.

The difficulty remains, however, in identifying those bogus students who have no intention of studying in the UK, but simply seek a route of entry. Such so-called students have no qualms about deceiving bona fide education providers to obtain an offer of a place on a course that will go some way to securing their entry to the UK. Such economic migrants tend to target courses that have little in the way of pre-entry requirements, and English language courses have proven to be particularly susceptible to abuse by non-bona fide students. Between April and November 2009, UK Border Agency data show that almost a third of English language schools licensed under tier 4 voluntarily notified UKBA of more than 1,100 students who had failed to enrol or who had dropped out of their course of study.

The tier 4 student visa can be very attractive to economic migrants because of the generous entitlements that such visas rightly provide to those who wish to study here. The ability to work part-time during term time and full-time during vacations, and to bring family members to the UK, are two important privileges that help us to compete with other countries and attract the brightest and the best to study here. However, the Government are committed to ensuring that such privileges are not abused. We must therefore be sure that there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that the tier 4 requirements are not so abused.

Data collected since the launch of tier 4 showed a surge in the number of applications made under the route, which was certainly a significant change. That increase, coupled with students who had secured entry under tier 4 but failed to enrol on their courses or ceased their studies early, painted a worrying picture. For that reason, changes were introduced from March. As hon. Members will have heard, the minimum level of language study permitted under tier 4 is level B2 of the common European framework of reference for languages. That means that students must be at least proficient to level B1 before they can use tier 4 and enjoy the entitlements that the route confers. Students whose English language ability is not at that level are still permitted to come to the UK to develop it, using the student visitor route, which allows a person to come to the UK for up to six months.

Without wishing to pre-empt the outcome of next week’s judicial review hearing, the Minister for Immigration intends to undertake a thorough evaluation of the student system in the coming weeks and months, to ensure that the measures currently in place strike the right balance between providing a user-friendly route for bona fide students and education providers and keeping out those who would seek to abuse the student system. Let me be clear: the Government want to encourage genuine students who seek to benefit from our world-class education system and to take away knowledge, skills and a sense of our culture, which they can then put to good use in their home countries.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.