[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered TOEIC visa cancellations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I place on record my enormous thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who has put in a huge amount of hard work, not least in helping us to secure the debate. If he were not attending the Offensive Weapons Bill Committee, which unfortunately clashes, he would have been with us for the duration.
We are here to discuss Britain’s forgotten immigration scandal, which has seen thousands of international students wrongly deported and tens of thousands more left in limbo. Their lives have been plunged into chaos by a Government who have effectively branded them all cheats, defied the principles of natural justice and created a hostile environment for international students. In 2014, BBC’s “Panorama” uncovered evidence of widespread cheating at testing centres delivering the test of English for international communication—the TOEIC—on behalf of the Home Office for non-European economic area students as part of the tier 4 visa. It discovered that, in some colleges, exam invigilators read the correct answers to students or supplied proxies to sit sections of the test. The provider administering the tests, Educational Testing Service, claimed that 33,725 people who took the test used a proxy, and it suspected a further 22,694 instances of fraud.
That abuse on such a scale was allowed to take place at a Home Office-approved provider was clearly a source of political embarrassment for the Government and the Home Secretary of the day, who is now our Prime Minister. When immigration system abuse goes unchecked and unchallenged, it undermines public confidence in the system and the Government responsible for it. When individuals are found to be cheating the system, it is right that their visas are cancelled and they are asked to leave the country. When providers are found to be failing in their responsibility to ensure that tests are fairly and properly delivered, it is right that they are removed from the list of approved providers.
Cheating cannot be condoned or excused—there is no disagreement about that. The Minister comes to this issue with a fresh pair of eyes, and therein lies an opportunity to reflect on what has gone wrong and put right a terrible injustice. What we have seen in the TOEIC scandal is a Home Office response so appalling that it was described by one immigration tribunal judge as
“so unfair and unreasonable as to amount to an abuse of power.”
The 22,694 students whose test results had been deemed questionable because ETS had “limited confidence” in the tests’ validity due to of administrative irregularity were permitted to sit a new secure English language test. When the Minister responds, I hope she will tell us how many of those students were required to pay for those new tests and, crucially, what the outcomes of those tests were.
For those whose test results were deemed invalid by ETS, the Home Office relied on the assurances of an untrustworthy provider to presume the guilt of tens of thousands of international students without properly considering the merits of individual cases or giving those students an opportunity to defend their innocence. According to figures obtained by the House of Commons Library, by the end of September 2016—the last time the Home Office published any figures related to such cases—more than 35,870 visa holders had had their visas refused or curtailed on the basis of the TOEIC test. More than 3,600 of those had received an enforcement visit and more than 4,600 had been subjected to removal from the country.
I give way to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes).
Like me, my hon. Friend has been contacted by constituents who have been subjected to this outrageous behaviour, so he will know that many people are distraught and have had their whole futures destroyed by these administrative measures. Is it not a fact that this a bigger scandal than Windrush in terms of the number of individuals removed from the country and whose livelihoods are being destroyed by anguish and despair? In many cases, they are labelled as cheats when they are not.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend could be here before returning to the main Chamber to consider the important matter of Brexit. I strongly agree and he is absolutely correct. The injustice is grave and the numbers affected are huge. This scandal should have been plastered on the front page of every national newspaper. It is bad enough that those students have been denied access to justice through appeal. They should have been given at least some sense of justice through the disinfectant of sunlight.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for his work on this subject. I suspect that a number of Members in the Chamber have, like me, had a series of affected constituents approach them. Given the seriousness of what has happened in the Home Office in the past—never mind that the Minister is new to the subject—does he think that this new scandal merits a proper, thorough independent inquiry?
I strongly agree. In fact, when I come to describe the Home Office’s handling of this, we will see that an independent inquiry is necessary.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. Does he agree that, as well as the incredible social injustice that has happened under this Government’s watch, the reputational impact that families have suffered, which has led to depression and affected whole families, including children, demands an extensive apology and potential compensation? Does he also agree that the huge cost to the taxpayer of enforcement action and otherwise should be investigated?
I strongly agree and will talk in some detail about those issues. The UK is highly regarded around the world as a country that has respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary. It also has a Government who are supposed to respect that rule of law, but in too many cases I am afraid we have seen blanket decisions and people deported without an opportunity to defend their innocence. I believe the Government have acted unlawfully and I am afraid that this country’s reputation for respect, access to justice and upholding the rule of law is not warranted in this case.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He said that this issue has not commanded the media attention of Windrush, yet the numbers of those directly affected in recent years are well in excess of that scandal, and it has been going on for at least four years now. Given that there has been a “Panorama” programme, a Sunday Times exposé and a Guardian report, does he have an opinion on why it has not commanded media attention like the Windrush scandal?
I am grateful for that intervention. There is some complexity—as I acknowledged, there is no doubt whatsoever that some cheating took place, which is clearly serious—but we must distinguish, and allow students to distinguish, between those who committed genuine wrongdoing and who deserve to be punished, and those who have been caught up in a scandal not of their making. That is the distinction I wish to draw in the debate, which the Home Office has failed to do. In the vast majority of cases, students were told that they had no right to appeal in the UK and that they should leave the country.
The experiences of students whose test results were deemed invalid by ETS varied considerably depending on when the Home Office took action and where those students were at the time. The hideous complexity I have alluded to is thrown into sharp relief by an excellent briefing by the National Union of Students, with the support of Bindmans. In some cases, it appears that the Home Office directed further and higher education institutions to withdraw students from their course of study and told students that they had 60 days to find a new sponsoring institution or to leave the country. Of course, having effectively been blacklisted by ETS and the Government, they invariably failed to do so. By handling cases in this way, the Home Office placed students outside the usual immigration processes without the right to appeal either in country or out of country.
That approach was found to be unlawful by the upper tribunal in the case of Mohibullah. The Minister should tell the House how many students fell into that category and what steps the Home Office has taken in light of the judgment in that case to contact other students who were similarly mistreated and, most importantly, to reassure the House that such an attempt to circumvent properly agreed immigration processes will never happen again.
Students who were outside the UK at the time of Home Office action, who received notices informing them of the allegations against them upon their return to the UK prior to 6 April 2015, were served with notices at airports and prevented from resuming their studies pending their appeal from within the UK. In some cases, students were subjected to interview and detention. For many students, that led to the end of their studies. However, the NUS,
“understands that in each and every case won by a student the Home Office appealed the outcome”.
The NUS also asserts that, where the appeals process led to a successful outcome for students,
“the Home Office has been slow to provide a remedy”
to the student concerned, effectively leaving them in “limbo”.
Is that right? Did the Home Office really drag every single case in this category through the upper tribunal and onward to the court of appeal? Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many cases we are talking about, how many appeals were successful and how much this lengthy process has cost the taxpayer. It is only reasonable to ask how long it takes, following the successful conclusion of an appeal, for the Home Office to ensure that successful appellants are given the right to remain in the UK.
For students who were in the UK at the time of Home Office action, their right to appeal varied according to when the action took place. From 6 April 2015, students were subjected to rules under the Immigration Act 2014, which removed the right to appeal, with only limited exceptions for human rights arguments deemed worthy by the Home Office. Prior to 6 April 2015, students were served with section 10 notices under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Effectively branded cheats by Her Majesty’s Government, they were told to leave the UK immediately, and that they could only appeal from their country of origin. The students took their fight for an in-country appeal to the courts. In the case of Ahsan v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of students’ right to appeal in the UK, finding that an out-of-country appeal was an inadequate legal remedy.
How much did that cost the taxpayer? How much of the UK taxpayer’s money has the Home Office wasted in trying to stop students gaining proper access to the appeal to which they are entitled? Schools in my constituency are sending begging letters to parents to meet the cost of basic materials. I have countless examples of people having to fight tooth and nail to get social care for their elderly parents. I have community policing that only exists on paper and in the speeches of politicians because the Home Office has cut police budgets; but apparently the Home Office has a bottomless pit when it comes to dragging international students through lengthy, costly and pointless legal action.
In response to a written parliamentary question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), claimed that he was unable to tell the House how much public money has been spent on court fees involving TOEIC cases,
“because Home Office data systems are unable to disaggregate costs”.
That tells us quite a lot about cost control and value for money deliberations in the Home Office. Ministers should know how much this has cost, and they should be accountable to taxpayers for it.
What we have seen through those cases has made it clear before the courts and tribunals that innocent students have been wrongly caught up in a scandal that was not of their making. I am enormously grateful to Garden Court Chambers for the thorough briefing it provided to hon. Members in advance of this debate, to give us some examples. When the scandal was exposed by “Panorama”, the Home Office’s response was to delegate the identification of those who used a proxy to ETS. The very organisation that had failed to properly oversee the test centres—the organisation the Government had deemed unworthy of Government accreditation—was none the less entirely trusted, it seems, to oversee this process.
You can see the logic.
Absolutely; it beggars belief. But do not worry, folks, because the Home Office ensured that two senior officials had oversight of the process. That was hugely reassuring—until, of course, those same Home Office officials responsible for supervising the process gave evidence before the president of the immigration tribunal, a senior High Court judge. His criticism was remarkable, and I am sure the House will indulge me while I read what he said in the course of judging that case. I will not name the officials, because they do not have the right to reply. The shambolic mess of the Home Office tells us that it is probably not their individual responsibility, and the judge said in the case of both those senior officials that they gave truthful evidence.
However, the judge also said that,
“this neither counterbalances nor diminishes the shortcomings in their testimony.”
“Neither witness has any qualifications or expertise, vocational or otherwise, in the scientific subject matter of these appeals, namely voice recognition technology and techniques…In making its decisions in individual cases, the Home Office was entirely dependent on the information provided by ETS. At a later stage viz from around June 2014 this dependency extended to what was reported by its delegation which went to the United States…ETS was the sole arbiter of the information disclosed and assertions made to the delegation. For its part, the delegation—unsurprisingly, given its lack of expertise—”
this is what the judge said—
“and indeed, the entirety of the Secretary of State’s officials and decision makers accepted uncritically everything reported by ETS.”
This is absolute amateur hour at the Home Office. How on earth, in a case of this nature, involving fraud and electronic tests, would someone at the Home Office—probably paid a significant amount of money at our expense—ensure that there was adequate expertise to properly judge, in life-changing decisions about individuals, whether the evidence presented was enough to deny them their right to study in the UK? It is outrageous; coupled with the fact that these people have in many cases been deported on the basis of this flimsy evidence, it is disgraceful. The whole process was also subjected to stinging criticisms by three independent experts, who gave evidence to the tribunal—again, before a senior High Court judge.
In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, one of those experts, summarising the report of the three, said:
“We agreed that in any one testing session there could be a mix of genuine applicants and those who were paying for fraudulent results.”
He also said:
“It seems reasonable to conclude that the ‘ETS lists’ are not a reliable indicator of whether or not a student…cheated.”
Patrick Lewis, an immigration barrister with Garden Court Chambers, told the Financial Times:
“The highly questionable quality of the evidence upon which these accusations have been based and the lack of any effective judicial oversight have given rise to some of the greatest injustices”,
that he had,
“encountered in over 20 years of practice”.
In the case of one of my own constituents I have seen this gross injustice for myself. He is one of the students whose test results were deemed invalid by ETS. He had to fight tooth and nail to get basic details of the allegations against him. When he requested the audio clip that had been used to brand him a cheat, it was discovered that there were two tests associated with him—two tests, involving my constituent, that are meant to have taken place at precisely the same time. This student came to the UK having already completed the highly respected International English Language Testing System test with the British Council, yet we are supposed to believe that he felt it necessary to cheat his way through the TOEIC test.
The decision has thrown his life into chaos, which is how I arrived on this issue. He is unable to complete his studies and get on with his life. His mental health has suffered. He is worried about his reputation back home, fearful that he will be considered a cheat because that is what the British Government has determined on the basis of this shambolic process. The irony is that the reputations of innocent international students are in tatters because around the world the United Kingdom is respected as a beacon of democracy and the rule of law, but what we see here is an affront to the principles of natural justice, with innocent students removed from our country without first giving them an opportunity to respond to the allegations against them. It is a disgrace. It should never have happened. There should be not only a fulsome apology, but immediate action to put this right. The family, friends and community back home of my constituent should be in no doubt about his innocence. I have no doubt about his innocence, and if our Government think otherwise they should meet the burden of proof and demonstrate his guilt.
My constituent is not alone. A Migrant Voice report reveals just how devastating this scandal has been to the lives of the international students caught up in all this, and we have heard them speak here in this very Parliament. They came to the UK, at considerable cost to themselves and their families, with the hope of experiencing a good education in a country renowned for its world-class universities. They have been robbed of that opportunity. They have been denied access to work, spent all their savings, relied on handouts from their family and friends and racked up debts in the battle to clear their name in a David v. Goliath contest, with poor old David cobbling together what he can to fund his legal action and Goliath funded by the taxpayer to unnecessarily drag these students through the courts. They have lost their right to rent. Their relationships have been placed under considerable strain. They have suffered mental ill health, heart troubles, hyperthyroidism and other stress-related conditions. All they want is the chance to clear their name, complete their studies and get on with their life and career.
Universities UK today published an excellent report about the importance of the contribution that international students make to the UK, not just to the economy but to our culture, enriching the educational experience of everyone at our world-class universities. I wholly endorse what Universities UK says about making it easier for students who come to this country to gain work experience after they graduate. However, how can we possibly expect the Government to take up such sensible recommendations when they treat students who are already here in such a disgraceful way? Universities across the world—in North America and Australia—are going hell for leather to grab the UK’s coveted place in the international student market and the Home Office is allowing them to run riot, diminishing our standing in the world and our ability to attract the very best students.
The Home Office and ETS—the grubby contractor at the centre of this scandal—have serious questions to answer about their conduct in all this. It is clear that the Home Office is persisting with creating a hostile environment for international students, hoping that, by dragging it out for as long as possible, it will cause students to simply give up and go home. The judicial criticism of senior civil servants’ and the Home Office’s approach should be a source of professional embarrassment for everyone involved; it is a global embarrassment to our country.
Prior to the summer, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham asked the Minister, and then the Home Secretary, to ensure that students whose visas were cancelled for allegedly cheating in the TOEIC test be allowed to sit a new test to resume their studies. On both occasions he was informed that that was being carefully considered, and that advice was being sought.
In closing, I offer some advice. We are now four years on from the “Panorama” investigation, and the Government have had long enough. Let these students sit their tests. Let them clear their names. Let them get on with their lives.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.30 pm. Simple mathematics demonstrates that the four Back-Bench Members who wish to speak should confine their remarks to eight or nine minutes each, which will allow each Member an adequate amount of time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I congratulate him not only on securing the debate but on his excellent introduction, which set the scene for why the debate is necessary. I join him in expressing appreciation of our right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his role in making sure that the Government keep having to address questions on this issue.
I will speak briefly on behalf of several of my constituents who have emailed me and who have been living in limbo since 2014. They all have different issues. They have each experienced different reporting restrictions. One was detained at one point for eight days. They have been denied in-country appeals. They have all experienced stress, causing health pressures, and sometimes mental health pressures, which has extended to their families, who are uncertain about their futures and those of their children.
In addition, their inability to access the benefits system while simultaneously being refused a work permit is completely unfair. How are people expected to survive for years without access to work and if the Government are not allowing them to exist, given that the Government have decided to place them in such a position? This has been going on for four years. They risk being driven into the black economy and rely entirely on the charity of friends and family, with pressure then transferred on to the budgets, which are sometimes meagre, of those friends and family who try to look after people in this predicament.
The Library briefing was very helpful in explaining the background and the extensive and outrageous fraud exposed by “Panorama” and The Sunday Times. The cheats and the cheating obviously need to be addressed, and I entirely understand that the Government need to look at that, but it seems that, following those investigations and legal action, some Home Office responses have been questionable and even open to challenge. For example, the Library briefing says that
“the Home Office may have erroneously cancelled a significant number of visas”
and mistakenly deported thousands of people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North said, and that the Court of Appeal found that out-of-country appeals were not adequate.
I will be grateful if the Minister addresses those criticisms and challenges and, more importantly, if she gives us a timeline for when those outstanding decisions, as a result of parliamentary questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, will be made. The Government clearly said that they are looking at these matters, but we are yet to hear a clear indication of when those decisions might be made.
My office has been contacted by a number of constituents who had their visas curtailed in 2014 and have since been denied permission to work and refused access to public funds. One told me that he could not complete his studies at Shakespeare College. A second told me that he was studying at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, spending his entire life savings to do so in an attempt to better his future. Instead he now lives in poverty, debt and uncertainty. A third was due to study business and marketing at Anglia Ruskin University in London. A fourth came to study business studies at the London School of Commerce in 2010. The Home Office curtailed his visa in 2014 and, since that cancellation, he has lost the £20,000 he paid for his studies and more than £15,000 in legal fees.
Some advocate an open-door immigration policy. I do not subscribe to that point of view. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North outlined, our educational institutions are in the international marketplace trying to attract students. We want them to come here. We want their money. We want them to become friends of the UK, and if we need them for their skills and qualifications, we would hope to encourage them to stay. The least we want is for them to go home with a positive view of the United Kingdom. That is soft diplomacy in action and it will hopefully last.
We currently have the worst of all outcomes. Not only are people wrongly deported and denied basic liberties; they are also in limbo, with no hope, no means with which to live and/or provide for their families and no indication of when the Home Office will sort this out. There have been disagreements in Government for years about whether to count students in the immigration statistics, and this is partly a result of that indecision. It is surely time to get a grip, and I hope the Minister is the person to do so. I hope to hear positive comments from her on how the Home Office will sort out the decent people caught up in this mess and what it intends to do to help them and to allow them to get on with their lives.
It is good to be back here and speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I hope hon. Members and all members of staff have had a fabulous holiday and have come back rested. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this debate. I echo his words about my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his valuable work on this campaign. I also pay tribute to Migrant Voice and, above all, those who have bravely spoken out about their experiences at the hands of the Home Office.
When the BBC aired the “Panorama” exposé about the test of English for international communication, the Home Office responded severely. It cancelled or refused visas for over 40,000 people in 2014 and 2015 alone. In a display of extraordinary cold bureaucracy—nowhere near natural justice—it prevented many of those students from appealing the decisions. Applicants were simply told that their claims were clearly unfounded. Cases were rushed through. The burden of proof fell on the defendants. The Home Office has admitted that much of the evidence against the students was “shaky”. These cases should have been reopened but were not. Like other hon. Members, I have been contacted again and again by constituents who have suffered utter humiliation because of this scandal. I want to give voice to a couple of those constituents’ stories today.
One man—I will call him Mr M—arrived in the UK in 2009. He undertook the International English Language Testing System exam before coming to the country, on which he scored a grade 6, which is defined as competent use of English. Mr M completed his undergraduate degree in business at the University of Sunderland and was pursuing his masters degree when he was summoned by the head of the business school about the TOEIC allegations. He undertook a 45-minute interview with the head of the business school along with his student manager. They bizarrely concluded that his level of English was proficient—who would have thought it! They left him to continue his degree.
Despite that, later that year, Mr M had his visa revoked by the Home Office on the basis of alleged cheating in the TOEIC test. As a result, he suspended his studies. In the years since he has repeatedly tried to appeal the allegations against him without success. The university has claimed the rest of his tuition fees, though he is not yet permitted to study there. He has spent his parents’ money as well as his own fighting legal battles and is now dependent on his uncle to support him. He has no right to rent or to work. He has told me that he has considered suicide. Four years of this young life have been wasted fighting a complicated and damaging legal battle over a one-year course—it is a travesty.
Another constituent of mine—I will call him Mr S—has a similar story. He came to study in 2009. He completed an undergraduate and a masters degree in business, the latter from a college of the University of Wales. In 2014, Mr S’s student visa was extended to permit him to specialise through postgraduate studies in business skills for the social care sector at the London School of Technology. In 2015, without any warning, the Home Office cancelled his leave to remain, on allegations of cheating in his TOEIC exam. Like Mr M, he struggled to appeal the decision, spending £20,000 over three years, slowly building up debts to family and friends all the while. For the last few years, he has attended the reporting centre every fortnight where he says he feels like a criminal. His relations with his family back home have been severely tested. They believe he won his degree through dishonesty. “Above all,” he says:
“I want our dignity back.”
Who can blame him? In both cases my constituents told me that they are yet to see a single shred of evidence against them.
Probably the most upsetting story I have heard so far is from a constituent who had completed his studies and was living with his British wife and child. They met while he was studying. He has been in the UK for almost 11 years. When the TOEIC revelations emerged, he was asked to sit a different test. After successfully completing a language test called English for Speakers of Other Languages—ESOL—his visa application was accepted. Despite that, one day he was dragged from his bed at 6 am. He was not given a chance to say goodbye to his wife and was detained for several days, unable to contact her. The Home Office justified this treatment on the basis that he had obtained his leave to remain through “deception”. His right to work has been suspended, he is speeding towards bankruptcy and he certainly has not got the money to pay for more proceedings. Like the others, he has had to borrow thousands of pounds from friends to pay legal fees. He now lives in constant fear of a knock on the door.
I could go on—I have a number of cases—but time is short. I am not the first to compare the dreadful mishandling of the TOEIC cases to the scandalous mistreatment of the Windrush generation. There are differences, but in both cases people have been separated from their families, detained and deported, their assets are stripped away and their sources of income removed. Some become homeless. In both cases, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Home Office. Our constituents undertook tests run by the Educational Testing Service, a body approved and licenced by the Home Office. They should not be punished for doing something like that. It is shameful and unacceptable that this is going on.
My constituents and all of those affected by this treatment need to be retested fairly. At the very least they deserve an apology. This is an issue of justice and it is crucial for universities, our exports and our economy. International student numbers are now growing far faster in the US, Canada and Australia than here. It is easy see why. This is about our international reputation, how we are seen and how we see ourselves. The Home Secretary has been hesitant to express his support for migration targets. I hope that that shows us that change is coming.
Moving on by treating each group as an exception will not do. First Windrush, now TOEIC. Who is next? I have spoken before about trust. This Government’s hostile environment has destroyed trust for so many, especially in constituencies such as mine, where we are blessed with diverse communities, where our lives have been repeatedly enriched by migration. The Confederation of British Industry has recommended abolishing migration targets after Brexit, but this is about more than just business. It is about our fundamental values and justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this important debate. I reiterate the thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who is not here, for all his work, and to the many others who have spoken passionately.
When I was on the Home Affairs Committee, we took evidence from many students. I was part of the evidence session when students came to give evidence about the impact this had on their lives. That impact continues. It is no laughing matter. One wonders what to do when one hears such raw evidence. We have just had the urgent question on Windrush. There appears to be a shadow hanging over the Home Office today. We have seen that for quite a while in relation to the hostile environment. At the end of my speech, I will ask some questions I hope the Minister can answer.
The hostile environment policy has extended to students. The Home Secretary has committed to move away from this shameful discrimination and has taken steps to offer remedy to the Windrush generation, which has suffered greatly. We are still waiting, however, for the Government to offer a concrete resolution to those unfairly affected by the TOEIC scandal. In many cases, the Government continue to fight judicially against individuals who have been accused. Financing such appeals brings to mind a bottomless pit, especially given what we have heard this week, which the shadow Home Secretary has responded to. Given the recent legal judgments that have lambasted the Government and ETS for failing to present any real evidence to support their actions, it is clear that many of those affected were treated unfairly, denied all natural justice and deemed guilty until proven innocent.
Some 56,000 students were accused of deception or potential deception while sitting the test—36,000 of them had action taken against them in one way or another by the Home Office, including the immediate cancellation of their visas. They were not given the evidence against them nor the chance to clear their name, and they received no help to survive legally in this country. They were simply told to go home.
To compound that appalling situation, many students were not even given the opportunity to contest the decision against them, even though they had been promised a chance to do so. The out-of-country appeal route that they were offered was effectively non-existent and it was certainly not robust enough to resolve the kinds of issues that these individuals had endured. Many of them would not have been able to access the relevant evidence against them, so they could not be involved in the hearings or give evidence themselves due to the unsatisfactory nature of the process.
In truth, it would have been better for those accused to have faced criminal charges, because at least they would have been entitled to see the evidence against them and contest it. However, the Home Office simply cancelled their visas, forcing them to leave the country or live in poverty with the accusations against them hanging over their heads, with some people wanting to hang themselves.
As the Home Office was well aware, when a visa was cancelled because of alleged fraud it was impossible for those affected to travel to any other country to study or work. In effect, the Home Office is responsible for curtailing not only people’s immediate livelihoods but the whole future for themselves and their family, not just in the country they had come from and that they had to return to with their heads hung in shame after being accused of fraud and cheating, but in any other country—they could not go to another country because they had been defamed by our country and our Government. If visas were cancelled because of alleged fraud, it was impossible for those affected to travel to other countries to study or work.
We must remind ourselves at every stage of this debate that, based on the evidence available to us, potentially thousands of people who were here perfectly legally and who had followed the Home Office’s rules will have faced untold misery. The collective punishment approach of the Government has been shown for what it is—deeply toxic, unfair and unjust. It has potentially ruined the lives of thousands of individuals who acted according to the rules. They placed their trust in a Government-approved and Government-sanctioned test, and the response of the Government has been to treat them with contempt at every step of the process.
The Home Office has clearly been too eager to accept the analysis of the Educational Testing Service. There is clear evidence of mislabelling and misattributing the voice recordings to the wrong individual or the wrong test centre. When those recordings have been disclosed to an applicant, they have invariably turned out to be wrong, but there has been no system in place to allow for the cross-checking of tests.
Experts, including those employed by the Home Office itself, have highlighted a number of ways in which students could have been deceived by the test centres themselves and proxies used without their knowledge or involvement. In any other situation, this would make those students victims and not criminals, but the Government continue to disregard both the expert advice and judicial judgments. Instead, they rely on the evidence provided by the fraudulent test centres themselves to decide on the guilt of individual students. Those test centres had a monopoly on testing, which reminds me of the Carillion fiasco—the Government often seem to be involved in such fiascos.
This is a clearly flawed process that has turned lives upside down, but still the Government persist and still they rely on unreliable evidence. Has there been any real attempt by the Home Office to understand how many people have been unfairly accused? Do we know the number of people who are involved? I would be interested to hear the Minister say how many students were able to retake their tests and how many were deported.
Although we recognise that there was fraud within the system of Home Office certified tests and testing centres, we must also acknowledge that potentially thousands of innocent applicants had their lives ruined for doing nothing more serious than unwittingly choosing the wrong test centre, and they now have no way of remedying that accident of fate. Fate led them to this country. They and their parents might have spent years and years saving up money to send them to a British institution to receive a degree from one of our universities that would qualify them to work anywhere in the world with its British “brand” of authenticity. And yet Britain failed them.
What resolution are the Government prepared to offer those students? After failures in court, will the Government continue to fight these individuals, or are they at least willing to listen and try to find a solution? Will there be a pot of compensation money for those who have been proven to have been mistreated by this Government? Will the Government finally commit to allowing these individuals the tools they need to have a fair and just chance of clearing their name, or will they continue with a decision that was politically expedient due to its “hostile character”, which victimises those who may only be guilty of being in an unfortunate circumstance?
In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister. First, did these numbers contribute to the targets that were set by the Home Office? The targets I am referring to relate to the resignation of a previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). Secondly, will the Minister now take this opportunity to apologise for Home Office mistakes? Such an apology was rightly offered to the Windrush generation and one should be offered to these students, who have been affected by the Government’s failure, the Government’s monopoly and the Government’s unfairness.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this debate, and I congratulate him and other colleagues who have covered many of the core issues that are important to this debate; I will try not to repeat all those excellent points, because they have already been made. I thank Migrant Voice for the briefing that it has provided for our debate today.
It strikes me that the TOEIC issue is yet another example of the hostile environment that has been created by the immigration section of the Home Office in recent years. It certainly affects many of my constituents. Like other Members who are here today, I represent constituents who come from many diaspora communities—some short-term and some long-term.
An urgent question on Windrush was asked in Parliament earlier today by the shadow Home Secretary. Other examples of the hostile environment include section 322(5) of the immigration rules; the removal of appeal rights for many applicants; the exorbitant cost of applications; and delays, often lasting years, in making decisions. Most worrying of all—I see this in my surgery week in, week out—are completely bizarre and arbitrary reasons for the refusal of perfectly reasonable applications to come here to visit or live, or for leave to remain, or for citizenship. It is a completely unacceptable environment, and it is not just about Windrush.
Immigration policies and processes must be fair and transparent; they should also benefit the UK and the countries that migrants come from. I want to give as an example one of my constituents; he is not a student, but he has still been hit by the TOEIC issue. Back in December 2012, he applied for a visa as a tier 1 entrepreneur migrant. It took a year for his application to be refused, and at that hearing in December 2013 he gave oral evidence in English, in the presence of a barrister from the Home Office and a judge of the first-tier tribunal. Nobody at that hearing raised any concerns about his English language ability. The appeal was allowed at that time. My constituent—Mr A—waited for the implementation of that decision. He waited a year and three months, but he was refused on the basis that he had submitted a TOEIC test certificate that was cancelled by the Home Office.
My constituent, Mr A, had a partner in his entrepreneurial team, whom I will call Mr B, who was not a constituent of mine. The TOEIC certificate from Mr B was cancelled by the Home Office, but Mr B was given the opportunity to retake the English language test, whereas Mr A was not. Subsequently, Mr B had his application granted. Why, with two parallel applicants coming into the same situation to work together, was one refused the opportunity to retake the English test and one not? It is important to note that Mr A is competent in English, as in 2010 he passed the IELTS—International English Language Testing System—exam in Pakistan, with a 5.5 band. Like other Members, I have met many of those affected, and all the people I have spoken to have been perfectly able to converse in very clear English. A simple remedy, in the case of any doubt, would be to allow them to retake the English test. I certainly have no doubt about the competency in English of those I have met who have been affected.
I have written to the Home Office with a number of questions. Why does it not allow a retake of the test? Why does it take so long to get a reply, even after a case is won at the first-tier tribunal? As Mr A applied for his visa in 2012 under the old category, why did the Home Office not just grant him an in-country right of appeal according to the law at that time?
My constituent is an entrepreneur, not a student, but there is an impact on all those affected: on students—not just on them personally but on universities—on families and on the UK’s reputation around the world. How does it affect a student’s personal reputation in their home country and community, especially in those areas that have particular respect for British ways and the British state—the Commonwealth countries—when they have to tell their family and community that the British Government have told them they have cheated? These are good people who want to study and work, to bring prosperity both to their own communities and countries and to Britain, yet they have effectively been condemned out of hand by a Government and a country for which they and their communities have deep respect. That is shattering the UK’s reputation as well as shattering lives.
In this country, life has become unbearable for those who have been refused on this basis and cannot study, work or rent—they often have their driving licences removed. They are caught between a rock and a hard place: do they stay here or go home in shame? If they stay they can continue to fight, and that is why we are speaking on their behalf today.
The Government should address a number of recommendations. One thing that I and others have said is: why not just offer a repeat, trustworthy English language test? We should clear the students’ names and remove what is, effectively, a criminal allegation against them. We should put an immediate stop to detention and deportation until a decision is made and a correct process is implemented, and issue clear instructions to universities to reinstate and readmit students and allow them to complete their studies without the need to resubmit costly financial and other evidence for a new visa. In future, universities should have the power to decide on student admissions, including the type of accredited or recognised English language test that is used. The Government should not have been involved in this process. Universities should develop their own processes, including using Skype or other technology to interview students before they leave their country, to ascertain their level of English. For non-student applicants, such as my constituent, there are other ways in which that can be done, but Skype is an obvious opportunity.
Other recommendations include issuing a students’ rights Bill to protect their rights in the event of a university shutting down or a test centre failing or closing, and changing students’ visa sponsorship, so that they get a visa to study for a particular UK university but can transfer it if they need or wish to move university. A recommendation that is relevant not just to this debate, but to many other debates in this place, is to remove students from the cap on net immigration. Those students who have been deported or have had to leave the UK should be given the opportunity to resit the test in their own country and to have their names removed from the allegation list, so that they can get on with their life, go back to studying, take up employment, develop their business and regain their dignity. Finally, students and others who were deported or who have left the UK should be allowed the option to return to complete their studies, their work and their entrepreneurial activity, following the above processes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I would like to point out that I have a personal family interest, more of which I will mention later.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for securing time for this important debate and for his excellent opening contribution. I am also grateful to Migrant Voice for its report entitled, “I want my future back”, and to the National Union of Students for its briefings, as well as the work of Mr Lewis from the Garden Court Chambers, all of which has been referenced by earlier speakers and which highlight the injustices and human costs of the situation. Perhaps those costs were best summed up by the hon. Member for Ilford North when he described the position of those affected as that of being in limbo.
We have heard from a range of speakers. The hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) all made excellent first-hand contributions regarding their constituents. Indeed, I think we are all coming from the same page.
I first encountered TOEIC cases shortly after I was elected in 2015, when I met a native English-speaking—I stress that point—constituent whose indefinite leave to remain application had been refused because he had sat an ETS test. I was disappointed by the Home Office’s handling of the case and by its handling of the process since, and I echo the calls of many Members for an independent inquiry.
I start by stating that it is absolutely clear and not in question that a number of individuals cheated. Such fraud must never be tolerated and those responsible should be prosecuted wherever possible. Given the failings of the US organisation, Educational Testing Service, the Home Office was correct to remove it from the list of approved TOEIC test providers. However, what is in question is the heavy-handed nature of the Government’s response to the cheating, with their revoking of at least 36,000 visas by the end of 2016 when recording stopped, and the estimates of thousands having been falsely accused and deported as a result. The impact on many of those affected has been devastating, with reputations ruined by the allegations of cheating, as well as severe financial hardship, family upheaval and ongoing distress. This is a clear example of the Tories’ hostile environment policy on immigration, and there are serious questions about the process the Home Office followed.
What I cannot understand is why individuals were not simply given the opportunity to redo a TOEIC test at the time, which would have avoided a lot of unnecessary cost and distress for many individuals. Indeed, the right to resit the test is a key recommendation made by Migrant Voice, and one that I endorse. I trust the Minister will address that in her summing up. At the very least, the Home Office should recognise applicants’ right to appeal from within the UK. According to research conducted by Migrant Voice, all those students it questioned stressed the unfairness of not even being given the chance to defend themselves and prove their innocence within the UK. None of the respondents was given an in-country appeal right, while the reality of conditions in the countries of many of the applicants would make it impossible for them to appeal. Most of the students affected are from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and I wonder what the lasting reputational damage to the UK will be. It can be no surprise—I think there is definitely a connection—that the number of student applications from India is barely one third of what is was before this situation arose.
Despite a Court of Appeal ruling, the Home Office continues to insist that applicants must appeal accusations of cheating from abroad via video link and forces them to leave the UK, which is unacceptable. If someone was accused of a criminal offence they would have their day in court with the right to see the evidence against them and the ability to defend themselves, and so should those affected by the TOEIC cancellations. It is a matter of natural justice.
Members might have met my partner, Nadia, who is a regular visitor to Parliament—she is here today—and has given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. She is from India and was falsely accused of cheating having sat an ETS TOEIC test. She had her visa revoked as a result, even though she had never used the test to support her visa applications in the UK. She used the more detailed IELTS—she passed the test on two occasions. She had also qualified with a masters degree in information management in the UK, in English. That did not stop her being accused and arrested. When she was interviewed by an immigration officer, he said that her English was as good as his. It might even be better than mine. She clearly understands English and speaks it well. She often corrects my grammar when she gets advance sight of my press releases and speeches. Unfortunately, the Hansard guys will have to do this one on their own.
Through Nadia, I have gained a real understanding of the personal impact this Home Office policy has had on those affected, and I have met many other victims. Like other speakers today, I have conversed with those affected, who have all done so in perfectly good English. I speak only English, so if they did not, I would not understand them. They have conveyed the trauma of living in fear of arrest and deportation with no way of supporting themselves financially. They have been living on the good grace of friends and relatives, suffering from stress and seeing relatives and loved ones overseas via Skype only. The situation has gone on for three or four years. They all have one simple wish: to clear their names and continue living without the stigma of these allegations.
One of the greatest areas of concern I have relates to the accuracy of the evidence relied upon by the Home Office when revoking visas. The hon. Member for Ilford North has already mentioned Patrick Lewis from Garden Court Chambers, who represented several of the affected claimants and overturned the Home Office’s ruling in each case. He said:
“The highly questionable quality of the evidence upon which these accusations have been based and the lack of any effective judicial oversight have given rise to some of the greatest injustices that I have encountered in over 20 years of practice.”
I would be glad to hear from the Minister about what she plans to do to tackle that injustice.
The Migrant Voice report noted that:
“Some students were accused of cheating in a city or place they have never visited, or of taking the test on a date on which they did not take it. One student who has never ever taken the TOEIC test was among those accused.”
We know that the Home Office instructed ETS to use voice recognition software to check test recordings, but there is a serious credibility issue with the ETS evidence. ETS records for certain students are linked to the wrong test centre or the wrong date. The National Union of Students briefing that was sent to Members highlighted cases where those who had legitimately taken the test had had their recordings deleted. The briefing from Mr Lewis from Garden Court Chambers details the evidence experts gave to an immigration tribunal, and I noted that in every instance of fraud, test centre staff were involved. It seems bizarre that the Home Office continues to trust without question the evidence supplied from ETS while simultaneously having no confidence in ETS to run any future TOEIC tests. It would be far more reasonable to have no confidence in the evidence.
Too many innocents have been affected by the process. They have all suffered severe financial loss. For many, it is not just their own personal loss, but that of their families and members of their community. Even once their immigration status is resolved, they will face difficulty in rebuilding their lives. Imagine what a three or four-year gap in a CV looks like to a potential employer. That is what they face. Given the length of time the cases have taken, these people clearly should have the right to study and work until they are resolved. Fundamentally, everyone should have the ability to challenge the decision. Will the Minister spell out exactly what the Government plan to do to enable those wrongly accused in this process to have their names cleared? I hope the answer is re-testing and giving all applicants the right to appeal within the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for opening the debate in such a powerful and forceful manner. I also thank all other Members who contributed.
The situation of TOEIC students has a long history. The original controversy came to light in 2014, when BBC’s “Panorama” uncovered an unacceptable situation of bogus colleges and fake tests through which people were illegitimately gaining UK visas. There was a crackdown, and the Government revoked or curtailed the visas of thousands of students. We have now reached a point where the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Thousands of innocent students have been victims of the crackdown. A prolonged and unnecessarily hostile legal fight with the Home Office has taken years to reach a settlement. The effect on innocent people caught up in the TOEIC scandal has been catastrophic and constitutes a grave injustice. The Government have not confirmed the numbers, but I have seen estimates that between 4,000 and 7,000 students have been falsely accused of faking their tests and deported.
Four years after the scandal, many students still have no resolution to their cases. For many, their mere presence in the UK was made unlawful. They have been subject to the hostile environment, stripped of the right to study, to work, to find accommodation and to access banking and NHS services. Because the charge is of having engaged in fraud, many students have felt compelled to stay in the UK to clear their names. They are unlikely to obtain entry clearance in the future without removing the charge from their record.
In 2016, the Home Affairs Committee heard from a witness who clearly said that they did not cheat on their English language test. They were arrested, their home was searched and they were taken to prison and made to wait 20 hours until somebody came and told them why they were even there. The combination of a traumatic event like that, followed by years of legal uncertainty over their status, has caused psychological and emotional damage, potentially to thousands.
The TOEIC scandal and the prolonged aftermath expose two wider problems in the Home Office. First, the appeals process is insufficient and is not conducive to swift justice. High fees, the stripping back of appeal rights, the lack of access to legal aid and the hostile environment combine to make it very difficult for people to seek justice and rectify wrong Home Office decisions. Initially, the TOEIC group was only allowed out-of-country appeals. It took a prolonged legal fight to establish that they should have the right to contest the decision in the UK. It is extremely difficult to launch an out-of-country appeal. The technology often does not work and any difficulties can result in a case being postponed for months.
The Financial Times featured the case of a man who emigrated to the UK from Bangladesh. His student visa was suspended over allegations he cheated on an English language test in 2014. He returned to Bangladesh and now faces a two-hour walk to the nearest place where he can use the internet to make an international telephone call. His case has been adjourned until December, leaving him with months of uncertainty before he can clear his name. He described his situation as follows:
“My future is being destroyed here, not only financially but morally”.
In the case of Ahsan, which was decided at the end of 2017, the judges ruled that students who had lived and studied in the UK for a number of years should not be summarily removed from the UK with only an out-of-country appeal. The NUS is aware of at least eight cases currently before the Court of Appeal that are due to be heard in November. Is the Minister aware of any ongoing cases where appellants are not allowed to be in the country? Will she confirm what the Home Office’s approach is to TOEIC appeals? Will the Home Office restore the rights of those appealing while their case is being decided?
The second issue that has been exposed by the TOEIC issue is the Home Office’s lack of a human face. Many of the students accused of cheating on their English language tests have never had the chance to speak directly to anybody at the Home Office about their case. Many of the students accused of cheating speak very good English. I heard of someone studying for a degree in English literature who was accused of cheating on their English language test. Why would someone possibly cheat when their vocabulary is wider than that of many MPs? Can the Minister tell us if those accused of cheating will have the chance to sit their tests again to prove that they can pass on their own?
Throughout the Windrush scandal, we heard calls for the return to a face-to-face approach in immigration. Lucy Moreton from the ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs staff, said that face-to-face interviews with visa and immigration applicants vanished around 2014. That had a bearing on the Windrush scandal, and it clearly has had a bearing on TOEIC as well. As part of her review of Windrush, and of the Home Office’s handling of the TOEIC scandal, will the Minister commit to reintroducing a human face to the Home Office’s approach to visas and immigration?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing the debate, and all Members who have contributed. It would be remiss of me not to mention the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who is detained elsewhere. In his absence, I thank him for his continued scrutiny of the issue, and for first raising TOEIC tests with me when I was a very new Immigration Minister indeed.
I value the contributions that have been made in the debate. I will begin by providing something of an overview, but I thank the hon. Members for Ilford North and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for having set the scene quite clearly regarding what was certainly a very big scandal in terms of how the tests went so horribly wrong and became open to abuse and, in some cases, organised criminality.
English language testing for certain immigration purposes was first introduced in 2008. Since reforms in 2011, it has been a requirement for all student visa applicants to prove that they can speak English at an appropriate level. A number have used the qualification provided by the secure English language testing regime, and all private colleges are required to ensure that their sponsored students have a SELT qualification. Thus, individuals who wished to come to the UK to study, or to extend their leave to study, had to submit, where required, an English language test certificate from an approved company licensed by the Government.
Test centres operated on behalf of Educational Testing Services, or ETS as we have often heard it described this afternoon, were the subject of a BBC “Panorama” programme in February 2014 that aired footage of systematic cheating in examinations for the test of English for international communication—TOEIC—at a number of its UK test centres. Facilitated by organised criminals, it typically involved invigilators supplying, or even reading out, answers to entire exam rooms, or gangs of impostors being allowed to step into the exam candidates’ places to sit the test as proxy test-takers, and sitting speaking tests for candidates.
The Government, as one would expect and welcome, took immediate, robust action, which has been measured and proportionate. So far, 21 people have received criminal convictions for their role in the deception and have been sentenced to a total of 68 years’ imprisonment. Only two further live investigations remain.
Can the Minister tell the House whether ETS itself is still under criminal investigation? If not, will she take steps to ensure that ETS agrees to release any information reasonably requested by one of its student clients?
Unfortunately, I cannot provide a live update on criminal investigations, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman providing him with that information.
The majority of individuals linked to the fraud were sponsored by private colleges, not universities, many of which the Home Office had significant concerns about well before “Panorama”. Indeed, 400 colleges that had sponsored students linked to ETS had already had their licences revoked prior to 2014. ETS had its own licence to provide tests within the UK suspended in February 2014. That licence expired in April of the same year and ETS was removed from the immigration rules on 1 July 2014. Approximately 20% of the tests taken in the UK were provided by ETS prior to its suspension in February 2014.
Over the course of 2014, as we have heard, ETS systematically analysed all the tests taken in the UK dating back to 2011—some 58,458 tests. Analysis of the results identified 33,725 invalid results and 22,694 questionable results. People who used invalid ETS test certificates to obtain immigration leave have had action taken against them. Those with questionable results—more than 22,000 individuals—were given the chance to resit a test or attend an interview before any action was taken.
In appeals, we have sought to provide sufficient evidence to discharge the evidential burden of establishing that fraud was used to obtain a certificate from ETS. The courts have consistently found in our favour that our evidence for invalid cases is enough to act on and creates a reasonable suspicion of fraud. It is then for individuals, through either appeals or judicial reviews, to address that.
Before addressing some of the specific points raised, I add that the issues covered in today’s debate have been looked into very thoroughly by the Home Affairs Committee, which ran an inquiry in 2016. During that inquiry, Ministers and officials from the Home Office answered well over 100 specific questions, and those answers are still detailed on the Committee’s website.
Where we have made removal decisions against those with invalid certificates, we have ensured that any appeal against the decision is properly exercised after removal from the UK. Under the appeals regime that was in place in 2014, many of those who we believed to have committed fraud were given an out-of-country appeal. That had been the position since 2003. As a result of the Immigration Act 2014, there is now a right of appeal only where claims raising asylum, humanitarian protection or human rights issues are refused.
I have time for the Minister—I often find her speeches considered and reasonable—but I am struggling with what she is saying here. We know that there is a problem, and she is defending, it seems to me, taking people’s liberty away and threatening them with deportation, despite the fact that we know there is a problem with the process. I really want to hear an apology from her, and some understanding of just how unfair, unreasonable and unjust this has been.
I am moving on to some additional comments, but we have heard today repeatedly the use of the word “deportation”. Those who have followed this matter carefully will know that deportation happens only to foreign national offenders. Those who have been subject to removals have been removed from the country, not deported. There is a very clear difference between those two scenarios that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) may not agree with, but it happens to be a fact.
The action that the Home Office took was based on information from ETS, but it is incorrect to suggest that we relied exclusively and unquestioningly on the material that it provided. Yes, a senior delegation from the Home Office visited the USA in order to obtain a thorough understanding of the process, but following that, and fully considering the seriousness of the issues for the individuals concerned, we commissioned a further independent expert report from Professor Peter French, chairman of J P French Associates, the forensic speech and acoustics laboratory, and professor of forensic speech science at the University of York, into the reliability of the evidence.
That report, unlike the report produced as part of earlier legal proceedings and quoted extensively in recent coverage of ETS issues, was produced with the benefit of additional evidence about the specific systems that it used to verify matches. With the benefit of more information, Professor French specifically concluded that findings that the previous expert made around high error rates in other models are not
“transferable to the ETS testing”
and that the number of false matches would in fact be very small. He concluded that the triple-lock approach that ETS took was much more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt than falsely flag people as having cheated. The courts, at every level up to the Court of Appeal, have consistently said that that standard of evidence is sufficient to justify making an accusation of fraud. It is then up to an individual to establish an innocent explanation for their involvement, and they can challenge the finding, where applicable, through a judicial review.
A number of Members mentioned the case of Ahsan and out-of-country rights of appeal. That case was indeed heard at the Court of Appeal last year, but did not look at the evidence that the Home Office had relied on to establish that fraud had taken place. The narrow issue that the Court looked at in the Ahsan case was whether an out-of-country appeal would be an effective remedy to the accusation of fraud. It concluded that, in such cases where there was no mechanism for the individual to give oral evidence, that was unlikely to be the case.
Since then, the Home Office has put in place practical arrangements, including video conference links from overseas, to enable appellants to give live evidence at their appeal. Those overseas with outstanding appeals can apply to the tribunal that is hearing their appeal to indicate if they wish to give live evidence. It will then be for the tribunal to decide whether the arrangements that the Home Office can put in place are sufficient or whether it is necessary for the individual to return to the UK.
Does the Minister know how many people have been successful in their out-of-country appeal? Have those who have been successful been offered compensation for the Home Office’s mistakes?
The hon. Lady asks whether the Home Office has offered compensation. We have not, because what we have seen in successive High Court judgments is that our ability to rely on an accusation of fraud was appropriate. We heard a lengthy quote from a senior High Court judge, who, it is interesting to note, said in a subsequent case that new evidence that the Home Office had provided was focused and much more substantial. That same judge also found that evidence was sufficient to make our accusation of fraud.
The question that is being asked is not about the Home Office being right in some cases. The question is, in the cases where it has been wrong, has it offered any compensation?
The Home Office has enabled people to take cases to judicial review. The Home Office has established that we can rely on the evidence of fraud that we very clearly have, and the links to criminal gangs. It is important that we recognise that there was significant, widespread and indeed very lucrative fraud taking place in these cases. Our enforcement investigations uncovered evidence of impersonation and of proxy test-takers. I very much regret that this has happened. Innocent applicants may well have been caught up in widespread fraud, but we also have reports from judges that there were a number of different reasons why individuals might have undertaken the deception, even if they spoke very good English.
Will the Minister give way?
I have given way plenty of times. I am very clear that we have acted proportionately, both in initial actions and in response to the Court of Appeal’s verdict. We are right to continue acting on these cases.
The Government are committed to the principle of a fair immigration system, which welcomes highly skilled migrants and genuine international students, and we have heard a number of points about the attractiveness of the UK to international students. We know that the number of overseas students applying for tier 4 visas is up and there has been an increase in the number of visas granted, including 9% more from Chinese nationals and 32% more from Indian nationals. The UK remains an attractive place for foreign students to come to. We welcome highly skilled migrants and genuine students, while guarding against attempts at abuse. We have significantly strengthened our secure English language testing regime to ensure the issue cannot be repeated in future, and have put in place additional features to make sure that we clamp down on abuse by non-genuine students.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this afternoon’s debate. It is striking that no Government Members have chosen to come along to defend their conduct; it has been left solely to the Minister.
To put it mildly, I am deeply disappointed with the Minister’s response. There are a few key issues that she has not addressed. I do not think she adequately explained how it was that international students were told to leave the country without a right to appeal here, in contravention of the Court of Appeal ruling. She did not address at all the fiasco where further and higher education institutions were told to cancel student places and force them out of the conventional immigration appeals route. That issue has not been adequately addressed.
Perhaps worst of all, the Minister has not given any sense of reassurance to students who are here today about when this will be resolved. My constituent’s case has been in limbo now for years, and he is not alone. The Home Office has a responsibility to these people to make sure that their cases are reviewed fairly, and that they are given the chance to clear their name and get on with their lives. We have had no reassurances whatsoever. We have not been told anything by way of detail about numbers of people. We have overall numbers affected—we have quoted those and they are really clear in the briefings—but nothing in terms of appeals, what stage they are at, success rates, how long it is taking to resolve the issues and, crucially, how much it is costing the taxpayer.
With some of the ongoing cases, not least that of my constituent, a really simple, cost-effective and fair way to resolve the case would be to allow them to resit the test. That is true for so many students. It would prove beyond any reasonable doubt whether or not they were fit to sit that test and whether the pass rate was valid or invalid. If it is invalid, they have to take it on the chin and get on with their lives in that knowledge, but in the vast majority of cases that we have seen as constituency MPs, and in the vast majority of cases that have been seen by the organisations we have heard from in this debate, there is no doubt about the proficiency of the students’ English. There is no doubt in our minds about the integrity of the students and their desire to engage with their studies.
I hope the Minister will agree, if I write to her, to look at my constituent’s case and will write back to me about when we can expect action on it. I hope she might agree to a detailed meeting with some of us, to look at how we can resolve this in a timely fashion, but I also hope that she will go away and challenge her Department and her officials about the way in which they are pursuing these cases and the time and public money that is being invested, in order to make sure that we can move on in an adequate and appropriate way.
This is really doing enormous damage to the reputation of our universities. It is doing enormous damage to our students. We heard most powerfully from our Scottish National party Opposition colleague, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), about his own family circumstances. That is one story that captures the absurdity and the human impact of the situation. It is so close to this place! Of course, not everyone has a member of the family who is a Member of Parliament. We are speaking on behalf of so many of our constituents who have suffered real injustice. They have been given a voice today, but they have not been given sufficient answers. We have been going on with this for far too long.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered TOEIC visa cancellations.