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Overseas Students: English Language Tests

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on his review of the cases of overseas students falsely accused of cheating in Test of English for International Communication English language tests.

Test centres operated on behalf of the Educational Testing Service were the subject of a BBC “Panorama” programme in February 2014 that aired footage of the systematic cheating in English language tests at a number of its UK test centres. Further investigation demonstrated just how widespread this was, and the scale is shown by the fact that 25 people involved in organising and facilitating language test fraud have received criminal convictions. They have been sentenced to a total of over 70 years’ imprisonment, and further criminal investigations are ongoing.

There was also a strong link to wider abuse of the student visa route. A National Audit Office report in 2012 made it clear that abuse of that route was rife and estimated that in 2009—its first year of operation—up to 50,000 people used the tier 4 student route to work, not study. Most students who were linked to this fraud were sponsored by private colleges, many of which the Home Office had significant concerns about before the BBC investigation. Indeed, 400 colleges that had sponsored students linked to the ETS had already had their licences revoked before 2014.

Over the course of 2014, the ETS systematically analysed all tests taken in the UK dating back to 2011—more than 58,000 tests. Analysis of the test results identified 33,725 invalid results and 22,694 questionable results. Those with questionable results were given the chance to re-sit a test or attend an interview before any action was taken. People who used invalid ETS certificates to obtain immigration leave have had action taken against them.

The courts have consistently found that the evidence for invalid cases created a reasonable suspicion of fraud and was enough for the Home Office to act upon. It is then up to individuals to refute this, either through appeals or judicial reviews. Despite this, concerns have been expressed about whether innocent people could have been caught up in this. The Home Secretary has listened to the apprehensions of some Members, including the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and has asked officials for further advice. The National Audit Office is also currently in the process of concluding an investigation into the handling of these issues, and this is expected to be published next month. Obviously, the Home Secretary has taken a close interest in the issue and will be reviewing the conclusions of the National Audit Office, and he will make a statement to the House once he has had time to consider the matter in full.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and I am pleased to see the Home Secretary in his place. I congratulate him on achieving one year in his role today. On his first day in the post, I asked him to take a careful look at this issue, and he said that he would. On 1 April this year, I asked him for an update. He said:

“We had a further meeting to make some final decisions just last week, and I will be in touch with him shortly.”—[Official Report, 1 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 799.]

But in the month since, nothing has been announced. Many students face desperate hardship and need urgently to know the decision, because their future depends on it.

As the Minister said, the Home Office cancelled the visas of those who ETS claimed, from its analysis, had definitely cheated. The claim by ETS that almost 97% of those who sat their test had cheated seems completely implausible, but we will let that pass. Colleges had to expel those who had their visas cancelled. By the end of 2016, there had been more than 35,870 refusal, curtailment and removal decisions in ETS cases and more than 4,600 removals and departures. One estimate is that at least 2,000 of those denied visas are still in the UK.

In-country appeals were not allowed, but some have got cases to court. A growing number have convinced the courts that they did not cheat. One showed that he never actually took a TOEIC test, yet he had his visa cancelled because it was alleged that he had cheated in one. It has proved extraordinarily hard for students to obtain from ETS the recordings said to be of them taking the test. One computer expert told the Appeal Court that ETS’s evidence is worthless. The Appeal Court has criticised the Home Office’s evidence and said in 2017 that it was unlawful to force students to leave the country in order to appeal. Many of those affected speak excellent English so had no motive at all to pay someone else to take the test for them.

Thrown off their courses and denied any refund of their fees, the students cannot study or work. Some invested their families’ life savings to obtain a British degree. The savings have gone. They have no qualification and no income. They depend on kindly friends but say they could not endure the shame of going home with nothing, having apparently been convicted of cheating in the UK. Understandably, mental health problems are rife. Does the Minister agree that those who lost their visas on TOEIC grounds but remain in the UK should have the opportunity to sit a new test and, if they pass, obtain a visa in order to complete their studies and clear their names?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I will return at the outset to the comments I made about the National Audit Office report, which is expected to be published next month. The Home Office has been working closely with the NAO to provide information and evidence, and it is right that the Home Secretary has the opportunity to reflect on the report, consider its findings and come back to the House with a statement.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the court cases that have happened. Under the appeals framework, which is set by Parliament, and the Immigration Act 2014, there are no in-country appeals in the student route, through which these visas were issued, but the Home Office is taking a pragmatic approach. It is important to reflect that we are talking about fraud perpetrated back in 2014, and many people who have ongoing ETS litigation will potentially now have the right to bring a human rights claim. If they are refused under the human rights route, they will then generally have an in-country right of appeal.

There were an enormous number of cases where fraud was found, and matching showed that a number of individuals had taken repeat tests on behalf of thousands of people. There was a criminal trial at the start of this month, which saw a further five convictions. While I appreciate the strongly held beliefs of the right hon. Gentleman, it is important that we reflect that this was fraud on an industrial scale, and we should react responsibly.

I declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, because it was the BBC’s “Panorama” exposé that showed shocking examples of people reading out answers to those sitting the exams. As the Minister said, people have been convicted of fraud. While I have every sympathy with the individual cases, can the Minister ensure that we take very seriously the fact that our international standing as a centre for students will be harmed if we do not root out those who do wrong?

My hon. Friend will be reassured to learn that 400 colleges that had sponsored students linked to ETS already had their licences revoked before the BBC “Panorama” programme. I am conscious that the student route was linked to widescale abuse, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister acted swiftly when she was Home Secretary to remove the licences of a number of bogus colleges. As I said, it is important that we work with the NAO, reflect on its findings and find a way to move forward and assist those who might have been wrongly affected.

The Government’s treatment of innocent students has been unacceptable. Driven by the hostile environment and the net migration target, about 34,000 students’ visas have been cancelled. Can the Minister tell us how many of those cases are ongoing? Are any of these students currently in immigration detention? What steps is she taking to identify and compensate students who were wrongfully removed?

The TOEIC visa scandal has been rumbling for years. The Government have lost case after case in the courts. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has been raising the issue in Parliament for over a year, and students have been protesting outside Parliament. The Home Secretary told Parliament a year ago that he would look carefully at the issue, but no concrete action has been taken. Does the Minister appreciate the urgency of this issue? Thousands of students are living in limbo, unable to work or study while they attempt to clear their names.

The Windrush scandal exposed a culture of disbelief in the Home Office, motivated by removal targets rather than careful consideration of cases. We were promised a culture change, yet the Home Office is again being investigated by the National Audit Office for its cruel and ineffective handling of immigration cases. Does the Minister accept that the years of suffering these students have endured is a result of the coalition Government’s decision to remove legal aid and appeal rights?

We need a swift resolution to all outstanding TOEIC visa cases. The students have asked to be allowed to re-sit the English language tests, and that is a sensible suggestion. The UK’s reputation as a welcoming place for international students is suffering tremendously. International students are vital to our universities. They enhance the experience of UK students and further our soft power abroad, not to mention subsidising the fees of home students, but reports over the weekend suggested that EU students will be required to pay international fees, which the Minister could not confirm or deny yesterday. We now have the TOEIC visa scandal. What will be next?

The hon. Gentleman has chosen to focus on a very small number of students who may have had incorrect results. What we know, and what the evidence shows, is that our response back in 2014 was driven by systematic fraud that was perpetrated in colleges and has seen significant criminal convictions and sentences of 70 years. We are working with the NAO and through the courts. As I said, the Home Office has taken a pragmatic approach to the judicial reviews and appeals coming through the courts, recognising that many of these individuals have been in the country for a significant period. Of course, the ability to speak English in 2019 does not necessarily mean that an individual did not cheat in 2014 or could speak English to the required level then.

I would like to comment more on what we are doing for international students. The UK has a proud track record of attracting an increasing number of students to this country. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the commitment in the White Paper to continue to have no cap on the number of foreign students coming here and to make a more generous offer for post-study work arrangements for students who choose to come here. It is important that we support our world-class institutions and celebrate the fact that we have five British universities in the top 20 universities globally, and that we saw over the course of the past year a 10% increase in the number of tier 4 visas being applied for.

I was pleased recently to go on a visit to China with the all-party China group, and we met many students there. The dream of many of those students was to come to the UK to go to university. It is therefore absolutely right that we tackle any fraud, and I am pleased by and thank the Minister for the way that she is dealing with this. We have to give clear signals that our world-leading education remains world-leading and that we have an open door for international students to come here to take advantage of that supreme education.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the brilliance of UK universities. I would like to point to the increasing numbers of Chinese and Indian students at the university in my constituency, Southampton, which has done a brilliant job of attracting students from overseas, as indeed have many other institutions countrywide. We do ourselves a disservice if we turn a blind eye to abuse and fraud within the student route. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, took strong action in 2014 to close down bogus colleges, and she was absolutely right to do so.

First, I give my sincere congratulations to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) not only on securing this urgent question but on the manner in which he has relentlessly pursued this issue, which is finally getting the attention it has long deserved. For far, far too many people, this episode represents an absolute travesty of justice. When the Home Office discovered that ETS had completely failed to prevent widespread cheating—indeed, that some ETS staff were actively involved in facilitating it—it should have sacked the company and sought compensation from it. Instead, unbelievably, the Home Office asked ETS to mark its own dodgy homework and re-check the tests. How can that possibly be justified? The Minister referred to evidence, but in fact we are talking about the totally opaque say-so of ETS, on which basis the Home Office decided that thousands of students were guilty, and their lives were subsequently ruined. There is an abundance of evidence that a large number were totally innocent. They deserve an apology, and much more than that. Will she, at the very least, reverse the draconian repeal of in-country appeal rights that deprived many of justice? Will she agree to all that cross-party MPs have been demanding, including, as the right hon. Gentleman said, new tests and restored visas for those who pass, because that is the bare minimum that needs to be done to right this wrong?

The hon. Gentleman will of course be aware of the expert report by Professor Peter French that concluded that false matches were likely to be very small—in the region of 1%—and more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt than to falsely flag people as having cheated. The courts have always said, even when finding against the Home Office on individual facts of a case, that the evidence was sufficient to make accusations of fraud. Of course he will recall from our exchanges during the passage through Committee of the Immigration Bill that this company was suspended from the immigration rules in July of that year and that the Home Office did take legal action against ETS in a case that was settled last year.

The National Audit Office said that up to 50,000 apparent students came to the UK to work, not study, under the Labour Government back in 2009-10, so obviously action needed to be taken to stamp out abuse. I appreciate the Minister’s tone in being willing to listen to the current concerns. Can she assure me that the UK will continue to be open to genuine international students and that we will not put a cap on the numbers who can come here? [Interruption.]

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary just said from a sedentary position, “More open”. Those words are included in the immigration White Paper that was published in December last year. We indicated that there would be no cap on international students and that we wished to make the post-study work regime more generous. However, it is important to reflect that this was about systematic fraud being perpetrated. We took action to stop it then. We must continue to be robust in making sure that we have high standards and requirements for English language testing—that is very important. I absolutely agree that we must celebrate the success of our universities and continue to work hard to attract international students.

I welcome the NAO investigation into this issue. I sense from the Minister’s tone that, while she obviously cannot anticipate the NAO’s report, she is expecting it to raise questions about decision making in individual cases. In that light, may I ask whether she and the Home Office are now looking much more widely at some of the issues that have been persistently raised about the inaccuracy of Home Office decision making in very important immigration cases? What is being done to address some of the cultural problems that have been raised time and again about these decisions, which have such a huge impact on people’s lives and have to be got right?

It would be wrong to prejudge the NAO report, but I would like to reassure the right hon. Lady that Home Office officials have worked closely with the NAO, providing it with information and evidence where requested. As she will know, we are conducting a number of reviews in the Home Office, including, following Windrush, the Wendy Williams lessons learned review, and the forward-looking borders, immigration and citizenship services review. Every day in the job as Immigration Minister, one sees individual cases of people who are impacted by our policies and our rules. It is important that we reflect very closely on that and make sure that we have a review of our BICS system that provides the human face of the Home Office that both the Home Secretary and I are very keen to ensure is seen.

International students coming to this country are a vital source of our soft power because they are friendlily disposed to the United Kingdom after they have studied here and returned home. However, it is clearly important that those people can speak English before they arrive. What message is my right hon. Friend taking to the British Council and other institutions that work abroad to encourage young people to learn English before they come to this country so that they can satisfy the tests and fulfil their destiny?

It is really important that this is a matter not simply for the Home Office but for the Foreign Office and for Government Departments across the whole piece. We want to encourage foreign students to come here to study at our world-class institutions because we know that when they return home after a period of study they take fond memories with them and have a relationship with the UK that lasts throughout the rest of their lives. It is therefore important that we continue to work to promote our great universities. As part of that, there are a number of campaigns, including the GREAT campaign, which does fantastic work promoting the benefits of study in the UK. It is important that that should be a joint piece of work with the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make sure that we continue to promote the UK as a brilliant place to study.

I echo the very decent sentiments that have been expressed by Members in all parts of the House regarding our horror for the innocent students who are caught up in this trap. I have been here for two years and I am not an expert in home affairs, but there does seem to be a bit of a case history with the Home Office. We have had misfortunes and carelessness, and now we have this. Is now not the time for the Government to seriously consider taking responsibility for immigration, and all we are talking about today, and putting it into a separate Government Department where Ministers can concentrate solely on that?

It is important to reflect that this was a fraud perpetrated in 2014. It is not new. The Government responded then to a systematic fraud, took action and we have seen criminal convictions as a result. However, the hon. Gentleman has made an interesting suggestion about the future of the immigration directorate within the Home Office. Unfortunately, the Home Secretary left moments before he made that point, but I am certain that it will not be lost on him.

What happened to some members of the Windrush generation, through no fault of their own, was simply inexcusable, but at the root of these cases is a fraud that was conducted on a quite industrial scale. Is it not hugely insulting to members of the Windrush generation to try to draw a parallel between the two cases?

I certainly would not draw a parallel. This was criminal behaviour and there have been significant sentences imposed on those who were perpetrating the fraud. Indeed, there are ongoing criminal investigations whereby we may yet see more convictions. It is important that we take stock of this and that we reflect on the NAO report when it is published and made available to us. As I have said, the Home Secretary will come to the House and make a full statement when we have the NAO findings. He continues, and indeed I continue, to review this situation and work out what is the best way forward.

There is no doubt that we are concerned not about those who have committed crimes but about the innocent people who have been caught up in this. If the Government were so confident in ETS, they would not have stopped using ETS. In that context, what financial settlement was reached between the Home Office and ETS after its licence was revoked?

As I mentioned earlier, the licence was revoked in July 2014, and the Home Office moved swiftly to revoke that licence. Action was taken against ETS but, because of the commercial sensitivities, I am afraid I cannot divulge details. However, I will ascertain from Home Office lawyers whether I can write to the hon. Lady and let her have that information.

No one doubts that there was criminal behaviour and cheating, but it has been weeks since we were promised a decision by Ministers, months since we met the Home Secretary to outline concerns about people who had been wrongly implicated, and years during which these students have had their lives left in complete limbo, with them suffering mental ill health, financial hardship, family breakdown and a whole range of other detrimental consequences as a result of being accused of cheating—wrongly—by the British state. When will the Government finally get their act together? The longer this rolls on, and the longer people are caught up in expensive judicial action or lengthy, bureaucratic immigration appeals, the longer that is wasting their time, wasting their lives and wasting taxpayers’ money. Enough is enough.

I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that those who were found to have a questionable result following the ETS investigations were given the opportunity to take a second test to establish their ability to speak English, so they could have taken that option. He was quite aggressive in his questioning, but I must reiterate that I think it is right, and the Home Secretary thinks it is right, to wait for the outcome of the NAO report, which we expect next month.

Nobody is claiming that everybody is innocent. The Minister has quoted legal cases, and those who are guilty deserve everything that they get. However, the Home Office has also lost judgments in the courts. ETS evidence is quoted by the Minister, but that evidence has been challenged and undermined, and now we have a National Audit Office inquiry. Will the Minister confirm that she believes and accepts that there are some innocent students caught up in this mess?

It is important to note that there have been a number of legal cases where students have challenged the decision through judicial review and subsequent immigration appeals. Some of those cases have been upheld by the courts, but not in all instances was that because those people were not thought to have cheated in the test; it was actually because they had been in the UK for such a long time that they had an established article 8 human rights claim to be here, and the Home Office is taking a pragmatic approach to those cases. However, I am very conscious that we have legislation that requires there to be no in-country right of appeal under the student route, and these people were here under the student route. It is right that we wait for the NAO findings, that we reflect on those and that we find a way forward.

One of my constituents, who had been in the UK since 2005, was detained in Dungavel for 10 days because the Home Office claimed she had overstayed and had used deception in her TOEIC test. Neither of those things was true. The first tier tribunal found in her favour; the Home Office appealed, and the appeal was thrown out. It appealed to the upper tier tribunal, but the appeal was then withdrawn. My constituent has been fighting the Home Office for five years. Will the Minister apologise to her and let her and her three-year-old daughter get on with their lives?

Unfortunately, the hon. Lady has not provided any information, and I cannot comment on an individual case on the Floor of the House, but if she cares to write to me about the case, I will look at it.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on raising this issue and pursuing it so strongly. People’s lives have been put in limbo. Since 2014, my constituent Mr Muhammad Arsalan has not been able to work, study or get access to the NHS. That is not because he has been found guilty based on any evidence, but because he has been found guilty by association. If people have cheated, they should face the full force of the law. However, my constituent has not been able to appeal, because he is in country. Yes, he can now challenge on human rights grounds, but that takes time and money. Will the Minister therefore look at the suggestion from my right hon. Friend that, dependent on the outcome of the current investigation, she consider the idea of these people being allowed to sit another test to prove that they are competent in English?

As I have said, we are going to wait for the findings of the NAO. However, it is important to confirm that the Home Office is looking at a range of options as to how we can find a way forward from this situation. The Home Secretary has been pleased to meet a number of Members on this subject. It is a recurring subject of parliamentary questions and Westminster Hall debates. We are looking at it closely, and I hope we will find a way forward when we have had a chance to reflect on the NAO findings.

The Minister rightly talks about the importance of international students, but she will know that our market share fell from 12% in 2010 to 8% in 2016. We are falling behind competitor countries because of reputational damage, and that reputational damage has been added to by people being treated wrongly in this case. Will the Minister therefore tell the House what she will do to restore our reputation and to address some of the concerns about policy issues that have led international students to choose other countries over Britain?

It is important to reflect that overall numbers are up—indeed, they are up 10% in higher education institutions in the last year alone. Of course we want to make sure that the UK can still provide a good and attractive offer to students. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the White Paper published in December, which sets out some of the ways we plan to make that possible.

Yesterday, we had an urgent question about tuition fees for EU nationals post Brexit. Can the Minister confirm whether EU nationals will be required to sit the TOEIC test post Brexit?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. At the current time, there have not been any policy decisions that I am aware of with regard to the English language test. However, it is important—and we have said very clearly in our White Paper—that we will have a single, global system for immigration, where people from all countries will be treated equally.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this question, and I welcome the NAO’s investigation into this issue. I have no doubt that there was systematic cheating, but I seriously doubt the scale—the ETS figures show that only 3.5% of the people who sat the test did not cheat, which seems incredible. What assessment has been made of the number of people whose visas were revoked who are still in the UK, and what would the cost be of allowing them to sit a new English test?

I made the point earlier that evidence of ability to speak English now does not provide evidence of ability to speak English back in 2014. What the courts have consistently found is that the evidence we had in 2014 was sufficient to make accusations of fraud. This was wide-scale, and we saw enormous numbers of proxy tests being taken on behalf of individuals for a wide variety of reasons. The Government acted swiftly to clamp down on bogus colleges and to revoke the licence of ETS. However, it is important that we reflect on the situation of those who remain in this country and, as I have said, the Home Office has taken a pragmatic approach when looking at the article 8 claims of individuals who have been caught up in the TOEIC issue.