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TOEIC: Overseas Students

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will announce his decisions on the cases of overseas students falsely accused of cheating in ETS TOEIC—test of English for international communication—English language tests.

Five years ago, “Panorama” uncovered the shocking scale of fraud within the English language testing system. ETS, the company that ran the centres, analysed all the tests taken in the UK between 2011 and 2014—more than 58,000 in all. It identified more than 33,000 invalid results where, in its view, there was direct evidence that somebody had cheated, and a further 22,000 were considered questionable because of irregularities. This fraud was serious and systematic, and 25 people who were involved have been convicted and sentenced to more than 70 years in prison. Further criminal investigations are ongoing, with a further 14 due in court next month. These crimes did not happen in isolation. The student visa system we inherited in 2010 was wide open to abuse. The National Audit Office found that as many as 50,000 people may have fraudulently entered the UK to work using the tier 4 student route in 2009-10 alone.

Following the revelations, the Home Office took prompt action against some of those who were found to have cheated, and that action was endorsed by the courts. Those whose results were questionable were offered the chance to resit the test. Despite this, there are understandable concerns that some people who did not cheat might have been caught up, and that some have found it hard to challenge the accusations against them. So earlier this year my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commissioned advice from officials. Yesterday he lodged a written ministerial statement updating the House on our next steps. He announced that the Department would change existing guidance to ensure that the belief that a deception had taken place was balanced against other factors, which would normally lead to leave being granted, especially where children are involved.

Furthermore, we will ensure that no further action is taken in cases where there is no evidence that an ETS certificate was used in an immigration application. We will also drop the automatic requirement to interview those linked to a questionable certificate. We continue to look at other options, including whether there is a need for those who feel they have been wronged to be able to ask for their case to be reviewed. It is right that we show concern for those who have chosen to study or make a life in this country, but we cannot allow our concern to undermine the action we must take to tackle what was a widespread criminal fraud. We will keep the House fully informed as our response to this issue develops.

By 2017, more than 35,000 refusal, curtailment and removal decisions had been made in ETS alleged cheating cases. Thousands of those accused and denied visas remain in the UK protesting their innocence. The Home Secretary, who I am delighted to see in his place, told the House three months ago:

“We had a further meeting to make some final decisions just last week”.—[Official Report, 1 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 799.]

However, there has still been no announcement. He said on Monday last week:

“I am planning to come to the House with a statement to say much more before the summer recess.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 586.]

He has come to the House today, but we have not heard that statement. Thousands of students who have been falsely accused now face grave hardship and need this to be resolved urgently.

ETS’s records are confused, incomplete and often plain wrong. The professor of digital forensics at Birmingham City University told the all-party parliamentary group on TOEIC last month that it was

“unsafe for anyone to rely upon computer files created by ETS…as a sole means of making a decision”,

but those files are the only basis for the cheating allegations. Appeals were not allowed in the UK, but a growing number have convinced a court that they did not cheat. Immigration judge Lucas, dismissing the Home Office’s case of TOEIC cheating against one of my constituents, wrote last month that

“the reality is that there is no specific evidence in relation to this Appellant at all.”

This is a grave injustice that must be brought to an end.

At the Home Affairs Committee on Monday, the Home Secretary suggested a new reconsideration system for TOEIC cases, although yesterday’s inadequate written statement did not even go as far as that. Does the Minister envisage a reconsideration system for those wrongly accused? When will it be set up? How will it operate? When will full details of it be announced? Would it not be better and easier just to allow students to take another secure English language test, and if they pass, to allow them to regain their visa status?

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his diligence in pursuing this issue. He certainly brought it to my attention very early on in my tenure as Immigration Minister. It is important to reflect on the fact that the courts have said, in separate cases, that the evidence was enough to take the action that we did and that people had cheated for a variety of reasons. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did indeed publish a written ministerial statement yesterday, which gave an indication of the changes so far, but it is important that we continue to work on the issue and find a mechanism to allow people, where necessary, to have some form of review. Unfortunately, I cannot set things out in the detail that the right hon. Gentleman has requested at this time, but I reassure him that I am conscious that we have a new Prime Minister and, should I remain in this post, I will seek to raise the TOEIC issue with him as a matter of urgency, because it is important that we work as a Government to ensure that we find a mechanism for redress for the few cases in which a wrong decision may have been made.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this urgent question and making a powerful case. His work and commitment on this issue has been tremendous. The TOEIC scandal is another example of the Government’s hostile environment, plunging thousands of lives into uncertainty. This shameful episode, which started in 2014, has led to thousands of students being accused of cheating and the cancellation of some 35,000 student visas. Multiple organisations and court cases have questioned the allegations, uncovering the Home Office’s many shortcomings.

The damage, distress and loss caused to the international students wrongly accused of cheating has been colossal, leaving them feeling like criminals. Likewise, it has damaged our international reputation as a preferred destination for international students. It is evident that the Home Office has not learned key lessons from this debacle and the hostile environment policy, which is obviously still in play. I met students in Parliament and was shocked to learn about the abuse that they have experienced and to learn that they all suffer mental health problems—something not to be taken lightly.

The Home Secretary revealed at Monday’s Home Affairs Committee meeting that a new reconsideration system will be introduced, but the details remained vague in yesterday’s statement. The urgency of this matter must be understood, and the Government must clarify what the new system will look like and when it will be set up. These students have endured serious hardship and deserve answers, and immigration policies and processes must be fair and transparent. Will the Minister confirm that no further students accused of cheating in a TOEIC test will be detained or forcibly removed? Does she also accept that students have faced serious financial losses? If so, what financial support will be provided? This grave injustice must be corrected as quickly as possible.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, but I point out to him that, far from this being a shameful scandal, what is shameful is that this was cheating on an industrial scale. The latest National Audit Office report confirmed that abuse of the system was widespread, and the 2012 NAO report indicated that “abuse was rife”. Of course, the Home Office also not only sought compensation from ETS, but received it. It is therefore absolutely imperative that we emphasise that this was criminal activity and that people have been imprisoned. As I said earlier, 14 more individuals are facing court action as a result.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the responses that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee, and I want to emphasise his precise words. He spoke of

“a very small number, judging by the cases that have gone through the courts or come to the Home Office since 2014. Nevertheless, even if it is one individual who has been wronged, it is our duty to make sure that we are doing more to help.”

It is our duty, and that is absolutely what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to do.

Yet again, I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his colleagues on the all-party group for their tireless work on the behalf of probably thousands of innocent people whose lives and aspirations have been ruined by this fiasco. The Minister is absolutely right that shameful cheating was going on but, as the National Audit Office said, the Home Office should have been just as robust about protecting the innocent as it was in pursuing the fraudsters.

It was positive on Monday that the Home Secretary talked about creating a new opportunity for those who have been wronged to have their cases reconsidered, so it is slightly alarming that the Government seem to have moved away from that approach in the past couple of days. He was wrong to talk on Monday as though the burden of proof should still be on those facing allegations of cheating, who should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Thanks to the work of the all-party parliamentary group, we know that assertions of cheating by ETS cannot be relied upon on their own in deciding whether someone is guilty, and the courts have frequently rejected the evidence of ETS, just as they have sometimes upheld it.

I was going to ask when the new mechanism will be up and running, but when will we at least have clarity about whether we are getting such a mechanism? If we are to have a new mechanism, will the Minister undertake that individuals will be presumed innocent unless there is significant evidence beyond a simple and unreliable assertion of cheating by ETS? Finally, to restore credibility and trust in the whole process, will the Minister consider giving responsibility for making decisions on such cases to an independent decision maker—people with the required technical and legal expertise—totally outside the orbit of the Home Office and the ETS?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I remind him that in 2014, before his time in this House, it was Parliament that insisted that the Home Office took urgent action to address what had been revealed as widespread cheating. It is important to find a mechanism that provides redress for those who may have been wrongly caught up in this. However, the independent expert, Professor French, indicated when he studied the matter that the likelihood of a false match from the voice checks was likely to be less than 1%.

The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the subsequent court cases, and evidence of an article 8 claim of a right to respect for family or private life led the courts to take a balanced decision in many cases that it was right that individuals should be allowed to stay, and that is absolutely what we are saying in the review of the guidance. We want to ensure that the Home Office, which I absolutely believe is the appropriate place for these decisions to be made, is making sensible decisions that properly balance any belief that deception was practiced against the wider circumstances. Where the circumstances are particularly compelling, perhaps when children are involved, it is important that we look to see what more the Home Office can do to help people put their claims forward.

People accused and defamed, detained and deported, visas lost and people left destitute on unsafe allegations on discredited evidence. Yes, there were cheats—nobody is denying that—but many more were innocent. Maybe the reason why so few such cases have become apparent is that most people were not allowed to appeal and very few have been able to get to court. However, some of those who got to court, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said, have had justices making public statements on their behalf.

I note the Minister’s reassurance, and it is welcome that this matter will remain one of her priorities if reappointed. For that reason alone, I hope she is reappointed, because many Opposition Members have invested a lot of time in this Front-Bench team taking things forward. However, this question will remain for whoever is on the Treasury Bench: when will those not guilty of any offence receive justice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman—I think—for his kind words in saying that he hoped I would be reappointed. However, I reiterate that the allegations were not unsafe and that our approach to taking action on students has been endorsed by the courts, which have consistently found that the Home Office’s evidence was enough to prompt the action that was taken at the time. I emphasise that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published a written ministerial statement yesterday and made it clear in his appearance before the Home Affairs Committee that he is determined to find solutions going forward that are practical for those involved and provide people with the opportunity to explain, potentially through article 8, how they can substantiate their claim to life in the UK.

The truth remains that the Home Office does not actually know how many people were cheating. The truth remains that 35,000 people had their visas revoked as part of the Home Office and the Government’s anti-immigration atmosphere and hostile environment. That is the truth. Lots of people gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, of which I am a former member, and the truth is that the concerns that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) raised are absolutely valid. People have lost their livelihoods. They cannot return home because of the shame and the stigma. They have no recourse to public funds to defend themselves. They have been labelled guilty and as cheats. That is a crying shame, and I absolutely disagree with the Minister when she says this is not a shameful episode. We have had Windrush and the whole hostile environment, and TOEIC is exactly the same thing. Given that the evidence is no longer secure, is it not right that we should not deport anybody else and not force through any more deportations from our detention centres of students who have found themselves the victims of the incompetence of our Home Office and Government?

The hon. Lady was not here in 2014 and perhaps does not remember the pressure from Parliament to address this systematic cheating. I remind her that there have been criminal convictions, with sentences amounting to over 70 years and with more criminal trials to come. It is important to remember that this was a criminal operation on an industrial scale—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady may chunter at me from a sedentary position, but she must remember the criminal facts behind this. However, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated, we have recognised that some people may have innocently been caught up in it. As he said, it is our duty to make sure there is a redress mechanism for those for whom those circumstances prevailed. However, it is quite wrong to suggest that this is something to do with the hostile environment; this was to do with crime.

Let me help the Minister maybe. If she is absolutely confident about what she is saying from the Dispatch Box—I have to say I would be very surprised if she is—can she commit to covering the legal costs of any student who has had to pay for legal representation as a result of Home Office inadequacy? Surely that must be applicable and appropriate for those who win their appeals.

The hon. Lady will know that when it comes to court hearings, judges will decide whether people have a valid claim to remain in the UK. We continue to look at all the options, including whether there is a need for those who feel they have been wronged to be able to ask for their case to be reviewed. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to make further announcements in due course. However, it is right to reflect on the fact that this is a complicated issue, and it is right that we take time to make sure we get it right—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady may chunter at me from a sedentary position, but it is important that we make the right decisions and do not just give blanket promises that we will allow people to stay and will pay their costs, when it may be the case that they have cheated.

The problem is that we are no further on. Although I acknowledge the time the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister have given to meeting Members, no remedy is being offered to people—people into the whites of whose eyes we have to look in our surgeries—who had no reason whatever to cheat, given their written communication and English language speaking skills. I cannot go back to constituents such as Maruf Ahmed and tell them that we face the prospect possibly of a new Home Secretary and a new Immigration Minister looking at this afresh, and certainly of no action at all until the summer has passed. These people’s lives are being left in limbo.

Acknowledging what the Minister has said about there clearly having been some cheating, and acknowledging what other Members have said about some people clearly having been inadvertently and wrongly caught up in this, surely the best thing to do now, given the passage of time and the numbers of people involved, is just to let those people sit a secure English language test afresh to give them the opportunity to clear their names, and, if they cannot, to politely ask them to return to where they came from.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this evidence of cheating came to light in 2014, and evidence of people’s ability to speak English now may have no relation to their ability to speak English back then, given that we are five years on. However, I absolutely refute his accusation that we are no further forward. The written ministerial statement yesterday made it absolutely clear that the Home Secretary has asked officials to review Home Office guidance. The reviewing of that guidance relates to article 8 human rights claims to ensure that we make sensible decisions that are properly balanced in terms of any belief that deception was practised and of the individual’s wider circumstances. Where there are particularly compelling circumstances, we will also look at whether there is more we can do to help people put forward their claim. Given that this cheating was exposed in 2014, it is absolutely evident that people’s circumstances will have changed; they may well have established families in this country, and those children will have a right to an education here. We must put the priority of the families first. It is right that we should seek a mechanism to support people through an article 8 claim so that they can stay, when there are grounds for them to do so.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for his work on the APPG on TOEIC, which has exposed so much of what has happened. Many people, including some of my constituents, have been left in limbo. They have faced huge financial costs, and I ask the Minister whether it is possible to look at a compensation scheme for those affected and wrongly accused, because their lives have been ruined. Will she also work with higher and further education institutions to ensure that those who were falsely accused can get back to their studies and get their lives back on track?

It is worth reflecting on the fact that many of those caught up in this attended a very small selection of colleges, which have subsequently been shut down. There were very close links between colleges being found to be operating outside their licences and these accusations of cheating. However, I must reflect on the fact that there were over 30,000 cases where there was absolute evidence that people had cheated. There were also 22,000 cases where there were questionable results. All those people were given the opportunity to resit a test. However, it is important to reflect on what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in his statement yesterday: we are looking at the other issues and particularly at whether we can give people who maintain their innocence another opportunity to challenge the finding of deception. However, the independent expert found that the likelihood of false matches was very small indeed and likely to be less than 1%.

I welcome the Minister’s reference to understandable concerns, and I get the sense that she will want to see this issue concluded as quickly as possible. I have been contacted by at least six constituents who are unable to work and support their families as a result of the alleged cheating in TOEIC. They have lost their visas and been threatened with deportation, and their children’s education has been put at risk. They have not had the chance to prove their innocence. Their lives are on hold, and their families are under great strain. They are living in limbo. How reassured should my constituents feel by the Minister’s statement that they will be able very soon to get the chance to clear their name and, indeed, to get justice for what they have been through?

As I have said, those with questionable tests were given the chance to resit the test at the time. We are clearly stating that the route via an article 8 claim to a family life is one that we wish to enable people to pursue, and they should make another claim. Obviously, I cannot stand here and comment on individual cases, but we are giving people the opportunity to make an article 8 claim, and I hope that that provides a mechanism going forward.

I am afraid that I disagree with the Minister, and agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) that this is part of the hostile environment: 35,000 people did not cheat. We do not know how many did, but a large number of people did not, and these are the people who are coming to our constituency surgeries to seek justice. I have met some who have the higher-level IELTS—international English language testing system—qualification, which shows that they have a higher level of English literacy and speech than is needed for the TOEIC qualification, so there is no way they were cheats.

I received an email a couple of years ago from a constituent who had almost completed three years of his degree at London South Bank University, and was not allowed to complete it because of the TOEIC situation. When he applied to complete it, the university would not let him because too much time had elapsed. This situation applies to many. They have paid a fortune in fees and livings costs to be here. What recompense will the Government give those who can definitely be proven not to have cheated? They should be given an opportunity for a further test. Will the Minister, whoever that person is, meet the high commissioners from the countries in which the most people are affected, to try to sort out something positive from this mess, for the sake of the people affected and their families, and for the reputation of this country?

I remind the hon. Lady of the numbers: 33,663 UK tests were invalid and a further 22,476 were questionable, so we are talking about 55,000 tests. The independent expert who carried out the review found that the likelihood of false matches was less than 1%. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, where individuals have wrongly been accused of cheating, it is important that they be allowed to find a means of redress, but it is absolutely not the case that this is part of a hostile environment. These numbers are part of systematic criminal fraud.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this urgent question following the work that we on the APPG on TOEIC have done. I know how frustrating the process is for the innocent victims inadvertently caught up in this. Professor French’s statement that false matches were less than 1% has been quoted, but he told the APPG just last month that that statement was valid only

“if the results that ETS had given the Home Office were correct”,

and that information is seriously in question. We need to look at that again. People need to be brought out of limbo. They have waited for the Home Secretary’s statement to the House, which did not come; we have had 306 words tucked away in a written statement. We need to know when that limbo will end for them.

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not “tuck away” 306 words in a written ministerial statement; it was published yesterday. My right hon. Friend said that he would update the House before recess, and he has. He has also been very clear that we want to go further. That is absolutely a priority for me and my right hon. Friend, or indeed whoever our successors may be. We will take this up as a matter of urgency with the new Prime Minister.