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TOEIC English Language Tests

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2022

Before we come to the next urgent question, I want to inform the House that I am aware that there are certain live court cases that are relevant. Given the importance of the subject matter, Mr Speaker has granted a limited waiver to allow general reference to the issues, but Members should not refer to the detail of live cases.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement about reports of failings in the test of English for international communication, or TOEIC, language tests in 2012.

I am aware that BBC “Newsnight” is tonight examining the Home Office’s response to systemic fraud that took place in the teaching of English international communication exams prior to 2014. In 2014, the BBC’s “Panorama” programme uncovered examples of organised fraud on a significant scale taking place during TOEIC exams, as they are known, which were at the time required under immigration rules for student and other visas. The Home Office’s subsequent investigation into the abuse of English language testing revealed systemic cheating that was indicative of significant organised fraud. Ministers and Parliament were clear at the time that they expected a robust and speedy response. As such, the Government took a number of steps to fix the broken student visa system that operated before 2014 and to prevent such abuse from happening again.

The actions taken included stopping more than 1,000 colleges bringing bogus or low-quality students into the country who intended to work, not study. Given the scale of the fraud, it is impossible to say that nobody was wrongly affected and a number of appeals have succeeded. However, we continue to believe that there was a large-scale problem with cheating, as the BBC uncovered. Individuals affected have always had the right to challenge Home Office decisions through appeal or judicial review. Many have done that and it is important to note that the courts, up to the Court of Appeal, have consistently found that the evidence of invalid cases was enough for the Home Office to take the action it did.

However, as the Home Secretary set out to the Home Affairs Committee on 2 February and as the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) will be aware, the upper tribunal presidential panel is currently considering the case known RK/DK, which involves many of the issues raised by the BBC in relation to ETS TOIEC. The determination in that case will have a critical bearing on the Home Office’s future approach to ETS TOIEC-related cases, so it would be inappropriate to comment directly on the BBC’s findings ahead of that determination. I can confirm, though, that we will announce the next steps once we have received and considered the judgment.

In 2011, the Home Office gave a licence to the US firm ETS to operate its TOIEC English language test to establish whether overseas students could speak English well enough to study in the UK. Nearly 60,000 students took the test over three years but, as the Minister said, in 2014 “Panorama” exposed cheating at a number of TOIEC test centres and the ETS licence was withdrawn.

In response, ETS promised to analyse its recordings of all the students who had taken the test. Having done that, ETS told the Home Office later in 2014 that 96.5% of the students had either definitely or probably cheated. The Home Office seems to have failed to ask even the most basic questions about that absurd claim, now discredited, and it went ahead and cancelled the visas of more than 30,000 students. Contrary to what the Minister said, no appeal was available other than for students to go back to their home countries and then appeal, but in reality there was no provision there to make an appeal. Thousands of innocent students had their futures destroyed.

This morning, the original “Panorama” team has reported that ETS knew about the cheating well before the “Panorama” programme but did nothing because it wanted to keep the revenue. The BBC has also reported that the Home Office was told in 2012 by ETS whistleblowers but, instead of cancelling the licence then, allowed ETS to carry on for another two years. Thousands of innocent students were dragged into disaster as a result. Home Office failings have wrecked the lives of thousands of innocent people.

The Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee a year ago that too many people had been hurt and that a resolution was needed, but there has been no progress since. Will the Minister now come forward with a straightforward mechanism, as promised by the previous Home Secretary two and half years ago, to enable innocent students to clear their names and rebuild their lives?

As I have already touched on, I will not be commenting more widely on some of the matters that are currently sub judice, but I point out again that the scale of cheating exposed at the time was endemic. It is a rather bizarre argument that we should have gone earlier and harder on this issue. I made it clear in my statement that the courts up to the Court of Appeal have consistently found that there was enough evidence of invalid cases for the Home Office to take the action it took.

As I pointed out, there are opportunities for appeals. Those who have been here for some time may well be able to make claims based on their private life or human rights claims that would allow them to secure status in this country.

At the core of all this is the need to reflect on what has happened over the past 10 years in respect of what was previously the tier 4 route and is now the student route. We have reformed a system that was wide open to abuse and that brought the name of our education sector into disrepute. We have created a new system, particularly in respect of the new student visa, that works for students and education providers and, crucially, in respect of the Home Office balancing the need for compliance with the wish to facilitate the ambitions of hundreds of thousands of people who wish to study at our world-leading institutions. The student visa system is a world away from where it was in the past.

Finally, I should point out that 20 people have been convicted for their role in the systemic and organised cheating in English tests. That speaks strongly to the actions we took. As I said, there continues to be a process through the courts for those who wish to challenge the decision in their own cases. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we encourage the courts to make a determination if there is an allegation of dishonesty in relation to TOIEC. As I said, when the final judgment comes from the panel, we will respond more fully.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this urgent question. I must also say that I look forward to working constructively with the Minister, but I can assure him that we will robustly hold him to account as well.

We know there is a moral vacuum at the heart of this Conservative Government. We know that No. 10 is a shambles and that the Home Office under this Home Secretary is not fit for purpose. This case brings all those fundamental flaws into a toxic combination of indifference and incompetence. The harrowing accounts that have emerged include a man who was held in a cell for months on end, wrongly accused of failing his test, without any right to release or even to appeal. Students who could have contributed so much to our country have been wrongly deported based on unreliable evidence and as a result have suffered deep and intolerable injustice and personal hardship. As one student put it:

“I want my future back.”

It goes without saying that the Labour party supports the use of English language tests, and of course we support efforts to target cheating, but we must utterly condemn the blind eye that the Home Office turned to ETS’s failings. Can the Minister therefore tell us why on earth the Home Office thought it appropriate to allow a discredited ETS to manage the initial investigation in 2014, and to rely on its deeply questionable data? Do the Government intend to continue to rely on ETS’s claims? If so, how can the Home Office be sure the data is reliable? What action do the Government plan to take to right those wrongs? Will they continue to force migrants through the demeaning process of lengthy legal battles rather than resolving the matter internally? Will the Minister commit now, from the Dispatch Box, to a mechanism that will allow innocent students to clear their names?

This is, of course, just one of a litany of Home Office failures under this Conservative Government since 2010, from the Windrush scandal to data leaks and the ongoing small boats crisis. The Home Secretary must now take full responsibility for this shocking miscarriage of justice.

Let us start on a constructive note: I welcome the hon. Gentleman, my new shadow, to his place. The circumstances that led to his appointment are obviously unfortunate, but I genuinely welcome it and look forward to having a constructive relationship with him, as I have with other shadow Ministers, on matters where there is agreement and where it is in everyone’s interest that we engage constructively.

Turning to the comments the hon. Gentleman has just made, I find it quite interesting to get a lecture on how to set up an immigration system from the party that initially set up the tier 4 system, with its many flaws that we discovered on coming into government 12 years ago. It is a bit rich to be getting a lecture now on the fact that there was a need to reform massively our student visa system to ensure any form of effective compliance within it.

However, as I have touched on, I will not get drawn on the wider facts within the court case. We have already seen judgments and determinations up to and including the Court of Appeal saying that the evidence was sufficient to justify taking the actions we took at the time. I respect the fact that people have the ability to go to the courts, particularly now that people are getting leave under our private or family life rule; that is not a huge surprise, given that we are talking about people who entered the UK, in many cases, at least eight years ago.

Our position is that there are mechanisms, but we are awaiting the determination. We will be able to set matters out more fully then; I hope we all understand why it makes sense to get that particular tribunal determination and then announce and confirm our next steps, rather than speculating on what it might say.

I too pay tribute to the very tenacious right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), as well as to Migrant Voice, the immigration lawyers and most of all the students who have all refused to accept the outrageous injustices perpetrated on them by the Home Office. Yes, there was significant fraud, but the Home Office must wake up to the fact that there was systemic injustice for innocent students. It came about because, despite its having been put under criminal investigation, that very same company, ETS, was asked by the Home Office to be judge and jury on tens of thousands of students and to mark its own tainted, dodgy homework.

That company’s verdicts were accepted without question; no opportunity was given to students to provide their own evidence, or even to see or hear the evidence against them. It was not so much Home Office negligence as maliciousness, and one of the worst excesses of the hostile environment policy. The questions today are: what will be done to fix it and what lessons can be learned?

On fixing it, it is not good enough to hide behind out-of-country appeals or judicial reviews. Those are hopeless processes. The Minister needs to consult on a process that is independent and fast and that can allow students to right the wrongs that have been meted out to them, and there will also have to be a compensation scheme. Finally, what has the Home Office learned from all of this, and is it not about time that this whole episode was also handed to Wendy Williams?

The biggest lesson that was learned was the need to transform our student visa system from one that was all too often a flag of convenience for those looking to come to work in the UK rather than for those genuinely looking to study. As we have said, the system has been absolutely transformed. It is one of our most compliant routes. It has allowed us to bring in additional benefits such as the graduate route that we created last year, plus more simplified processes for those applying for a student visa in the UK, both of which are very much rooted in the excellent relationship that we now have with the sector. Let us be very clear, we got rid of more than 1,000 sponsors, who, it is safe to say, were not meeting the high standards that the sector more widely provides.

On the specifics, again, we are waiting the determination from the tribunal. I have touched on the judgments that we have already had on the evidence that we used for the basis of our action, up to and including the Court of Appeal. Once we have the determination of the tribunal, we will be happy to confirm our next steps.

One of my constituents was woken at 6 in the morning, dragged from the home that he shares with his British wife and child and detained for days. He lost the right to work and was catapulted towards bankruptcy, unable to pay more legal costs. For year, after year, after year, he was terrified of another knock on the door. Although this is the story of one constituent, it is the story of many of my constituents. All they want is a fair chance to clear their names, and, frankly, they deserve compensation as well. I would be really grateful to hear something from the Minister, as this has dragged on for too long. The Government must create a process to end this scandal. When will they do so?

Again, once we have the tribunal determination, we will set out more fully what our response is, rather than speculating today on what that response may be. As I have said, other people are making applications under the status of their private and family life. We have changed our guidance to make it clear that that status is not a block to the application being granted. Obviously, decision makers in the Home Office will now appropriately balance matters of eight years ago with what someone’s private or family life may be today, and look at the proportionate outcome in a case.

It is pretty clear that today’s urgent question—I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on obtaining it—will not be the last word on this matter. I wonder whether, when we return to this in the fullness of time, the Minister’s answers will look quite as robust as the delivery with which he offers them to the House today. Instead of doubling down on the history of the Home Office’s dealings with ETS, would it not have been better to bring in somebody independent of the Home Office to restore a bit of trust in the system, which is so manifestly lacking?

We are talking about actions taken during the time of the coalition Government. Obviously, we were grateful for the support of the right hon. Gentleman’s party at that time.

On bringing in independent systems, we have touched on that. There is an ability to appeal decisions to the courts, and we encourage the courts, where there is a case before them, to make a determination, and we have been doing that for some time. Again, we await the tribunal. The right hon. Gentleman is speculating on the outcome. We will see what the outcome actually is and then bring forward what we believe should be the next steps.

I have as constituents a married couple: the wife is originally from the Philippines; they have been married for several years. She was sucked into this scandal by having, by chance, to use one of these centres and was deemed to have cheated the system. If she makes a subsequent application, it will be assumed that she has been dishonest previously and she will not be allowed to apply. I urge the Minister, now that there is enough doubt and murkiness about these systems, to draw a line and to say to everybody who applied previously, “We will not tarnish your reputation. It is a fresh application and do your best.”

As I said, we have already amended our guidance where a person’s right to a private and family life in the UK is relevant. An allegation in relation to TOEIC is not a block and does not mean that an application would not be granted. It is not an overriding consideration, as other evidence of criminality or dishonesty in the immigration system may well be. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with that.

Again, the tribunal has not given us a timescale, but we believe we are not far away from getting a final determination which will allow us to bring forward our next steps based on that determination, rather than speculating about what the determination might be. At the moment, there is not a block on a person making another application, and our guidance will, of course, take into account the balance of the individual’s rights and interests versus conduct of at least eight years ago.

I have constituents who are affected by the TOEIC scandal, and I also have constituents who are affected by the paragraph 322(5) highly-skilled migrants scandal. What they have in common is the devastating impact of accusations of being of poor character or of cheating. Will the Minister look again at the cases of my constituents, all of whom claim to have had no bad character and no cheating? Will he apologise to them for the hell he has put them through?

As always, I am happy to look at individual cases referred to me, but it would not be appropriate for me to discuss individuals on the Floor of the House. On the overall position, we have to look back at the scale of what was happening eight years ago. It is not happening in our immigration system today, as we have transformed the student visa system.

On another route that has been cited, we are making sure that things such as HMRC data are rightly used in immigration applications. As it stands, the tribunal determination is imminent and we will announce further steps once we have it.

I also have many constituents who are affected by this appalling TOEIC scandal, both the tier 4 migrants who were bringing the skills that we so badly needed in this country and the students who were coming here to learn extra skills to take back to their home country. When this scandal hit them, they were forced either to live under the radar on no income while they fought to get justice for themselves through the courts, or to give up and go home, as many did.

It caused huge shame to those who had to go home, particularly the students who had paid a fortune to take the courses. Some of them had given up in the third year, and the universities did not allow them to catch up and they had to start all over again. All the people I met were willing and able to take further English exams. In fact, several had already passed a higher-level test, the International English Language Testing System test. Will the Government at least consider giving those who remain in the system some justice by letting them take a further English test?

It might be tempting to say, “Why not take a further English test?” Of course, if somebody has been living in the UK for eight years, it is likely that their English will have improved considerably since their test. As I have outlined, there is a reason why we shut down more than 1,000 bogus colleges a decade ago: we had a route that was completely open to abuse. It was a flag of convenience for the many people who were coming to the UK to work, not to study. That is why the biggest lesson learned was to have an effective student route, which is what we have today.

We all know that people cheated on the TOEIC tests. We also know that unreliable evidence condemned many innocent victims, perhaps thousands of them, to a life of abject hardship and poverty. They are unable to work or study, their life has been put on hold and their reputation has been absolutely trashed. They need justice. What mechanism can the Minister offer to get them out of this situation that will not cost them further money that they simply do not have?

As touched on, people can appeal to the courts, and many are getting determinations based on their private and family lives. As I have mentioned already, courts up to and including the Court of Appeal have held that our approach, given the evidence we had of systemic cheating in the system, was appropriate and proportionate. However, we await the latest determination, which will then allow us to announce what further steps we may wish to take.

I have English language schools in my constituency that are of very high quality and are very robust, and they have dozens of former students whose lives are in limbo because of this scandal and who continue to suffer from the effects of it. The Minister said that they have the option of applying through the family life system or they can go to court. Would it not be better to consider reviewing all those cases and giving those people some justice?

As the hon. Member says, we now have a very strong system of English language tuition and of both universities and other higher education institutions sponsoring under our student route. That works very well, is highly compliant and is an absolute world away from the system that existed 12 years ago. On what he suggests about other areas, there is the ability, as I have said, for people to make private life applications if they are here in the UK. However, on the wider position, I think it makes eminent sense, given that we are awaiting a determination from the highest tribunal in effect—the upper tribunal presidential panel—to actually have that determination and then consider what the next steps will be, rather than to announce something speculative.