Tier 4 visa English language test scandal and Home Office

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Sanwar Ali comment:

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to persuade UK Visa and Immigration at the Home Office to admit that they have done something wrong.  Denial is the typical response.  In the past high ranking civil servants have made numerous statements to cover things up.  Some of the time if there is enough bad publicity UK Visa changes its mind. 

We understand that the Home Office may end up under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over the operation of the hostile environment policy.  If there is an investigation, this must also look into the relationship between the Home Office and other organisations, including the UK visa regulator who is sponsored by the Home Office.  The regulator has been accused of being part of the hostile environment policy, and has been accused of institutional racism and discrimination against British citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is chaired by a top City lawyer David Isaac CBE.  David Isaac, former Chair of Stonewall, is ranked as one of the top LGBT+ executives in a Financial Times list and is also Jewish.  David Isaac wants to take a more "muscular approach" opposing discrimination in the UK.

Senior Home Office civil servants have been accused of ‘not being bothered’ by the treatment of more than 30,000 international students alleged to have cheated on Tier 4 visa English language tests.

UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, recently stated that he felt ‘real concern’ about the fate of international students who claim that they were wrongly accused of cheating on government-approved English language tests. Mr Javid said he was considering whether more could be done to help them.

However, an inquiry launched by the Commons public accounts committee claims the Home Office is not bothered by its actions and the impact they are having on international students caught up in the scandal.

The Home Office’s most senior civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam, said Javid would be making a statement on the issue prior to parliament’s summer recess.

Commons public accounts committee investigation

The Commons public accounts committee is the latest to investigate the Tier 4 visa English language test scandal, following an inquiry by the National Audit Office (NAO). The NAO published its findings on 24 May, 2019 and likened the issue to the Windrush scandal.

The NAO launched the probe after renewed calls from migrant lobbying groups to investigate the Home Office’s handling of the situation. Following a BBC Panorama documentary in 2014, then Home Secretary, Theresa May, ordered tens of thousands of student visas to be revoked.

The Panorama investigation reportedly uncovered cases of fraud in the UK student visa system, including alleged cheating on English language tests – a compulsory part of a Tier 4 student visa application.

Amid the new inquiry by the Commons public accounts committee, Rutnam said: “We recognise that there continues to be real concern that individuals may have been treated harshly in this whole process. That there are some hundreds of individuals, possibly more, who feel that they may have been treated harshly, who continue to maintain their innocence. That is of course the subject of real concern to us.”

Despite his concerns about the harsh treatment of individuals, Rutnam insisted that widespread fraud had occurred and said: “The risk of people being caught up in this wrongly has been very small.”

It’s understood that 25 people have been convicted of organised fraud within the English language testing system.

However, the Labour Party’s Shabana Mahmood, a member of the Commons public accounts committee, rebuffed Rutnam’s comments saying: “I put it to you that it is not just really concerning but that it’s shameful, the impact that innocent people have faced as a result of the decisions and the approach taken by the Home Office.”

Students spending tens of thousands of pounds

It’s understood that many international students fighting to clear their name have spent tens of thousands of pounds seeking justice in the courts. Some students have become suicidal as a result of being denied the right to finish their studies after spending huge sums to pay tuition fees.

The NAO inquiry reported that approximately 2,500 international students have been forcibly removed from the UK after being accused of cheating on an English language test. A further 7,200 left under the threat of detention or removal if they remained in Britain.

Meanwhile, many have attempted to prove their innocence in court. 12,500 appeals have so far been heard, but just 3,600 have won their cases.

Mahmood said that the Home Office had moved from having a very slack language testing system to a harsh clampdown, but had ‘no regard for the impact on innocent people.’

Responding to Rutnam’s justification for the harsh treatment of individuals, Mahmood said: “Your defence, ‘well they can go to court’ … do you know how much money it costs to go to court? They’re not the children of millionaires. Who has £20,000 or £30,000 lying in a bank account? That is the cultural problem. The Home Office is basically not that bothered about the impact on innocent people.”

Rutnam replied: “I hear the concern, particularly about the costs. These are very large amounts of money for almost anyone.”

UK’s higher education reputation ruined by scandal

Mahmood claims that the Tier 4 visa English language test scandal has left the UK’s reputation as a welcoming place for international students to study, in tatters. “Because of this, the Windrush scandal and other Home Office failures, Britain’s international reputation is ruined,” Mahmood said.

In response, Rutnam said: “I regret anything that damages the UK’s reputation internationally. If there are innocent people caught up in the response to this, I would deeply regret that.”

Panorama investigation

In 2014, the BBC’s Panorama programme captured undercover footage of organised cheating in two of the 90 government-approved centres providing the English language exam.

US-based test provider, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), was asked by the Home Office to investigate whether the 58,459 tests taken between 2011 and 2014 were valid. ETS checks concluded that 97% of tests were in some way ‘suspicious’, classifying 58% as ‘invalid’ and a further 39% as ‘questionable.’

Campaigners have questioned the validity of the US company’s checks, stating that it’s highly unlikely 97% of people who took the test between 2011 and 2014 were involved in the fraud.

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