Home Office slammed over 'staggering' rush to accuse international students of cheating in English tests
The Home Office "rushed" to accuse international students of cheating in English language exams without checking whether the evidence against them was reliable, a scathing report by MPs has concluded.
The cross-party Public Accounts Committee said the department had shown a "staggering" lack of concern for the welfare of those affected by "systemic failure by a private company", as they drew parallels with the Windrush scandal.
The latest report from the committee focuses on a crackdown launched by the Home Office in the wake of a 2014 BBC Panorama documentary which exposed cheating on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).
The test - run at the time by the American firm ETS - was used to ensure those studying in the UK had a sufficient understanding of the English language, and the department took action against over 50,000 individuals following the documentary alleging wrongdoing.
But the PAC found that hundreds and "possibly thousands" of those removed from the country by the Home Office "continue to protest their innocence", with 12,500 appeals heard by the courts since 2014 - 40% of which have been successful at tribunal.
The committee said the way the Home Office designed the visa system "left it open to large-scale abuse", and accused the department of having "rushed to penalise students without establishing whether [exams provider] ETS was involved in fraud or if it had reliable evidence of people cheating".
While the department "acted swiftly against thousands of individuals by cancelling their visas, refusing pending applications or inviting them for interviews", the MPs said it had failed to carry out "a thorough investigation of what had happened or whether the evidence ETS provided was reliable".
The committee said the Home Office had "been quick to act on imperfect evidence, but slow in responding to indications that innocent people may have been caught up in its actions".
The MPs added: "The Home Office’s decision to revoke the visas of thousands of individuals before properly verifying evidence provided by ETS has led to injustice and hardship for many people.
"The Department recognises that hundreds of students maintain their innocence but continues to suggest that there is only a small risk that people have been wrongly caught up in their actions. We are staggered that the Department thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people."
The committee has called on the Home Office to set up a "fair and trustworthy means of helping all individuals who may have been wrongly accused" of cheating within the next three months, and orders the department to carry out a major review of its contracts with overseas providers by early next year.
Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said the Government's handling of the affair had "led to real injustice for many thousands of overseas students taking English Language tests".
She added: "It beggars belief that despite known flaws in the Tier 4 student visa system, the Home Office designed an English language testing system that failed to recognise the potential incentive for cheating. It was then shocked when widespread cheating did take place.
“However, despite the scale of the abuse, many hundreds of people continue to protest their innocence at great personal cost. It is staggering that the Home Office thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people.
"And to rub salt into the wounds, short comings in the contractual arrangements the Home Office had with its outsourcing partner meant despite incurring £21m in costs it only recouped £1.6m for the taxpayer – a miniscule sum."
Responding to the report, a Home Office spokesperson said: "The 2014 investigation into the abuse of English language testing revealed systemic cheating which was indicative of significant organised fraud.
"The scale of the abuse is shown by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions totalling over 70 years. The courts have consistently found that the evidence the Home Office had at the time was sufficient to take action."