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Business Analysis & Features

Watch your language: The Tories' u-turn on testers

In opposition, they attacked the failures of US giant ETS – but in Government, they kept faith with disastrous consequences

A controversial company at the heart of the immigration language tests scandal was appointed by Theresa May's Home Office despite her predecessor while in opposition describing it as "shambolic".

An undercover BBC Panorama investigation last week found what was described as "systemic fraud" in the tests, which are used to gauge which foreign students should be allowed visas to study in the UK.

The BBC investigation showed candidates being replaced by "fake sitters" who did their tests for them at two colleges in London.

On another occasion, students had the answers to questions read out to them by their invigilators.

The Home Office suspended the tests from the giant US company ETS a week ago. However, it is not the first time the company has been involved in a testing fiasco. In 2008, ETS was slammed for its appalling handling of the SATs tests for children in England aged 11 and 14, who had to wait for weeks to get their results, creating havoc in schools.

David Cameron and his shadow front bench colleagues were excoriating about its behaviour at the time and attacked the Labour Government bitterly for not sacking the firm instantly. ETS was eventually stripped of the contract.

Then, it emerged that ETS was also running Home Office immigration language testing, and Mr Cameron apparently declared himself "astonished." His shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve declared: "Language tests were lauded as key to the Government's immigration policy but they have enlisted a company with a shambolic record."

Despite that, less than three years later, Mr Cameron's Home Office had hired the firm again.

The award was greeted with jubilation by ETS's Global division, which highlights the contract in its most recent accounts as being a key factor behind its jump in profits before tax for 2012 from €3.3m to €5.4m.

ETS boasts about its not-for-profit status in the US, but outside of its homeland, it operates for profit, basing itself in low-tax Holland under the name ETS Global, where it paid an effective tax rate of just 13 per cent in 2012.

The parent company's non-profit structure in the US has proved controversial as it means it does not pay taxes and does not have to publish regular and timely accounts.

However, it voluntarily filed documentation for 2011 which showed its president Kurt Landgraf earned $1.3m for that year and that 30 other employees got more than $300,000. Mr Landgraf recently retired to be replaced by Walter MacDonald.

It also spent more than $150,000 lobbying Washington DC. Total revenues came in at just over $1bn.

With regards to the immigration test centre scandal, an ETS spokesman said: "ETS conducts all oversight of our testing centres and regularly audits them both in person and forensically. We also train supervisors, certify them, and use highly trained test security personnel to oversee our operations.

"We also work closely with local police and prosecutors to pursue, arrest and convict persons acting illegally."

He added that the company operated at nearly 14,000 organisations in 150 countries and therefore could not be expected to detect 100 per cent of wrongdoing by administrators or test takers.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, said of the BBC investigation: "We have taken action and suspended the two colleges identified in the programme.

"Applications made by students in the UK using the English Testing Service or associated with the colleges or immigration advisors mentioned in the programme have been put on hold pending the outcome of those investigations.