The Home Office showed “staggering” disregard for innocent people during the visa scandal that saw more than 50,000 overseas students accused of cheating and cost taxpayers nearly £20m, MPs have said.
The Public Accounts Committee found that hundreds of people were still protesting their innocence at “great personal cost” more than five years after being accused of fraudulently passing English language tests due to the Home Office’s delay in responding to indications that some may have been wrongly caught up in the probe.
Likening the scandal to Windrush, the cross-party MPs said the Home Office had “once again not done enough to identify the innocent and potentially vulnerable people who have been affected”.
The students were targeted after an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama in 2014 exposed systematic cheating at some colleges where candidates sat the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic), one of the tests overseas students can sit to prove their English language proficiency, a visa requirement.
Around 2,400 were removed from the country as a result, while others are still living in “terror” despite not having been involved in the scandal.
The report finds that the Home Office had designed an English language testing system that “failed to recognise the potential incentive for sponsors and students to cheat” and that its “flawed” response had led to injustice for thousands.
It said the system left the department with limited means to seek compensation from ETS Global BV, the company that administered the tests, securing just £1.6m in compensation for taxpayers, despite spending an estimated £21m to respond to the cheating.
The Home Office’s pace of response to the issue of cheating has either been “full throttle” or “too slow”, acting quickly on imperfect evidence, but slowly to indications that innocent people may have been caught up in its actions, the MPs said.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said: “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.”
She said the fact that the Home Office had recouped a “miniscule” £1.6m for the taxpayer out of the £21m incurred because of the cheating scandal “rubbed salt in the wounds” for those affected.
It comes after the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) found that the Home Office used “confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe” evidence to revoke the visas.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said in a report earlier this year that some of those affected might have been “branded as cheats, lost their course fees, and been removed from the UK without being guilty of cheating or [being given] adequate opportunity to clear their names”.
Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said the findings would “shame any government that claims to value justice and fairness”.
She welcomed the recommendation for the Home Office to urgently design and implement a genuine means for innocent students to clear their names, and called on the home secretary to make that happen.
“Working alongside many of the students affected, we have seen first-hand the extreme hardship they face every single day as a direct result of the Home Office’s deeply flawed reaction. We’re living in an open prison, they tell us, and our hope of ever being released is fading,” said Ms Ramadan.
“In July, we heard the former Home Secretary finally acknowledge that the government has a duty to do more to help those students who were wrongly accused – words these students have waited five years to hear.
“But what they need most is action – a real resolution that allows them to clear their names and restart their lives.”
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.”
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