In Brief

English language test scandal ‘could be bigger than Windrush’

Home Office under pressure over ‘hostile environment’ strategy that has left thousands of foreign students facing deportation

The Home Office is facing mounting pressure over an English language testing row that MPs have warned could be bigger than the Windrush scandal.

Around 34,000 foreign students have had their visas cancelled or curtailed and more than 1,000 people were forcibly removed from the UK after the government accused tens of thousands of students who sat a Home Office-approved test of cheating.

Following a BBC Panorama undercover investigation in 2014 which revealed clear evidence of fraud in at least two testing centre, the Home Office launched a drive to find and deport cheats - part of then-home secretary Theresa May’s “hostile environment” strategy.

Over 90% of foreign students who took the test in 96 centres between 2011 and 2014 were accused of cheating, a figure Labour MP Stephen Timms dismissed as “nonsense”.

“There is no way that 90% of those who sat the test were cheating. Do they really believe they were presiding over a system in which over 90% were cheating? It doesn’t make sense. It’s completely implausible,” he said.

More than 4,000 students have since left the country without an opportunity to prove their innocence, while those deemed guilty who chose to remain have spent the past five years fighting the Home Office decision which in many cases appears to be arbitrary.

The Guardian understands that students who took the test of English for international communication (Toeic) five or more years ago “are still being targeted by immigration enforcement officers and being taken to immigration detention centres ahead of enforced removal from the UK”.

The Financial Times says many of those fighting deportation appeals “are stripped not only of the right to study but also to work, to rent accommodation, to drive, have a bank account or use the National Health Service”.

The hostile enrivonment approach has also made it harder for rejected applicants to challenge Home Office rulings, while legal aid has been withdrawn from nearly all immigration cases.

The FT says “supporters of those accused of cheating in Toeic see the accusations as part of a pattern of unreasonable, harsh behaviour towards immigrants by the Home Office that has generated a string of scandals”.

These include the recent DNA scandal in which the Home Office admitted unlawfully demanding samples from hundreds of families to prove they were related to each other and, most notably, the wrongful treatment of the Windrush generation.

Ilford South MP Mike Gapes, who has advised a number of affected people in his constituency, has said the English-language testing scandal could be even bigger than Windrush “in terms of the number of individuals removed from the country and whose livelihoods are being destroyed by anguish and despair”.

Amid criticism from MPs, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid is expected to rule on the fate of thousands of the targeted students this week.

“His predecessor Amber Rudd bungled the Windrush scandal: it was not her mess, but such was the level of public anger by the time she attempted to sort it, that a misstep cost her the job,” writes Martha Gill in The Guardian.

“It is up to the current home secretary to set right this latest wrong, and quickly,” she adds.

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