The Home Office’s ‘rush’ to accuse international students of cheating has been compared to the Windrush Scandal.
Government officials “rushed to penalise” students without checking whether evidence against them was reliable, a new report has found.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the department had a “flawed reaction” to the “systemic failure”, and revoking visas before verifying evidence led to “injustice and hardship for many thousands of international students”.
The report said: “It is entirely unacceptable that, despite now recognising that hundreds of people still maintain their innocence, the Home Office has not acted to put right the wrongs caused by its actions.
“As with the Windrush scandal, the Home Office has once again not done enough to identify the innocent and potentially vulnerable people who have been affected.”
In 2014, while Theresa May was Home Secretary, BBC Panorama broadcast footage showing “organised cheating” in two English language test centres run by third parties on behalf of non-profit organisation the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
Voice recognition technology was used by ETS to detect who had cheated by having someone else sit their test. It found 97% of UK tests taken between 2011 and 2014 as suspicious, with 58% of 58,459 tests classified as “invalid” and 39% as “questionable”.
The Home Office investigated colleges, test centres and students, cancelling the visas of those it considered to have cheated in the Test Of English for International Communication (TOEIC).
But a number of people have protested their innocence.
The report said the Home Office “rushed to penalise students without establishing whether ETS was involved in fraud or if it had reliable evidence of people cheating.
“The department has consistently argued that there was only a ‘very small’ risk that its actions would affect innocent people and claims that it is concerned that hundreds of people continue to maintain their innocence.
“However, the department has taken no action to proactively identify innocent people. Those who are affected by the department’s action against them can go through the courts to try to demonstrate their innocence. But this can have a substantial financial and personal cost for those involved.
“It is shameful that the department knows it could have acted against innocent people but has not established a clear mechanism for them to raise concerns outside of the appeals process.”
But it said it was “encouraged” the Home Secretary had pledged to look into the matter.
Nazek Ramadan, director of the charity Migrant Voice, told the PA news agency the report “would shame any government that claims to value justice and fairness”, adding: “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’.
“We urge the Home Secretary to read this report and take the necessary action to end this injustice and demonstrate that international students truly are welcome in this country.”
The report also criticised the department for having “insufficient recourse to claim compensation”, adding: “The Home Office’s flawed reaction to a systemic failure by a private company has had a detrimental impact on the lives of more than 50,000 overseas students accused of cheating.
“The system it designed left it with limited means to seek compensation from ETS Global BV, securing just £1.6 million in compensation for taxpayers, despite spending an estimated £21 million to respond to the cheating.”
Committee chairwoman Labour MP Meg Hillier said: “The Home Office’s flawed reaction to a systemic failure by a private company has led to real injustice for many thousands of overseas students taking English Language tests.
“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 added the “minuscule sum” of compensation for taxpayers rubbed “salt into the wounds”.
The committee gave the Home Office three months to find a fair way of helping innocent people clear their names, and also told the department to address its “lack of curiosity and establish safeguards to protect innocent people in the future.”
The Home Office was also asked to review contracts within six months and show the committee what steps had been taken to avoid a repeat of the problem.
In July, MPs demanded action to help students who were wrongly accused of cheating on the exam.
That same month the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Test of English for International Communication claimed the Home Office used “confused, misleading, incomplete and unsafe” information in its investigations into the English test scandal.
In May, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned innocent people may have been removed from the UK after they were wrongly accused of cheating in English language tests.
But Whitehall’s spending watchdog said it was “reasonable” based on the balance of probabilities to conclude that there was cheating on a “large scale”.
A Home Office spokesman 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.”