The chair of a powerful committee of MPs has accused ministers of creating a “real injustice” for “many thousands” of overseas students through its handling of accusations of cheating in English language tests.
Meg Hillier spoke out as her House of Commons public accounts committee published the toughest official criticism yet of the Home Office’s handling of the claims, which led to the revocation of nearly 36,000 visas.
The committee said that five years after claims of systematic cheating in the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic) were first made, hundreds of people remained in the UK insisting they had been wrongly accused. The difficulty of disproving the allegations meant that some may run up bills of tens of thousands of pounds fighting the allegations, it said.
The report, published on Wednesday, demanded that the Home Office set up within three months a “fair and trustworthy” means for falsely accused people to clear their names. The Home Office revoked the visas based on analysis by ETS, the New Jersey-based company that devised the test.
The committee’s assessment follows a report in May by the National Audit Office that also raised questions about the Home Office’s conduct.
“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,” Ms Hillier said. “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.”
The language-testing is one of a series of episodes involving the Home Office’s handling of immigration cases to have caused controversy over the past 18 months. The highest profile has been the Windrush scandal, which involved the poor treatment of immigrants from the Commonwealth.
The Home Office acted after a BBC Panorama documentary revealed evidence of cheating at a number of test centres in the Toeic test. ETS told the Home Office that 33,725 people taking the exam had definitely cheated, while there were grounds to suspect cheating in another 22,694 cases.
The committee report said the Home Office had been quick to act on “imperfect” evidence in revoking the visas. But it said the department had then been “too slow” to respond to claims from those who said they had been wrongly accused.
Ms Hillier said that, on top of the injustice, the Home Office had been able to recover only £1.6m from ETS to cover the costs of its actions over the cheating but that the affair had cost the government £21m to investigate and take action against those involved.
The Home Office said the 2014 investigation had revealed “significant organised fraud”. It pointed out that 25 people involved in the fraud had been sentenced to prison terms totalling more than 70 years.