Almost 34,000 international students were accused of cheating in English language tests in 2014, and with no proper right to challenge the decision, told they had no right to stay in the UK.
Six years on, many of these individuals continue to assert that there are innocent, and have been plunged into hardship as they are not allowed to work and have had to save thousands of pounds to appeal their allegations in court.
Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday, Matthew Rycroft, the department’s permanent secretary, said he agreed that the Home Office should have taken a “more vigorous” approach to protecting those wrongly caught up in the process.
But when asked by Labour MP Stephen Timms whether these individuals would have the opportunity to have their cases reviewed, Mr Rycroft said: “The Home Office decided not to set up a set of reviews like that, but as I’ve said there is a legal route open to anyone in that category.”
The Home Office was accused by the National Audit Office (NAO) last year of failing to ensure innocent people were not wrongly targeted after an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama exposed systematic cheating at some colleges where candidates sat the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).
A report by the watchdog found that ministers had failed to provide people who were wrongly accused with an “adequate opportunity to clear their names”.
Following the publication of the NAO report, former home secretary Said Javid told parliament that the Home Office was looking into whether there was a need for those who feel they had been wronged to be able to ask for their case to be reviewed.
During the evidence session on Thursday, Mr Timms said there was a “large number” of students in the UK whose lives were “completely in limbo” because of a false cheating allegation, and that there was no way for them to clear their names other than a “lengthy, expensive and very difficult legal process”.
He added: “The Home Office should give innocent people the opportunity to clear their names.”
In response, Mr Rycroft said he “totally agreed”, but continued to assert that the legal route was enough, adding: “I do think that route is open to them. Individuals have always had the right to challenge through appeal, through judicial review.
“But we must also remember that if someone had an invalid certificate, it was because there was a heavy body of evidence that they were not genuine – and that they were not caught up in it, but they were part of it.”
The permanent secretary said there were “some parallels” between the English language test scandal and Windrush, but said they were on a “different scale”, to which Mr Timms responded: “Visas have been taken away from well over 30,000 students, the language testing scandal is on a big scale.”
Speaking to The Independent after the evidence session, Mr Timms said: “The English language test scandal is Windrush all over again.
“The permanent secretary appeared to agree with me that there should be a mechanism for innocent students to clear their names. But the only route is through the courts. The costs are immense. Most students who have done it pay £10,000 to £15,000 – and they are not allowed to work.
“I welcome the Home Secretary’s commitment to implement all of the Windrush Lessons Learned recommendations. But the lessons are being ignored in handling the language testing scandal. As in Windrush, there is a complete failure to engage beyond individual cases.
“Learning the lessons from Windrush would mean creating a mechanism for innocent students to clear their names.”
Home Office failed to ensure innocent students were not wrongly detained in cheating scandal report finds
It comes after The Independent spoke to individuals accused of cheating who feel they have been “forgotten” and have struggled more than ever during the pandemic as they continue battling to clear their names.
A recent survey of 138 students affected by the Toeic scandal, carried out by charity Migrant Voice and Bindmans Law Firm, found that one in four were struggling to buy essentials such as food, while 14 per cent were having difficulties paying rent or had been made homeless.
Seven respondents said that they were solely relying on family to survive; four had no money to carry on fighting against their allegation, and four mentioned having suicidal thoughts.
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