An influential UK Parliament committee on Wednesday issued a harsh rebuke of the UK government's "flawed" reaction to a visa row involving compulsory English tests that affected hundreds of overseas students, many of them Indian.
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had opened an inquiry into a scandal dating back five years over allegations of cheating in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), a compulsory requirement in some student visa cases.
Many of the students caught up in the row have maintained their innocence and have been lobbying the government for a chance to prove their innocence. They have been backed by many cross-party British MPs and have now also received the backing of the PAC, which has called on the UK Home Office to create and promote a "fair and trustworthy" means of helping all individuals who may have been wrongly accused to be able to clear their names.
"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," said Labour Party MP Meg Hillier, Chair of the PAC – the committee which oversees government expenditure and effective use of resources.
"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… 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 issue dates back to February 2014, when BBC's 'Panorama' investigation uncovered evidence of organised cheating in two English language test centres run on behalf of the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
This included providing English-speakers to take speaking tests instead of the real candidates and staff reading out multiple choice answers for other tests. The UK Home Office responded vigorously, investigating colleges, test centres and students and cancelled many visas.
"The Home Office's pace of response to the issue of cheating has either been 'full throttle' or 'too slow', with no middle ground. It has been quick to act on imperfect evidence, but slow in responding to indications that innocent people may have been caught up in its actions," notes the PAC report titled 'English Language Tests: A Systemic Failure Affecting Thousands'.
It adds: "The Home Office's decision to revoke the visas of thousands of individuals before properly verifying evidence provided by ETS has led to injustice and hardship for many people.
"The Department recognises that hundreds of students maintain their innocence but continues to suggest that there is only a small risk that people have been wrongly caught up in their actions. We are staggered that the Department thinks it is acceptable to have so little regard for the impact its actions might have on innocent people."
The report, which gives the Home Office a strict time-frame to respond on each of its findings, was welcomed by groups campaigning for justice on behalf of the affected students.
"We particularly welcome the recommendation for the Home Office to urgently design and implement a genuine means for innocent students to clear their names, and we urge 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," said Nazek Ramadan, Director of Migrant Voice.
The hard-hitting PAC report follows a similarly strongly-worded review by the UK spending watchdog National Audit Office (NAO) earlier this year, which had also concluded that some of the affected students – a majority of them from South Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – were wrongly accused and in some cases, unfairly removed from the UK.
The UK Home Office, however, maintains that the courts have "consistently" found that the evidence it had at the time was sufficient to take action.
"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," a Home Office spokesperson said.