Theresa May accused of ‘criminalising’ thousands of people using ‘fundamentally flawed evidence’

Theresa May
Fréa Lockley

On 24 May, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report criticising the government’s response to alleged cheating in English language tests. Campaign group Migrant Voice welcomed the report.

This scandal started when Theresa May was still home secretary. As a result, Migrant Voice told The Canary, tens of thousands of foreign students had visas refused or revoked. The NAO report indicates that May relied on “fundamentally flawed evidence”.

“Fundamentally flawed evidence”

In 2014, a BBC Panorama investigation claimed it “uncovered evidence of widespread cheating” among students taking the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). US company ETS ran these language tests on behalf of the Home Office. As Labour MP Stephen Timms told The Canary, when ETS claimed “almost everyone who’d ever taken the test cheated… the Home Office should have questioned it immediately”.

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Since 2017, Migrant Voice has campaigned alongside many of the students affected by what it called a “catastrophic series of decisions made by the Home Office on this matter”. The group also worked with the NAO on this report.

In a press release, Migrant Voice director Nazek Ramadan said: 

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We welcome the National Audit Office report into this fiasco, which has ruined the lives of tens of thousands of innocent students who came to the UK simply to study and have been left stripped of their rights, drowning in debt and forced to bear the black mark of fraud on their name.

She also stressed that:

Thousands of people have been criminalised and their lives torn apart on the basis of fundamentally flawed evidence – and they were given no real way to fight the allegation.

Key evidence from the report

Migrant Voice analysed key evidence from the report. It established that, as a result of Home Office action, “2,468 people have been forcibly removed from the UK and that number is continuing to rise”. Another 391 people have since been refused re-entry to the UK. Again, that number is rising. Ramadan said this evidence demonstrates that, for many foreign students, “the daily threat… of detention and deportation is a real one”.

Ramadan said:

According to that data, more than 6,000 British people sat the test, which is simply absurd. No one with UK nationality would ever need to sit the test. And that’s just the biggest anomaly – around 300 entries were in there twice, the details of where and when a student sat the test were often wrong, nationalities were often listed incorrectly, and some students were accused of cheating who had never sat the test at all. Many of the students we are working with have experienced these problems first hand.

“Multiple significant flaws”

The report estimated that, by November 2017, the government spent £21m on this issue. This included £9m on immigration enforcement and a further £5.5m on appeals and judicial reviews.

Ramadan went on to say that this report:

clearly proves what we have long suspected – that the Home Office, led by Theresa May, failed to scrutinise the evidence given to them by the testing company and shockingly chose to accept it at face value, despite multiple significant flaws in the data.

“A mockery of the British justice system”

According to Ramadan, Home Office treatment of these students “makes a mockery of the British justice system”.  The impact on many lives, meanwhile, “has been devastating”. Ramadan continued:

Those still living under the shadow of the allegation and fighting to clear their names live every day in growing despair. Stripped of their rights, many are destitute and suffering severe mental health problems. Many have contemplated or attempted suicide.

“Branded as cheats”

The report established that Home Office actions meant that many innocent students were “branded as cheats, [and] lost their course fees”; and many had no “adequate opportunity to clear their names”. It also found no evidence that the Home Office “considered whether ETS had misclassified individuals or looked for anomalies” in test results. The Home Office also revoked visas “of anyone with an invalid test”. But the department did this “without expert assurance” to establish “the validity” of the language test systems.

“It’s not too late”

Ramadan urged current home secretary Sajid Javid “to read this report” and to “listen to the voices of those affected”. Migrant Voice wants all those accused to have the opportunity “to sit a new, secure English test”. If they pass this, they should “have their names cleared” and visas returned. 

As Ramadan said:

Tens of thousands of students were accused of cheating, but they are the ones who have been cheated – cheated out of their education, their right to a dignified life, their chance of a future. It’s not too late for the Home Secretary to recognise this and change course. 

Featured image via Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916/Flickr

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